1998 Winter Meetings: Tempers Flare, Contracts Explode

This article was written by Jessica Frank

This article was published in the Baseball’s Business: The Winter Meetings: 1958-2016


Baseball's Business: The Winter Meetings: 1958-2016

“Free-agent frenzy.”1

“Meat Market.”2

Negotiations dominated by “fast-talking, greedy little men.”3

Memories of the 1992 Winter Meetings in Louisville, Kentucky, were unvaryingly ugly. Over a tumultuous four days, baseball’s annual gathering had dissolved into nightmarish chaos and sent major-league executives running.

Among the worst incidents, the Rev. Jesse Jackson denounced baseball’s “institutional racism,” threatening to organize boycotts and mount a challenge to the owners’ coveted antitrust exemption unless substantial changes were made in minority-hiring practices;4 Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott responded to allegations of racist remarks by delivering a statement that was part apology but more defensive denial;5 and two hours into a concluding meeting of all 28 club owners, Carl Barger, president of the Florida Marlins, suffered a fatal heart attack.6 But it was the unmitigated greed that left the filthiest impression. Agents swarmed the lobby on behalf of their clients, brokering 35 signings worth a total of $225 million.7 The most expensive contract of the unprecedented spree: a six-year, $43.75 million deal for Barry Bonds that shattered the record for guaranteed money, made him baseball’s best-paid player, and left other owners in shock.8

Acting Commissioner Bud Selig reacted diplomatically. “I’m glad this situation has been settled,” he said. “There are 28 teams and they all have to make their own judgments.”9 But by the following October, Selig and the owners had come to a unanimous decision, officially pulling out of the meetings and prohibiting major-league GMs from future attendance.10

Over the years, though, there had been some changes. Selig, who had repeatedly stated he had no interest in becoming baseball’s full-time commissioner, accepted the position in July of 1998.

And his firm opposition to the winter meetings had faded. In 1996 Selig had been coaxed into informally lifting the ban,11 and by 1998 the commissioner’s office was actively encouraging participation.12 USA Today’s Hal Bodley remarked on the news in November: “Sandy Alderson, executive vice president of baseball operations, is trying to renew interest in the winter meetings, once the top event between the World Series and spring training. He has called every GM, reminding each how important the sessions were.”13

Promoting the event earlier that fall, NAPBL officials even included Commissioner Selig among the expected 3,000 attendees. “It’s a very good possibility…” estimated director Tim Brunswick. “This is probably going to be our biggest meeting since 1992.”14

The 97th session was scheduled for December 11-15 at the Opryland Hotel in Nashville, a dizzying resort complex that boasted 2,884 rooms, multiple Southern-themed lobbies, and three expansive, glass-enclosed garden atriums complete with waterfalls, tropical plants, and Mississippi-style flatboat tours along a quarter-mile-long manmade river.15

Both the venue and the expanded agenda seemed an appropriately large, festive way to welcome back the major leagues. There were business seminars and a trade show with exhibitors from over 250 baseball-related companies,16 hawking everything from tarpaulins, infield dirt, and batting cages17 to computer programs18 and the Famous Chicken, a traveling mascot.19

There was also an NA-sponsored job fair. For years, handfuls of plucky, baseball-loving job seekers had shown up at the winter meetings on their own initiative, hoping to wrangle low-level positions and internships. Now their loosely-planned searching had become an organized offshoot of the meetings, and hundreds were paying for the chance. In 1994, the NA had established the “Professional Baseball Employment Opportunities” placement program to connect applicants and employers with more efficiency, and by 1998, the PBEO had a full-time director, a quarterly newsletter, and an ongoing databank. There were 535 positions listed at the job fair — the most ever — and the program had gained enough standing to generate a feature in Baseball America.20

The Los Angeles Times relayed three of the postings: “Announcer on the Spanish radio station of the El Paso Diablos,” “Picnic management trainee for the Lansing Lugnuts,” and “Mascot for the Carolina Mudcats.”21

CAUTIOUSLY OPTIMISTIC

Selig, who ultimately decided not to travel to Nashville, spoke from his Milwaukee office a week before the session began. “I used to love the Winter Meetings,” he explained. “But it got almost impossible to meet and conduct business. It was a terrible thing. Now, with baseball coming off such a great season, we thought there would be more positives than negatives if we did this.”22

It was also clear that wealthy teams were going to keep dishing out the cash anyway — with or without the Winter Meetings. As noted by Murray Chass in the New York Times, in just one week that fall, five free agents secured individual deals that totaled $330 million. “Clubs proved they did not have to be a captive audience to spend lavishly,” Chass wrote.23

With trades viewed as the one remaining way for small and middle-market teams to be competitive,24 the big gathering presented a great chance to jumpstart some old-fashioned baseball business.

