Free-agent thaw floods baseball winter meetings

If the winter meetings ever had been more eventful, there wa no one who could remember when. Baseball's annual trading convention bordered on the chaotic, but it served the purpose for which it was created -- to put the sport back in the headlines at a time normally dominated by the three other major professional sports.

Those headlines were not always pretty. The Marge Schott controversy just got bigger. The owners might have rekindled a nasty labor feud with the Major League Players Association. And the entire baseball world was saddened when Florida Marlins president Carl Barger died during Wednesday's joint ownership meeting.


Baseball got back into perspective in a hurry.

The convention used to be a beehive of trading activity, but the 1992 edition turned into a free-agent free-for-all of unprecedented proportion. It could stand as an example of everything the owners say is wrong with the game, if they were not the ones ultimately responsible for its condition.


Executive Council chairman Bud Selig can rail all he wants againstthe unfairness of the player compensation system and campaign all he wants for reform, but the players union will continue to regard him as the boy who cried wolf as long as his fellow owners continue to bid themselves into the salary stratosphere.

There was room to wonder if this was the year that the salary spiral would flatten out. The free-agent talent glut figured to provide the natural market force needed to hold payrolls down, but the meetings featured a string of rapid-fire signings that defied any semblance of financial restraint.

If the game is headed for financial ruin, at least the San Francisco Giants made it entertaining. Their on-again, off-again deal with Barry Bonds became a three-day soap opera that finally ended when the club's new ownership group agreed to guarantee his $43.75 million deal regardless of whether the sale of the club is approved.

There were several other concurrent themes. Schott continued to feel the heat in Cincinnati, and things didn't cool off after she issued a lukewarm apology in front of a sparse gathering of reporters Wednesday morning.

Civil rights leader Jesse Jackson came to Louisville two days earlier and challenged baseball to regain a leadership role in fair hiring practices, but the Schott situation remains on hold while baseball's Executive Council decides what it can do to end the damaging controversy.

The decision to reopen the collective bargaining agreement was sugar-coated by ownership negotiator Richard Ravitch, who said the owners have no intention of calling for a spring lockout to force a salary cap on the players. The trouble is, if a lockout wasn't at least under consideration, there would have been no reason to reopen the Basic Agreement. There is nothing keeping the owners from beginning negotiations with the players union tomorrow -- reopener or not. The only reason to reopen is to force the issue.

The vote to reopen was 15-13, with the Orioles voting and arguing against an early resumption of collective bargaining, but that doesn't necessarily mean the 28 owners won't show more solidarity when the time comes to wield the lockout hammer in the negotiations.

But, in an apparent effort to reduce labor tension, the owners also voted to amend their bylaws to require a three-fourths majority vote to authorize a lockout.


It was an important three days of ownership meetings. Selig announced yesterday that the owners are moving forward on restructuring the commissioner's office and will name a search committee for a new commissioner by early next week. The owners also reviewed market research that could lead to realignment of the two leagues and interleague play.

But the real action was at the market, where several owners approved vast expenditures to improve their on-field talent. The Bonds contract was just the most dramatic example. The Atlanta Braves spent $28 million to improve a starting rotation that was among the best in the National League. The Toronto Blue Jays handed nearly $5 million per year to 35-year-old pitcher Dave Stewart. The Boston Red Sox did the same with 38-year-old Andre Dawson.

The Orioles remained on the sidelines throughout, which can be construed either as a commendable display of economic reason or an disappointing display of frugality. It probably is a combination of both, because the club is reluctant to join the bidding for players the caliber of outfielder Ruben Sierra and is understandably hesitant to give the same kind of money (albeit for shorter terms) to older players of questionable health.

The club still figures to wait until the big-money people are shaken out of the market and then do some bargain-hunting, but it is in danger of being left in the dust by the more decisive teams in the division.