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Baseball burned at hot stove fete Brown, Clemens focus gives winter meetings high-priced black eye


NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Major League Baseball revived the winter meetings this year, hoping that an off-season oasis of hot stove news would help the sport build on the public relations benefit of one of the most exciting seasons in recent memory.

Did they succeed?

Not really.

The industry was shaken by the seven-year, $105 million deal that the Los Angeles Dodgers gave to pitcher Kevin Brown -- which certainly put baseball in a glaring spotlight -- but the fate of Brown and fellow superstar pitcher Roger Clemens appeared to have the opposite effect on the image of the game.

Brown's record contract seemed to confirm that baseball owners have lost economic control of the industry and ceded command of the game's salary structure to a small cadre of marquee players and their agents.

The Clemens situation didn't do anything to dispel that notion. The Toronto Blue Jays still are trying to deal him for a large package of quality players, but they have been hamstrung by his desire to restructure his contract and take advantage of the off-season gold rush.

Clemens is not a free agent, of course, but baseball's collective bargaining agreement guarantees him the right to demand a trade after the first year with a new team, so he has enough leverage to force any team interested in him to re-sign him to a market-value contract.

He also provides the best illustration of how quickly salaries have accelerated. Clemens was the highest-paid pitcher the day he signed his three-year deal (with an option that has already vested for the 2000 season). Now, he makes barely half the average annual salary of Brown, who has won five fewer Cy Young awards.

So, agents Alan and Randy Hendricks feel justified in their attempt to both relocate Clemens and exploit his full market value, but club officials from a couple of the teams involved in trade talks with the Blue Jays have complained publicly that they are uncomfortable with the scenario.

Houston Astros general manager Gerry Hunsicker called a news conference on Sunday to chastise Clemens and his representatives for their "mind-boggling" demands, citing the unfairness of "trying to trade for a player who is under contract and then to have to compete for his services as if he were a free agent."

Get used to it. Clemens isn't the only veteran player under contract who would like to get another bite at the apple. Shortstop Barry Larkin has asked the Cincinnati Reds to trade him and pitching ace Curt Schilling recently let the Philadelphia Phillies know he would not stand in the way of a deal to a contending team.

Reds GM Jim Bowden immediately dismissed the possibility of dealing Larkin to a team with more money. "If I was a player, I would want to do the same thing," Bowden said, "but Barry Larkin is under contract. When you sign a multi-year contract, you give up some money to get security, but you're obligated to honor the contract on the other end."

The Phillies are expected to take a similar position with Schilling, who -- to his credit -- at least offered to guarantee that he would play out the remaining years of his contract at the salary already stipulated. That would make it easier to deal him at midseason if the club decides to bolster its burgeoning youth movement.

Clemens is in the unique position of being able to exercise a trade demand and a de facto no-trade clause at the same time, but it really isn't the unusual circumstances of the deal that trouble ownership. Other players have gotten upgraded contracts because of the trade demand clause in the Basic Agreement, but it is the price that makes this one seem like precedent.

"I was with the [Astros] franchise when we made Nolan Ryan the first $1 million player," Hunsicker said. "I remember how aghast the industry was that we could pay one player a million a year. I'm extremely concerned with the health of the industry. What we're creating here is a small country club situation where a few teams are able to compete with the elite players and everyone else takes what's left over."

Hunsicker also took a shot at the agents who have pushed the top contract past $100 million.

"I'm concerned that people are trying to extract every last nickel out of the industry. It's not a matter of trying to pay the bills. It's gone way beyond that. It's just one-upsmanship."

This isn't exactly what the owners had in mind when they revived the major-league portion of the joint winter meetings with the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues this year, but it's what they got. Another ugly dose of economic reality.

There were a handful of trades over the five days of meetings at the Opryland Hotel, most notably the deal that sent Edgar Renteria to St. Louis and the trade that sent Joey Hamilton from San Diego to Toronto for Woody Williams, Carlos Almanzar and a prospect. But they were overshadowed by the greater economic issues facing the industry.

In short, little had changed in the six years since Major League Baseball last had taken part in the off-season convention.

Pub Date: 12/16/98

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