Almost everybody knows that Dave Winfield got $1.5 million for playing the outfield for the Yankees last season, and will get about the same pay next year. Bully for him.
In baseball it is a shibboleth that a player is never overpaid when he signs his contract; that he is worth all he can get from those calculating club owners who themselves are out to turn a profitable deal, without charity in mind.
In Winfield's case he has been a splendid investment for the Yankees. Without his contributions last season they would not have been in the World Series. For a big man he is exceedingly spry, both on the bases and in the outfield, and can upstage the fences with his leaping grabs of incipient home runs.
Yankee fans could not be bitter, either, about his ghastly one-for-22 miseries against Dodger pitching, the batting flop of the World Series. It happens.
What not everybody knows is that Winfield's sliding-scale contract calls for the Yankees to pay him in 1990, nine seasons hence, the sum of $3.3 million. Not for life, not for rights to his progeny, but simply for that one season of baseball.
This bit of intelligence was turned up recently by the New York Times, which got a peek at the major leagues'salary list that is made available under one of the provisos of the Major League Baseball Players Association contract with the owners.
As for America's baseball fans, the truth seems to be that they are numbed by all the big money talk. They have learned to live with the $800,000-a-year wage that is now commonplace, after five years of free-agency frenzy that sent salaries up, up, up.
The rapidity with which salaries have spiraled was noted by no less than Reggie Jackson last spring after the Yankees signed Winfield. "I'll have a funny feeling, waiting in the batter's circle, next up behind a fellow making $600,000 a year more than I do," said Jackson, who always presumed his own pay was near top money.
The idiocy of last summer's strike, in which everything was lost and nothing gained by the players and owners, also has contributed to fan apathy toward free-agent and salary talk, and especially the new, involved free-agency rules that deal with bidding for Type A and Type B players. All of it is so confusing, fans can be forgiven for suspecting the owners now are dealing in blood types A and B.
The club owners have been burned every year by their frantic bidding for free agents they overrated. Winfield and Jackson are among the few exceptions. Many clubs this year took the route of signing on their best athletes for another hitch at big raises before they could take the free-agent path and test the open market.
Still, George Steinbrenner showed them all that dealing in big numbers was not a bad idea. His gambles landed the Yankees four pennants in six years and laid the foundation for more. He'll probably meet the demands of Ron Guidry and keep him out of the market.
The signs are positive that Steinbrenner will jettison Jackson, since trading for Ken Griffey, a better outfielder and steadier hitter, if lacking Jackson's flair. That there is a market for Jackson is also evident.
Even the Orioles, known in the past for having built their team on the cheap, are expressing an interest in Jackson, who lights up a ballpark. It may be unkind to suggest the Orioles are on the drab side, with Earl Weaver their most famous name, but spectacular they are not.
For this, Jackson would be the perfect antidote.
Gene Autry of the California Angels has spent wildly for free agents over the years without coming close to winning a pennant, and as recently as last season there were new examples of how club owners can be disappointed.
The Cardinals gave Darrell Porter a $3.5 million contract for five years and got a .224 batting average in return. The Angels landed relief pitcher John D'Acquisto for $1.5 million and got no victories and a 10.89 earned run average. The White Sox outbid everybody for Ron LeFlore, gave him a $2.4 million contract, and he gave them a .246 average. The Angels' other prize free-agent acquisition was Geoff Zahn, a pitcher who lost more games than he won, yielding 4.42 runs a game.
This year, 30 players have opted to test the free-agent waters, positive that there is money enough out there to cure their melancholy with their present clubs. There are decent names such as Jerry Remy and Joe Rudi on the list, but in addition to Guidry and Jackson, but the presence of some others in their company seems to raise questions.
Who would like to sign a .165 hitting shortstop (Mark Belanger of the Orioles)? Or maybe some team is hot for a .225 hitting shortstop who did have two home runs (Chris Speier of the Expos)? How about a .152 outfielder who hit no home runs last season (Tom Poquette of the Rangers)? A designated hitter with a .209 average and two homers for Minnesota last year (Glenn Adams)? A .227 hitting catcher from the Toronto Blue Jays (Buck Martinez)? Or a starter for the Phillies with a 4-7 record (Larry Christenson)?
These are some who are offering themselves up for grabs. If the bidding is indeed slower than in previous years, perhaps they could be some of the reasons.