Many GMs seemed optimistic. “With free agency, it’s a few teams doing things and a lot of teams not doing anything,” A’s GM Billy Beane said. “Maybe it’s good to have the winter meetings back — we’ll have to remove the cobwebs.” 25

Mariners’ GM Woody Woodward was also looking forward to making some trades, after being priced out of the free agent offers. “(N)ot in our wildest dreams did we expect some of these players to sign for what they signed for,” Woodward said. “(W)e just made a decision not to get involved in the craziness of the contracts. I don’t think you can spend like that. You’ll notice that only a few teams are.”

“I think there are still a few bargains out there,” he added. “And I think there are still trades there.”26

Even Phillies GM Ed Wade, who had already reshaped his club with a number of moves in November, said he’d be open to a good proposal.27

With the meetings about to begin, anticipation was high.28 Pitcher Kevin Brown was the only “superstar” still floating around, leading major-league VP Sandy Alderson to comment assuredly that agents wouldn’t be able to “play the general managers like an instrument.”29 All the major-league GMs were attending, including the Yankees’ Brian Cashman in a last-minute organizational decision,30 and even though there was no indication that the sharks had left the waters, baseball officials were anxious for another dip.31

THROWN FOR A LOOP

The Kevin Brown signing made many wish they had stayed ashore.

The ground for his record-splintering deal had been paved in March. Atlanta Braves owner Ted Turner, who had not attended an owners meeting since 1989, made the trip to St. Petersburg, Florida, on March 18, 1998, with one purpose — to try to stop media rival Rupert Murdoch from purchasing the Los Angeles Dodgers. Turner apparently felt strongly enough about the matter to skip a Time Warner board of directors meeting scheduled on the same day,32 but refused to make his thoughts public, even when pressed by reporters. “Ted made his speech,” said one person in attendance, “He made his points that he’s against it. He made his arguments.”33 In the San Diego Union-Tribune, Tom Cushman predicted trouble. “(If the sale goes through, major-league owners will) have tossed gasoline on a house already in flames. … If baseball welcomes him, it deserves him.”34 Turner’s plea fell flat.

Two days later, the Los Angeles Times reported that owners voted almost unanimously to approve the sale from Peter O’Malley, whose family had been baseball’s oldest dynasty, to Murdoch for a record-setting $311 million. “The vote puts one of baseball’s most storied ballclubs in the hands of one of the world’s most unsentimental and pragmatic businessmen,” the article stated. “The Australian-born Murdoch has gained a reputation for ruthless competitiveness in assembling a worldwide empire of television, newspaper and publishing properties, which were valued in 1997 at nearly $27 billion. Among those assets are broadcast and cable TV rights to games of 22 of the 30 major league baseball teams.”35

Under this new, well-funded ownership, the club was ready to spend. Earlier in the offseason, they put up a hefty bid for Randy Johnson — a four-year deal, hovering around $50 million. But after weighing three comparable offers from other teams, Johnson chose the Arizona Diamondbacks. The $52.4 million contract, signed on November 30, kept him close to home and made him the second highest paid player in baseball, with an average salary slightly below Mo Vaughn’s $13.33 million-per-year deal, inked a week earlier.36

Still in need of a premier starter, the Dodgers turned their attention to Brown, who was looking for six years at $80 million-plus. A day into the Winter Meetings, Jason Reid of the Los Angeles Times reported that with four teams still in the running, the Dodgers were getting close.37 The next morning, they crossed the finish line, handing the 34-year-old free agent a deal that far surpassed his $80 million ask, and zoomed past Johnson’s. The seven-year, $105 million contract gave Brown both the largest overall and largest annual salary and was loaded with perks. Brown’s agent, Scott Boras, said he and Dodgers GM Kevin Malone had worked overnight hammering out the details, and finalized the agreement after a four-mile morning run.38

Sweeteners included:

  • A no-trade clause for the duration of the contract.39
  • 12 chartered round-trip flights a year to shuttle his family between Macon, Georgia, and Burbank, California.40
  • An unspecified number of additional flights to bring his seven- and three-year-old sons along on road trips.41

At the press conference, Malone tempered his excitement with a measure of apology. “I’ve been on the other side,” he said, referring to his years as the Montreal Expos GM. “It’s unfair in my mind, just like in society, there’s a lower class, a middle class and an upper class.”42 But he also defended the signing, saying, “(i)f we didn’t do it, someone else would have….”43

