Baseball's winter meetings ended today with a flurry of trades and the revelation that growing opposition to Commissioner Bowie Kuhn has spread from the American League to the National.
As many as nine teams expressed reservations or strong dissatisfactions with the Kuhn commissionership during the animated league meetings. In fact, criticism of Kuhn was so strong that baseball constructed a joint committee of 12 owners to study "the existing organizational structure and policies of baseball and to recommend structural and policy improvements . . . to more effectively administer" the game.
This committee is to bring back its findings by early January so that its report can be voted on by early May. It is no coincidence that, under baseball's bylaws, the earliest possible date that Kuhn's commissionership could end is May 12 -- that is to say, 15 months before his contract actually runs out.
Kuhn's strong supporter, Los Angeles owner Peter O'Malley, was so concerned about the anti-Kuhn rumors that he called an impromptu meeting at 3 a.m. Thursday among eight or nine clubs so that Kuhn's defenders could muster and coordinate their arguments.
"There was concern at that meeting both for Bowie Kuhn, the man, and his feelings, and for the damage that could have been done to the office of the commissioner by such an uprising of criticism," John McHale, president of the Montreal Expos, said.
Baltimore owner Edward Bennett Williams' appointment to the prestigious Executive Council on Thursday was, in McHale's words, "probably a method of giving both an ear and a voice within that council to one of the active dissidents. . . .When there is momentum building on an issue that involves the commissioner, such as a redefinition of his powers, or a change in the man holding the job, it usually developes in the Executive Council."
In May, it would take five votes against Kuhn in the American League, or four in the NL to block his continuance as commissioner when his current contract expires.
According to the United Press International, the clubs expressing dissatisfaction with Kuhn on Thursday were St. Louis, Houston, Cincinnati, San Diego, the New York Mets, the New York Yankess, Texas and Baltimore.
"It is certainly accurate to say that the angry noises we were hearing from several American League owners during the strike have spread to the National League," McHale said.
Kuhn said in a statement: "I feel the creation of this committee is well intended and will be constructive. I welcome the opportunity to cooperate."
Despite the fact that behind-the-scenes infighting has been heavy here this week, the outward manifestations of these meetings have been mild in the extreme. Actually, baseball may have taken a quiet, dull step back toward sanity here. For once, no news may have been good news for the battered game.
The meetings ended with a burst of interesting, though hardly earthshaking trades and transactions involving such names as Tom Paciorek, Tim Foli, Rich Gale, Mark Belanger, Jerry Martin, Clint Hurdle and Frank Taveras.
However, the mood at sundown as major league executives flew back home was that baseball might, after five years of madness, finally have gotten a handle on its wild-spending, fast-moving, can't-anybody-stay-in-one-place-anymore era.
"We have not witnessed here what we have seen in recent years," said Baltimore General Manager Hank Peters, who was mildly disappointed that his team had not made a trade, but heartened by what he saw as a new trend in his game. "The last few years have been an education process . . . and experience is a marvelous teacher. Some of the worst (big spending) offenders in our game have taken the cure."
Indications of that were on view again here this day. After meeting until 2 a.m., the New York Yankees were able to reach "agreement in principle" on a multiyear contract with free agent Ron Guidry.
Guidry, it is believed, will get about $1 million a year.
Guidry's imminent re-signing with the Yankees came on top of word that the Red Sox had re-signed their prime free agent, Jerry Remy, on Thursday. Both players shopped around and discovered that nobody in 1981 was making ridiculous offers that couldn't be refused.
"We had to stop dealing in rhetoric and deal with reality," said Guidry's agent, John Schneider. "We were talking (before meeting with the Yankees) about Ron getting $7.5 million for five years, but, when we finally sign with the Yanks and details of this contract come out, you'll have to realize that the strike has affected every team's ability to pay.
"Salary offers to free agents just aren't as high as they were a year ago. Because of the strike and the economy, baseball is changing."
In other words, Guidry didn't get the fat contract he might have in '79 or '80.
Another factor surfacing here may be baseball's new, unspoken "three-year rule." Although union boss Marvin Miller will inevitably and perhaps correctly scream that it is ownership collusion, a pattern seems to have formed in the contracts being offered since the strike of '81 -- very few, if any, are for more than three years.
The best evidence of baseball's quieter mood was the list of trades made on what has traditionally been a wild day:
The Chicago White Sox got Paciorek (a .326-hitting outfielder who made the All-Star team at age 35) from Seattle for solid catcher Jim Essian, competent starting shortstop Todd Cruz and outfielder Rod Allen.
California got veteran shortstop Tim Foli as bench insurance from Pittsburgh for good-hit, no-field catcher Brian Harper, who had 122 RBI in AAA.
Kansas City traded troubled Clint Hurdle (who in '81 had a divorce and injuries) for minor league reliever Scott Brown of Cincinnati.
Kansas City sent 6-foot-7 pitcher Rich Gale and pitcher Bill Laskey to San Francisco for veteran outfielder Jerry Martin.
Los Angeles signed free agent Mark Belanger, who was disgruntled with Baltimore, to a one-year contract. Dodger Manager Tommy Lasorda called Belanger "a very good insurance policy at shortstop." Belanger commented: "I'll be happy to play any role." Responded Peters: "Why don't they ever say that until after they're gone?"
Pittsburgh got pitcher Tom Griffin (76-91 career) from San Francisco for AAA first baseman Doe Boyland.
The New York Mets acquired 31-year-old reliever Jim Kern from the Texas Rangers in exchange for second baseman Doug Flynn and pitcher Dan Boitano. The Mets also sent shortstop Frank Taveras to Montreal for reliever Steve Ratzer.