ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Ozzie Smith, who was baseball's first $2-million-per-year man in what now seems to be some other lifetime, was admittedly having trouble yesterday comprehending what it was to suddenly be a part of the game's middle class.
At 37, the St. Louis Cardinals' Wizard of Oz knows the yellow brick road that Ryne Sandberg just followed over the $7-million-per-year rainbow is closed to him forever. Then again, he never dreamed such a dream would come true for any ballplayer. But as long as it has, it might as well be Sandberg.
"It's staggering," Smith said, shaking his head. "It seems like Kirby Puckett was the game's first $3-million-per-year man for about 15 minutes. If they're gonna pay money like that, though, Ryne deserves it. Otherwise, I'm not so sure anymore about so many people making $4 million per year and more who really haven't put the time in.
"It used to be that they paid you for what you accomplished over a lot of years. Now you get paid because you're young."
Not surprisingly, general managers from Arizona to Florida yesterday were wondering aloud just how much higher baseball's pay scale can soar before it and the entire game crashes. In the opinion of the Oakland A's Sandy Alderson, the players should be just as concerned as management.
"I'm happy to see this," Alderson said by phone from Phoenix. "The more contracts like this [Sandberg's four-year, $28.4-million deal from the Cubs], the closer we are coming to the whole system crashing. It seems like [Ruben] Sierra's price has gone up once a week over the last two months. But does Sandberg mean more to the Cubs than Sierra to the Rangers? It's no longer what the players can get in the marketplace. It's what they can get from the big-market teams.
"The players ought to be concerned, too, because there's not going to be any money left. If you remove all the small-market teams and have only eight or nine big-market teams making a profit from their cable-television revenues, who are the free agents like [Barry] Bonds and Sierra going to sign with? Who's going to be able to afford them?"
Or for that matter, Ozzie Smith? As Alderson has seen first hand this year, there seems to be a panic building among the veteran players to get all the money they can right now before the apocalypse (i.e. the expiration of the $1-billion national TV package). Rickey Henderson has been whining for the past year about being underpaid at $3 million per year (and has played accordingly), and just the other day, Dave Stewart, the A's $3-million-per-year seemingly fading pitching ace, insinuated that Alderson was a racist for refusing to extend his contract after an 11-11, 5.18 ERA season.
"For the first time in the history of the game, several clubs' total revenue doesn't equal several other clubs' major-league payroll," Cardinals' general manager Dal Maxvill said. "That's very scary when you have that kind of disparity. It's no surprise that all these guys are signing in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles -- all the teams with the huge cable-TV deals. Then you throw in the arbitration system in which any player with more than three years of service can have his salary determined by an uninformed person, and there's no way to stop it."
"Unless a couple of clubs go belly-up, floating in a sea of red ink like a whale with a harpoon in him," Maxvill said. "That's coming. And maybe then, we'll get to a pay-for-performance system, or salary caps or something."
For the time being, anyway, small-market GMs like Maxvill, Alderson or the Minnesota Twins' Andy MacPhail (who has Puckett to deal with now) can only brace themselves every time they pick up a newspaper in the morning to see how high the salary rainbow has gone overnight.
"It's clear," said MacPhail, "small-market clubs in this system will only be able to afford one superstar/franchise player, if that."
It may be that Cardinals' batting coach Don Baylor inadvertently touched on a solution the owners haven't yet considered. Talking about the Sandberg contract -- as everyone was yesterday -- Baylor mused, "What are the Twins possibly gonna pay Puck now. Or the Orioles [Cal] Ripken? They're gonna have to give 'em a piece of the club."