“We feel like we logically evaluated the marketplace,” he continued, adding, “I understand we will be criticized.”44

Malone could barely get the words out. As Boras took over at the podium, crowing that the Dodgers had, in fact, gotten a bargain, MLB VP of Operations Sandy Alderson began issuing his own statement from the back of the room.45 With palpable disgust, he lashed into Malone and the Dodgers, scoffing at Malone’s show of contrition. “Those comments were a direct affront and an insult to the commissioner of baseball,” he told reporters. “To suggest that in spite of this signing they are concerned about the disparity and the fiscal risks associated with the game is (bull)… I don’t blame anyone for responding to the dynamics of the market. But don’t kid yourself and insult us with those kind of rationalizations.”46

He wasn’t alone in his indignation. “It’s truly a tragic day for baseball,” said San Diego Padres owner John Moores.47 “It’s a big paradox,” Montreal manager Felipe Alou offered. “A number of players made more money last season than our entire payroll.”48 “People say it’s monopoly money,” Florida Marlins manager John Boles complained. “That’s wrong. When we were kids, we never had that much monopoly money.”49

The clear economic disparity drove Jack McKeon to a more radical idea. “Why not have all the big guys play each other and the little guys play each other and just meet in the World Series,” he suggested.50 Dodgers higher-ups were unsympathetic. “Parity is not the American way,” manager Davey Johnson stated plainly. “The American way is to dominate everyone else.”51

Only Cleveland Indians GM John Hart sounded unconcerned. “It doesn’t guarantee them anything except a long-term commitment,” he said.52

A couple of days later, fallout continued. Larry Lucchino, San Diego Padres president, accused Brown’s agent of providing misinformation to boost the offers.53

As proof, Lucchino listed the proposals that the contending teams said they put forward, all five- and six-year deals ranging from $55 to $81 million.54 Lucchino was incredulous that the Dodgers would offer Brown tens of millions more than any other team, along with an additional year, unless they had been fed false information. But he stopped short of directly attacking Boras, instead suggesting that baseball employ an independent verifier.55

“I’m talking about the objective facts about the negotiations,” Lucchino argued, “and whether there are flaws in structure of the process that allows for blindman’s bluff. There is a growing concern about the process that allows for this type of misinformation circulating.”56

Boras, quick to fight back, warned that any system of verification would amount to collusion,57 and classified Lucchino’s complaints as “sour grapes.”58 Three other clubs had been ready to pay Brown an equivalent amount, he said, a claim confirmed by insiders. “I spoke to Larry a couple of times in the negotiations and he wasn’t too concerned with the situation,” Boras revealed. “He kept saying, ‘Is he going to St. Louis, is he going to St. Louis?’ Then he got wind about the Dodgers. 59

BLAST-OFF

The Brown explosion shook up the other major negotiation underway at Opryland. In late November, the Toronto Blue Jays’ ace, Roger Clemens, had his agents contact the front office.60 “Clemens Demands to be Traded” read the December 3 headline.61 Blue Jays GM Gord Ash sprang into action.

The already-elite pitcher had just become baseball’s first five-time Cy Young Award winner, capturing consecutive awards in his two years with the Jays. But Toronto remained a midlevel team and Clemens was restless.62

“Roger is driven by the one thing he’s not accomplished in this game, a ring,” Ash said, citing a verbal commitment to deal Clemens if he was unhappy. “I’d say I’m on a fast track with this,” he said. “[W]e need to have this clarified before we move on.”63

But a couple of weeks later, little progress had been made. While a raft of teams had expressed interest (the Indians, Astros, Rangers, Yankees, Rockies, Braves, Mets, and Padres were all listed as possibilities),64 the separate terms issued by the Blue Jays and Clemens were becoming prohibitive. Toronto was looking for three or four “major-league ready” players, and Clemens was pushing to renegotiate his contract, a move that would essentially make him a free agent. “A double whammy,” grumbled executives.65

On the first day of the winter meetings, things seemed to be off to a good start. The phone line to the Blue Jays’ suite was buzzing with questions Friday afternoon, and Ash was in good humor. “I’m going to stay right here because I can’t find my room,” he joked. “There’s too many numbers.”66

By Sunday, talks were at a standstill. Clemens, seemingly spurred by the Brown deal,67 had set the pricetag on his one-year contract extension at $27.4 million.68 When added to his guaranteed salary of $8 million in 1999 and $8.1 million in 2000, the total three-year deal would average $14.5 million, notably close to Brown’s record $15 million a year. Clemens was now also reportedly requesting perks, such as a private box.69

