These sports pages are filled with fascinating stuff that you miss at risk to your literary sophistication. Last week we printed the response of Calvin Griffith to news that his Minnesota Twins relief pitcher, Ron Davis, had been awarded a $475,000 contract by an arbitrator who chose between that figure and the owner's offer of $300,000.
Such savoir-faire from Griffith, who said, "I'm so (here the wire service expunged a word, leaving an ellipsis to test our imagination) sick about Davis winning that I almost vomited."
Orators have a sense of perspective. "He is no more entitled to that kind of salary than I am being president of the United States," Griffith said. "I know deep down in my heart that I would die a slow death if I had to pay him that much money for the whole year."
The pitcher Davis seemed contrite at causing Griffith such pain. "I'm on Calvin's side. I don't like the system, either. I really do feel sorry for Calvin because we know he can't afford it."
What's going on here?
An athlete gets the $475,000 he asked for, and he's contrite?
Then last Sunday, Fernando Valenzuela was awarded a $1 million contract when the Dodgers wanted to stop at $750,000. The Dodgers, unlike Griffith, passed up the opportunity to enrich our understanding of human nature. They said nothing. Valenzuela's agent, Tony DeMarco, said, "We're elated."
What's going on here is final-offer salary arbitration. If team and player can't agree on a contract, they in effect go to court. They submit evidence to a neutral arbitrator, who decides how good the player is. The arbitrator checks existing salaries of players at that level. He then fills in a blank contract with the salary figure--either the player's request or the club's offer--closest to the standard already set.
Created 11 years ago, salary arbitration was the first victory in the civil war that freed the slaves of baseball. But, as Davis' apologia indicates, even some players believe the hogwash of critics who say salary arbitration is a fool's work that has driven salaries to outlandish heights.
Salaries are large because owners are paying players what they're worth. No one ever got paid more than he's worth. If George Steinbrenner thinks it's worth $50 million in deferred debt to win a few ball games, then Dave Winfield, et al., are worth it. We're not talking "worth" in philosophical terms (brain surgeon vs. stonehanded shortstop). We're talking "worth" as to what someone will pay for your services.
Until free agency was achieved in 1976, the largest arbitration decision raised Reggie Jackson's salary to $140,000. Only five other men were over $100,000. Today's enormous salaries--55 men are over $750,000 a year--came from free agent auctions, which in turn establish the standards for salary arbitration that help the lesser players. Not the other way around.
Poor Ron Davis is apologizing to a sputtering owner who happens to care very little if he wins any ball games. To Griffith, a $50 million deferred debt is unthinkable. It is no accident that in the first nine years of salary arbitration that cheapskate Charlie Finley led the majors with 26 arbitrations--and Griffith was next with 12.
The Dodgers, in contrast, had two such cases.
Reasonable organizations with reasonable resources seldom are forced to salary arbitration because they acknowledge the worth of a player and their ability to pay the price necessary to keep him.
Even proponents of salary arbitration acknowledge it makes little sense for Ron Davis, off a 3-9 season with a 4.42 earned run average with 22 saves, to have his salary raised $175,000.
But salary arbitration was Davis' only protection against an owner who refused to negotiate a five-year deal with him. Until a player is in the major leagues six seasons, he cannot become a free agent. Davis could not sell his work anywhere else. Arbitration is designed to prevent abuse of such players. (Critics point out that a club's financial health is not a factor in the arbritration process. Thus, Davis' plaintive I'm sorry. But this is competitive capitalism at work. If you can't stand the heat, Calvin . . .)
After two seasons, a player can demand arbitration. It was the first piece of the delicate machinery that Marvin Miller, as the players' union boss, created to guarantee players their share of the revenues they produce. Although players earned total free agency in an arbitrator's ruling in 1975, Miller saw a need for some compromise to forestall the chaos an open market would bring.
He already had salary arbitration in place. So he designed a free agency that would begin after the six seasons.
And now baseball has the healthiest labor-management balance in sports. Basketball players, with total free agency, have whiplashed owners so much that the owners are now begging the players to agree to salary ceilings for each team. Protect us from ourselves, the egomaniacs cry. In football, the situation is reversed, with owners dominating players.
Only in baseball, with limited free agency and final-offer salary arbitration, is there any sort of balance between forces once so uneven that a player considered himself lucky to have escaped Branch Rickey's office with his shirt.
Ralph Kiner liked to explain he never choked up on the bat because, "Cadillacs are at the end of the bat." Now a Hall of Famer, Kiner worked for Rickey in the '50s, when owners held slavery to be an inalienable right of the privileged. He wasn't surprised when, after hitting 37 home runs for the last-place Pirates to lead the league a seventh straight time, Rickey announced he would cut Kiner's salary the maximum 25 percent.
"We could have finished last without you," Rickey said.