Baseball can now give thanks a couple of days early.
After a month of nail-biting, the November Sweepstakes is almost over, and once again the game has emerged from its trial-by-auction looking like a winner, or at least a healthy survivor.
The last available king-size Tom Turkey at the free-agent banquet was gobbled up yesterday when the ravenous New York Yankees pirated Pittsburgh's Rich (Goose) Gossage for an estimated $2.5 million.
But even the world champs' grabbing of the National League fireman of the year could not depress baseball executives. The desperate Yanks were simply on a spending spree, trying to get even after losing pitcher Mike Torrez to hated Boston on Monday. "For the time being," said new Milwaukee Brewer general manager Harry Dalton, looking over the whole expanse of baseball, "everything is peaches and cream."
Only a fortnight ago commissioner Bowie Kuhn was rightly fretting about baseball "losing the bloom off the (attendance) peach." He grumbled, "I'd hate to see out entire system erode."
After all, a year ago this week, when baseball escaped Sweepstakes I with its precious competitive balance improved rather than ruined, it seemed no more than a marvelous stroke of luck. The doddering old sport had tripped over another pot of gold. Perhaps baseball had a fairy godmother?
But this year it had happened again. Eyebrows are being raised.
Many felt that the Yankees needed to be knocked down a notch, and so Torrez defects for $2 million. Even the acquisition of Gossage does not quite make up for that.
"This may ruin American League (Fireman of the Year) Sparky Lyle," said one Baltimore Oriole official. "He says he has to pitch every day to be sharp. One bullpen may not be big enough to hold two firemen of the year. Anyway," he reasoned, "we gotta look for the sliver lining.
In the AL West the Kansas City Royals ran away and hid. Immediately, the Texas Rangers and California Angels, the two teams with the best chances to challenge the Royals, bought just the players they needed to excite their fans - Richie Zisk and Lyman Bostock, respectively.
And the struggling Brewers got AL RBI champ Larry Hisle from Minnesota. For the second straight year, hot stove interest throughout baseball was stoked, while no team was ravaged to the point of hopelessness, not even the chintzy Twins.
"It's beginning to look like this is not happenstance," said Dalton, the builder of world champions in Baltimore. "Losing teams know that these free agents are like a vein of gold in the ground. Unless your team's an absolute economic disaster, you're going to take the risk and go prospecting.
"We lost 88 games last year, but our attendance was up 41 per cent," said Dalton, who was then California Angel GM. "That shows other teams the interest that new players create. It's possible in the case of some cities to improve your team by spending on long-term contracts, while getting that money back at the gate rather quickly."
Dalton then offered with a chuckle what may be called his parable of the famished general manager. "If you're hungrier than your neighbor, you're going to get to the bakery just if you've still got a dollar to spend."
Baltmore general manager Hank Peters, one of those who has chosen "not to participate in chasing after the high rollers," calls this process "The Law of Increasing Desperation."
"With each free agent that signs," a wistful Peters said yesterday, "the other clubs get increasingly desperate to get one that is left."
The result has been another surprise in the Pandora's Box opened by baseball's ex-wage slaves. This year's free agents - perhaps the last bumper crop that ever will be available in the same year - are getting even more money, relative to their talents, than those of a year ago. Where is the management restraint so universally predicted?
"The entire salary structure of the game is still climbing," admits Peters, worriedly. "Even subs (second stringers) haven't signed their contracts yet. They want to see just how crazy it's going to get. Second-line free agents (like the O's Ross Grimsley) are waiting until the big names are gone because they know there are still teams who are determined just to show their fans a new body."
If baseball is mortgaging its future, it is doing so with an ear-to-ear grin.
"Some of our new millionaires may not age too gracefully," points out one AL general manager. "Wayne Garland and Richie Zisk, for instance, have 10-year contracts. Ten years! In a few seasons we may see a team or two sinking into bankruptcy from the weight of long-term contracts to players who by then are producing nothing at all."
Nevertheless, now is the time for baseball to smack its lips over the Thanksgiving drumsticks and forget all those stale turkey sandwiches that may lurk in the future.
The latest player to become an Angel and thinking he had gone to heaven on earth was Bostock.
Secure in his $3-million pact, the man who says "as far as I know, I'm the highest paid player in history" recalled how he and his mother arrived in Los Angeles from Birmingham, Ala., when he was 7 years old. "She had $7 in her pocket."
Such tales have never hurt any sport. American fans have proved repeatedly that they are attracted by rags-to-riches athletes making almost incomprehensible salaries.
And multi-talented high-school athletes, the kind who have been siphoned off into football and basketball in recent years, may soon turn back to baseball where there is as much or more money and room at the top, and considerably less injury and pain.
"Maybe we're killing ourselves in the long run," said a Boston Red Sox official, "but right now there seem to be more plusses in free-agentry than anyone guessed.
"Our fans don't seem to care at all about loyalty or keeping one player for 20 years. They just want us to win. They're as excited about getting a Bill Campbell or a Mike Torrez as college fans would be about getting a new hotshot recruit. College fans stay loyal, and our rate of turnover will never approach theirs."
In fact, baseball is greatest recent gain may be that it has become the first sport to demand and get almost year-round mass media attention.
No sooner is the long season done than the Nov. 4 draft starts a month-long lottery. Once that subsides the December league meetings trigger a wave of trades. January is reserved for bickering as the new players argue about who should get the most money.
Nothing propers like controversy. Fans who should be watching the Super Bowl ask themselves, "Maybe we should get our new free agent a food taster, just in case?"
Before February's ground hogs can even get restless, spring training receives its annual rite-of-spring treatment.
Is baseball running the risk of wearing out its welcome, or is the sport merely keeping up a profitable "we're-still-around" buzz in the ears of its fans during the off season?
Is free agent madness the wide and easy path to perdition? Will baseball cast its bread upon the waters and end up with soggy bread?
Baseball's bread is suddenly finding its way into many new hands, happy hands. But surprisingly, many owners and most fans are joining the players in the smiling. At least for now.