Astros GM Gerry Hunsicker was the first to drop out, holding a news conference to publicly express his repugnance. “Quite frankly, we were absolutely stunned and really outraged by the demands,” Hunsicker said. “It was mind-boggling.”70 Hunsicker said he was blindsided by the new figure, and complained that the Blue Jays had ceded control of the trade talks to Clemens’s agents, brothers Randy and Alan Hendricks. “I’m just extremely concerned for the health of the industry,” Hunsicker continued, broadening his criticism. “… What we’re creating here is a small country-club type of situation where a handful of teams can compete for the services of the elite players and everyone else takes what is left over. This is just another prime example of how most of us, including the Houston Astros, really can’t compete for the services of the elite players.”71 Randy Hendricks dismissed Hunsicker’s anger. “The Astros’ front office is jealous of the fact that I’ve been dealing directly with their owner,” he said, “so they took the opportunity to call a news conference to try and trash me because their feelings were hurt, that they weren’t part of the loop.”72

Other teams followed the Astros’ lead. The Yankees stepped back quietly, with GM Cashman saying they might still be interested if the price was reduced,73 and a couple of days later, the Mets also withdrew their offer.74

Meanwhile, Toronto manager Tim Johnson was facing some tough questions from the media.75

Manager press conferences were a new addition to the Winter Meetings, an expansion of an earlier outreach initiative. Following the 1993 lockout, major-league baseball had begun a program of regularly-scheduled telephone conference calls, dubbed “MLB This Week.” Different players were featured on the call-in throughout the season, while managers were typically made available in half-hour intervals over one week in December.76

During Johnson’s obligatory in-person session, reporters pursued an uncomfortable topic. The rookie manager had led the Blue Jays to their first winning record in five years, but ended the season in disgrace after word got out that he had, on numerous occasions, fabricated stories about Vietnam combat experiences in order to motivate players. After initial denials and equivocations, Johnson had eventually owned up to his outright dishonesty in a series of November interviews.77

Writing for the New York Times, Jason Diamos described Johnson’s attitude during the press conference as “apologetic, defensive, and defiant,” with Johnson attributing his destructive pattern of lying to guilt over not facing combat, and disavowing the idea that he was one of the factors spurring Roger Clemens’s trade wish.78 (Buddies since their days in Boston, Clemens had inadvertently uncovered Johnson’s lies while arranging for a birthday gift to honor his purported service.79) “That has nothing to do with anything,” Johnson said of the trade request. “I speak to Roger, and believe me, Roger’s very close to me.”80

By the time the meetings ended, Clemens and the Blue Jays were still chained, and Ash had none of his opening cheer. “Gord Ash trudged out of the Opryland Hotel … with the look of a thoroughly defeated man,” wrote Bob Hille of The Sporting News.81 Dozens of trades had been snarled by the inaction, Hille contended. Complex, three-way package deals contingent on Clemens were dangling uncertainly, and the long list of teams looking for pitching had their hands tied. Ash’s colleagues were roundly frustrated. “Clemens gummed the whole thing up,” one GM told a Newsday reporter, “There were a lot of things people wanted to do but couldn’t.”82

Things got even messier the following week. Insulted by the insinuations of greed leveled at him by Hunsicker and Astros President Tal Smith, Clemens withdrew his trade request.

“I have no interest in playing for two individuals like that who would make a statement like that and don’t know me,” Clemens shot back, in a news conference held near his home in Houston, calling himself “very upset” and “disappointed.”83

Incongruously, Clemens’ agents maintained that a deal with the Astros was still a possibility, praising Astros owner Drayton McLane for his diligence and courtesy.84 McLane had quickly apologized to the Hendricks brothers after Hunsicker’s news conference, and promptly restarted talks.85 “The goal has been and still is to secure the services of Roger Clemens,” Hunsicker affirmed.86

From Toronto, Gord Ash also paid Clemens’s words little mind, saying he would pick things up again after Christmas.87

Then two days later, in an embarrassing side note, the New York Times reported that MLB was fining its own COO, Paul Beeston, for “violating established procedures in the Clemens matter.”88 As the Blue Jays’ president, Beeston had allegedly supplied Clemens with a detailed, five-point contract addition specifying his trade options, and not just a verbal promise as originally stated. The written addendum, however, had never been submitted to league officials. Toronto and participating clubs also faced potential fines for their loose handling of the trade talks. “We did not follow the letter of the law,” Ash acknowledged.89

The surprise announcement didn’t come until the start of spring training. “In the most significant deal since the purchase of Babe Ruth 79 years ago, the Yankees traded today for Roger Clemens,” Buster Olney declared in the New York Times.90 GM Cashman said a persistent Ash had proposed the swap of left-handed ace David Wells, along with relief pitcher Graeme Lloyd and infielder Homer Bush, for the Rocket. Wells, whose lovably gruff, hard-partying posture had made him a fan favorite, had gone 18-4 in 1998, and thrown a perfect game at Yankee Stadium on May 17. Still, the Yankees jumped at the offer.91 When Wells ambled into the Yankees workout facility at Legends Field the next morning, he acted amused at being immediately summoned to the manager’s office.

