With a grand cymbal crash, or a grand symbolic crash, as you please, baseball's winter grabfest reached both its peak and its conclusion yesterday as the New York Yankees signed free agent Dave Winfield to an eight-to-10-year contract estimated to be worth between $1.3-1.5 million a year.
After a month of toil and trouble, baseball's wonderful offseason nuttiness has, substantially, subsided. Oh, the Yankees may yet trade Ron Guidry for Boston's Fred Lynn, with a player or two thrown in for spice on both sides. But, for the most part, the free agents have all been bought and the big interleague trades accomplished; any team whose Christmas stocking has not been stuffed by now is out of luck.
For the fifth straight season, baseball has not only survived its uncharted free agent wilderness but has stumbled out of it with the game intact and probably strengthened.
Of course, the Winfield signing, which has been expected ever since the Yankees failed to get the free agent they wanted most -- pitcher Don Sutton -- has sent yet another wave of financial ripples through the sport.
"I'm not surprised. It seems inevitable to me," said Baltimore owner Edward Bennett Williams. "It's just another example of more economic madness. If this irrational spending continues, it's going to destroy the industry.
"I don't know which is more shocking, Winfield getting $15 million or a journeyman free agent like Dave Roberts getting $1.2 million (for five years from Houston).If it were just the stars getting these contracts, it might be possible to make ends meet. But, of course, that's impossible. The ripple effect is automatic."
To be sure, baseball has reached the point of being entirely out of joint financially. For instance, Williams' Oriole team has won 203 games in the past two seasons, more than any club in baseball, yet it still does not have a single player earning as much as bench-warmer Roberts' $240,000-a-year contract with the Astros. Nevertheless, the Birds, who will probably sign two modestly priced free agents of their own this week -- Jose Morales and Jim Dwyer -- are so certain that a champion can still be built from within that they have stood smirking on the sidelines for weeks, calmly watching lesser teams bandy about multimillion dollar offers.
Reggie Jackson provides the perfect example of how baseball's money framework has been wrenched completely into the realm of the surreal. In the spring of 1976, he asked the Orioles for $1 million for four seasons through 1980. That price was thought preposterous at the time. That winter, he signed with the Yankees for $3 million over five years -- the biggest contract in baseball history. Now, Jackson's landmark $600,000-a-year contract is considered peanuts; in '81 Jackson, who has hit 408 homers in the last 13 seasons, will be playing in the same outfield with a man -- Winfield -- who has hit a modest 154 homers in his seven full seasons. Yet Winfield, now earning between $1.3 and $1.5 million a year, will be making 2 1/2 times as much money as Jackson.
"I'm not sure that the Winfield signing won't create more problems for the Yankees than it solves," said Williams, presumably looking for an Oriole silver lining. "If Winfield has an average season (for him), he may not hit as many homers next year as the people they platooned in the outfield had this season.
"Besides," added Williams sardonically in a true comment on the baseball times, "now (Yankee owner George) Steinbrenner has the headache of signing Jackson who, of course, is terribly underpaid."
The ultimate baseball confrontation of philosophies, at this moment, is between the Yankees and Orioles, the sport's two 100-victory teams. The Winfield signing was a fine opportunity for the Birds, in their sparsely feathered nest, to cackle about the difficult lot in life of the rich.
"The Yankees are talking about how Winfield is the answer to their prayers, but that's a lot of nonsense," said Oriole General Manager Hank Peters. "They had their bonnet set for Don Sutton, no matter what they say. Their starting rotation now -- let's see, they haven't even offered to sign either Gaylord Perry or Luis Tiant -- would be Tommy John, Ron Guidry, Rudy May and Tom Underwood. That's four left-handers, two of them nearly 40. They deeply wanted a right-handed starter and it shocked them when Sutton said 'no'. I don't know Sutton's reasoning, though I've heard that he and Tommy John didn't get along."
As for whether Winfield strengthens the Yankees, "I'm sure he's a good ballplayer," said Peters, "but guys who hit .276 with 20 homers (as Winfield did for the Padres in '80) aren't particularly hard to find. In fact, for somebody with 650 plate appearances, those figures are about the league average . . . Everybody said that Winfield had an off year because of all the pressure on him from playing out his option. Well that was no damned pressure at all compared to what he's going to get now.
"The Yankees can still only play nine men at once. If Winfield plays every day, that means some people who played very well for them this year will be on the bench -- Oscar Gamble, Bobby Murcer . . .
"Also, it should be an interesting year watching Reggie's reaction to Winfield's salary," chuckled Peters. "Reggie's playing out his option year (in '81) and he has a lot of bullets to fire."
Is Jackson likely to fire those bullets, especially since his favorite manager, Dick Howser, was fired? "I think he shall," said Peters. "I think he shall."
The crux of this baseball offseason has been the vivid way it has demonstrated, once again, how difficult it is to measure a player's ability, then relate it to his dollar value. "It's so difficult to relate dollars to abilities in baseball that it gives the team with good judgment a chance to compete almost equally with the team with big money," points out Peters. "They probably take in $2 in revenue for every one we have," says Peters. "But that doesn't make it any less difficult to spend the money wisely."
For example, the Orioles were offered glamorous Ted Simmons in trade by St. Louis. Baltimore was interested until the great-hit, poor-field Simmons informed them that he wanted to remain a catcher and not become a DH.
"The average fan has great difficulty analyzing trades," says Peters. "At first blush, for instance, it looks like Milwaukee has greatly helped itself by adding Simmons and Rollie Fingers, while losing Sixto Lezcano. And I think they have improved, but perhaps not nearly as much as people think. Fans see the prestige names. What baseball people see is that the Brewers' catchers -- Charlie Moore and Buck Martinez -- may not be behind the plate. Also, whoever is in right field won't be as good as Lezcano, who was great. Simmons has one of the great bats, but how do you weigh that against hurting your defense in two important positions?
"There's no answer. That's the point."
And that, finally, is why baseball has flourished so in these five free-agent years. The offseason debates precipitated by the rich activity of baseball's winters go to the very heart of the game -- the ability to judge the talent of players and how they will perform when brought together on the same team. Fortunately for the game, baseball's rich are not often wise, and the wise are not often rich. The result, so far at least, is a perverse, if extremely precarious, kind of balance.