“I’m in the principal’s office already,” he quipped, but lost his smile as soon as Cashman and manager Joe Torre broke the news.92 Only two months earlier, doing some Christmas charity work in the city and feeling secure in his position, he had commented on the prospect of attaining Clemens. “Roger was remarkable,” he said. “He was Cy Young. He’s got a lot of character and adds a lot wherever he goes, but we did pretty good last year without him. If it takes a lot of players from this organization to get him, is he worth it? If it’s a cash thing, give him the cash.”93 Now he was fighting back tears. “Give me a couple days, it’s a little tough right now,” he said.94 Meanwhile, Clemens, who agreed to the deal without any extension,95 was described as “ecstatic.”96 “I know the tradition,” he said by phone. “I love it. I love pitching at Yankee Stadium, the monuments, all the stuff that goes with it.”97

DOUBLE SWITCH

Just like the majors, the minor leagues were facing issues of disparity, and for the second year in a row, VP Pat O’Conner asked minor-league executives to address the imbalance between top-tier and small-market clubs before it was too late. “Financial ruin for the organization is not an imminent threat,” he said, “but for many clubs extinction, financially drying up and blowing away, is becoming more of a possibility.”98

His concern might have seemed unfounded after a year in which gross revenue was close to $16 million, a rise of over 5 percent. As in past years, however, operation costs had also risen, resulting in losses for 36 percent of clubs. And NA President Mike Moore’s “task force,” formed the prior year to work on the issue, didn’t yet have a working plan. While Moore recognized that each club might need an individual solution, O’Conner warned teams to consider the overall organization. “Unless we are able to turn that tide of our smaller markets struggling, it seems even the National Association is in danger of outgrowing small and middle America, something we just cannot let happen. While we may very well need to recognize that baseball in this day and age is not for every community, we cannot idly stand by and lose our smaller communities,” he stated.99

In their separate league meetings, the minors mostly knocked around the usual topics of franchise moves and team reaffiliations, divisional restructuring, and All-Star Game planning.100

The Southern League’s discussion was a little more heated. Tampa Bay Devil Rays owner Vincent Naimoli was looking to move his Double-A Orlando Rays into an upgraded facility and had secured a $10 million offer from a group of developers for a brand-new ballpark in Tallahassee.101 With approval, Naimoli then hoped to relocate his Single-A team, the Florida State League’s St. Petersburg Rays, to Orlando. This would nicely separate two competing interests, as the St. Petersburg Rays’ current home, Al Lang Stadium, was within spitting distance of the Devil Rays’ Tropicana Field.102

There was, however, one point of contention: The Southern League wanted restitution for losing the Orlando market. But the rules mandated compensation only when a higher-classification league claimed the territory of a lower-classification league. In this case, the Southern League argued, though a single-A team was moving in, the ultimate beneficiary would be the major-league Devil Rays.

After a lengthy debate, the two sides still seemed to be at odds. SL President Arnold Fielkow emerged from the league’s double session without a resolution, only commenting that they’d had a “healthy, lively discussion” and arranged for a follow-up.103

And when the Southern League imposed a $1 million relocation fee some time later, the Devil Rays promptly canceled the Tallahassee development deal.104

Instead, Naimoli kept his Double-A team in the greater Orlando area, moving them to Disney’s Wide World of Sports Cracker Jack Stadium in Kissimmee, a half-hour drive south. But after four losing seasons and a change in ownership, the O-Rays broke their 10-year lease, packed up their equipment, and traveled north to Alabama, where they became the Montgomery Biscuits.105 And the St. Petersburg Rays played out the rest of their days at Al Lang Stadium, closing down the franchise after the 2000 season.106

RULE 5 DRAFT

With the number-one pick in the Rule 5 draft, the Florida Marlins made some news, taking left-handed Venezuelan pitcher Alberto Blanco from the Astros, then handing him off to the Detroit Tigers in a “prearranged deal for cash considerations.”107 But it was pick number four that grabbed the headline. Phillies minor-leaguer and newly minted Heisman Trophy winner Ricky Williams was snapped up by the Expos, and immediately offered for trade. Interested teams were reportedly “lining up” for the University of Texas football star, a rush that surprised Phillies scouting director Mike Arbuckle.

“If he was a little further along with the bat, I could understand it,” Arbuckle reasoned. “But he has a long way to go as a baseball player.”108 Drafted by Philadelphia out of San Diego’s Patrick Henry High School in 1995 but lured to the University of Texas on a football scholarship, Williams bounced between the diamond and the gridiron, playing four summers in the Phillies’ farm system while racking up college football awards during the school year.109

The Texas Longhorns’ record-breaking running back did manage to turn a few heads as a part-time outfielder. “Fastest guy I ever laid eyes on,” minor-league teammate Jimmy Rollins would later say.110 But his overall baseball performance was unimpressive.

Ted Berg summarized Williams’s stats in a short profile for USA Today: “Williams batted .211 with very little power across his minor league career, never advancing beyond Class A ball. He struck out 179 times in 568 at-bats. The future NFL star did steal 46 bases in 63 attempts, but never got on base frequently enough to show off his speed on the basepaths.”111

One day after the Expos’ pick, Williams landed with the Texas Rangers, who bought his rights for $100,000. He sat smiling in a Rangers cap, next to manager Johnny Oates, but in the end, the NFL’s pull was too strong. He signed with the New Orleans Saints at the April 1999 draft, and never played a game in the majors.112

LITTLE WHITE PILLS

One additional piece of news appeared in the papers a few days before the meetings began: a report from AP feature writer Steve Wilstein that baseball was beginning an investigation into androstenedione.113

The 1998 season had been supercharged. Pitchers dazzled early: Cubs rookie Kerry Wood struck out 20 in nine innings, tying the mark set twice by Roger Clemens.114 And at Yankee Stadium a jittery David Wells pounded out his perfect outing before 49,820 on Beanie Baby Day.115

But the real jolt came from the hitters. Home runs were flying out of ballparks at a record pace. Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Ken Griffey Jr., and Greg Vaughn were all putting on an electrifying show, chasing Maris’s 61.116 Fans who had been repelled by the 1994-95 players strike returned in droves, the steady launch of red-stitched missiles a thrilling stimulant that hooked them and kept them watching.117

Most everybody tried to ignore the other drug.

Wilstein hadn’t thought much of the brown bottle when he jotted down a list of personal items on the top shelf of McGwire’s locker. But a few weeks later, while reading through his notes, he stopped at the unfamiliar name and made some calls.118

A steroid hormone that converts to testosterone in the body, androstenedione was already classified as an anabolic steroid in Canada and banned from use in the NFL, IOC, and NCAA. Numerous doctors viewed it as a dangerous substance, Wilstein learned.119 Yet in the United States it could be purchased legally as a nonprescription dietary supplement and baseball did not prohibit its use. His article, “Drug OK in Baseball, Not Olympics,” was published on August 21, 1998.120

The implications were devastating, and Wilstein was made into the villain. McGwire had confirmed his usage of the pills to the AP, along with an amino acid powder, Creatine. But after the article ran he accused Wilstein of “snooping.”121 Cardinals manager Tony La Russa attempted to get him banned from the clubhouse, and even fellow reporters turned on him.122

Publicly, Commissioner Selig tried to smooth things over. “I think what Mark McGwire has accomplished is so remarkable, and he has handled it all so beautifully, we want to do everything we can to enjoy a great moment in baseball history,” he stated.123 Quietly, he made some inquiries. Claiming he had not previously known anything about androstenedione, Selig “visited his local pharmacy in Milwaukee where the pharmacist directed him to the bottles of the substance that were openly for sale on the shelves.”124 And he got in touch with Don Catlin, head of the Olympic drug-testing lab at UCLA, who told him that random testing was the only way to clean up the problem.125 Within the week, Selig and Don Fehr of the Players Association issued a request for a scientific study into the usage of nutritional supplements,126 hoping to calm the storm. In the midst of a wildly successful, number-smashing year, the last thing baseball wanted to do was call the integrity of the sport into question, or sully one of its big names.127

Most sportswriters brushed aside the controversy and focused on the feel-good home-run derby, rejoicing each time McGwire or Sammy Sosa belted another. Over 43 million viewers tuned in to a prime-time Fox telecast of the Cubs-Cardinals game on September 8, and erupted in euphoria when McGwire hit his record-breaking 62nd.128 He would finish the season with 70 homers and the clear title, ahead of Sosa, who had 66.129

Treading carefully, baseball began looking into the matter. Robert O. Millman, medical adviser to the commissioner’s office, recommended patience, downplaying the assumption that andro provided a direct boost.130 And he excused McGwire, saying, “I don’t think he was doing anything that was wrong, or that he knew was wrong, or that other people weren’t doing. Mark thought of it as sort of a food supplement. And food supplements that you buy in health-food stores are fair game for anyone to take.”131

Behind the scenes, things weren’t so calm. Rick Helling, then a 27-year-old right-handed pitcher and Texas Rangers player representative, spoke out at the 1998 Players Association meeting, held in Las Vegas a couple of days before the gathering in Nashville.132 “There is this problem with steroids,” he told the executive board bluntly. “It’s happening. It’s real. And it’s so prevalent that guys who aren’t doing it are feeling pressure to do it because they’re falling behind. It’s not a level playing field. We’ve got to figure out a way to address it.”133

Many team physicians and trainers were also aware of the growing drug problem. At the 1997 Winter Meetings in New Orleans, Astros doctor Bill Bryan had given his colleagues a “list of various supplements and substances, safe and unsafe, with advice about which ones players should avoid.” But after voting in favor of passing the information along to their players, they had been stalled by Dr. Millman.134 This year, with a session entitled “New Drug Policy for Major League Baseball” on the schedule, they thought baseball might be taking action.135

Before setting any new policies, baseball officials wanted to know whether ingesting androstenedione tablets did in fact raise testosterone levels.136 At the meetings, doctors and trainers listened to a proposal from two Harvard Medical School researchers, Joel Finkelstein and Benjamin Leder, for a simple experimental study involving 60 male volunteers, two different doses of the drug, and a placebo.137

But then, instead of any further discussion about andro, Millman and Dr. Joel Solomon, medical adviser to the union, proceeded to deliver a high-school-level lecture that seemed to actually promote the benefits of supplementing testosterone while ignoring the documented risk of testicular cancer, heart, and liver disease.138 Angels GM Bill Stoneman recalled feeling shocked that baseball had allowed such a presentation, and said other executives were similarly vexed by the “message of leniency.”139 And when Cleveland Indians physician William Wilder spoke to players union counsel Eugene Orza, suggesting they provide players with a comprehensive list of supplements, Orza discouraged his efforts.140 Wilder was incensed. “There is no reason that some preliminary literature can’t be sent out to the players concerning the known and unknown data about the performance-enhancing substances,” he wrote in a follow-up memo to his GM. “I would like to get something like that out to all players, but when I asked Orza, he said, ‘Wait ’til we have more information.’ That will be never! Orza and the Players Association want to do ‘further study’ … so nothing will be done.”141

Orza, on the other hand, left the meetings in fine spirits, urging open-mindedness. “(T)his is not a time for anyone to be forming firm judgments in such an uncertain area,” he told reporters.142

On the question of random drug-testing, however, it seemed that his mind was already made up. “I can’t imagine the circumstances under which we would do that,” he said.143

MEETINGS WRAP-UP

After all the build-up the meetings had been disappointing, with only eight trades and 10 free-agent signings.144 Instead of the positive publicity owners had hoped for, they got pages of bad press about baseball’s untenable financial imbalance. Writing for the Baltimore Sun, Peter Schmuck skewered baseball’s lack of control over its salaries,145 and Randy Harvey of the Los Angeles Times ridiculed owners for allowing Rupert Murdoch to join their ranks, then cry foul when he acted exactly in keeping with his “multinational, multibillion-dollar media empire.”146 In The Sporting News, Michael Knisley found fault with the system and baseball’s inability to change it. “The game is so fundamentally unfair because its leaders have never figured out a legal way to stop the high rollers from keeping up with the other high rollers, never mind the middle-to-low rollers,” he wrote. “Everybody knows these kinds of contracts are wrong, wrong, wrong — unless everybody can pay them. And nobody knows what to do about the teams that can’t. You had the sense last weekend at the winter meetings in Nashville that even Malone hated himself for what he was doing with Brown’s salary. And he should.”147

But even though the majors’ return had been marred by the same exorbitant contract demands and free agent trouble that had driven them off in 1992, there was no talk of reviving the ban. Baseball America’s Will Lingo was already looking ahead: “It’s probably not necessary, but let me be the last to say that it was great to have the major leaguers back at the Winter Meetings,” he wrote. “It added to every aspect of the meetings, bringing more media interest, more major league executives, more managers and players and more fun. Other than the Brown signing, the major leaguers didn’t make a whole lot of news, but having them there gave the event a better baseball feel. It’s nice to know that almost every significant front-office official in the game was under the same gargantuan roof. It’s in Anaheim next year, Mr. Selig. Make your plans to attend now.”148

 

Acknowledgements

Thanks to: Michael Teevan, VP Communications, Major League Baseball, & Jeff Lantz, Senior Director, Communications, Minor League Baseball, for research assistance; and SABR member Mike Hanks, for so generously digging into his personal Baseball America archive.

 

Notes

1 Murray Chass, “After Deals and Signings, What’s Left for Winter Meeting?” New York Times, December 6, 1998. https://nytimes.com/1998/12/06/sports/baseball-notebook-after-deals-and-signings-what-s-left-for-winter-meeting.html.

2 Larry Stone, “Trades the Talk at Winter Meeting,” Seattle Times, December 11, 1998.

3 John Shea, “GMs Are Back, So Let the Meetings Begin,” SF Gate (sfgate.com), December 6, 1998. https://sfgate.com/sports/article/GMs-are-back-so-let-the-meetings-begin-3316656.php.

4 Jerome Holtzman, “Jackson Makes Pitch for Minority Hiring,” Chicago Tribune, December 8, 1992. https://articles.chicagotribune.com/1992-12-08/sports/9204210874_1_minority-hiring-black-journalists-rev-jesse-jackson.

5 Murray Chass, “Those Tumultuous Winter Meetings Conclude Under a Cloud,” New York Times, December 10, 1992. https://nytimes.com/1992/12/10/sports/baseball-those-tumultuous-winter-meetings-conclude-under-a-cloud.html.

6 Ibid.

7 Larry Stone.

8 Peter Schmuck, “Bonds Signs Deal with Giants-to-be/Lurie Protected in $43 Million Pact,” Baltimore Sun, December 9, 1992. https://articles.baltimoresun.com/1992-12-09/sports/1992344212_1_barry-bonds-bob-lurie-case-bonds.

9 Ibid.

10 Murray Chass, “The Hot Stove League Cools Off,” New York Times, October 31, 1993. https://nytimes.com/1993/10/31/sports/notebook-the-hot-stove-league-cools-off.html.

11 Ronald Blum (Associated Press), “Most GMs to Avoid Winter Meetings,” December 2, 1996.

12 Personal correspondence: email from Michael Teevan, VP, communications, for major-league baseball, August 15, 2016.

13 Hal Bodley, USA Today, November 6, 1998.

14 Keith Russell, “Opryland Hosting Baseball Talks,” Nashville Business Journal, September 20, 1998. https://bizjournals.com/nashville/stories/1998/09/21/story1.html.

15 Associated Press, “Clemens, Brown the Hot Topics at Winter Meetings,” Los Angeles Times, December 12, 1998. articles.latimes.com/1998/dec/12/news/nb-53345; USAToday.com. “The History of Opryland Hotel,” https://traveltips.usatoday.com/history-opryland-hotel-53488.html.

16 Keith Russell.

17 Associated Press, “Clemens, Brown the Hot Topics at Winter Meetings.”

18 Will Lingo, “Minors Must Face Up to Financial Concerns,” Baseball America, January 4-17, 1999: 20.

19 Keith Russell.

20 Lacy Lusk, “Classified Information,” Baseball America, January 4-17, 1999: 18-19.

21 Associated Press, “Clemens, Brown the Hot Topics at Winter Meetings.”

22 John Shea.

23 Murray Chass, “After Deals and Signings, What’s Left for Winter Meeting?”

24 Larry Stone.

25 Ibid.

26 Ibid.

27 Jim Salisbury, “Winter Meetings Return, but Phils Don’t Plan to Deal,” Philadelphia Inquirer, December 11, 1998: D02.

28 Keith Russell.

29 Larry Stone.

30 AP, “Clemens, Brown the Hot Topics at Winter Meetings.”

31 Murray Chass, “After Deals and Signings, What’s Left for Winter Meeting?”

32 “MLB Owners Meetings: Turner in Town to Vote on Dodgers,” Sports Business Daily, March 18, 1998. https://sportsbusinessdaily.com/Daily/Issues/1998/03/18/Leagues-Governing-Bodies/MLB-OWNERS-MEETINGS-TURNER-IN-TOWN-TO-VOTE-ON-DODGERS.aspx.

33 Murray Chass,”Turner Has His Say as Owners Weigh Sale,” New York Times, March 19, 1998. https://nytimes.com/1998/03/19/sports/baseball-turner-has-his-say-as-owners-weigh-sale.html.

34 Tom Cushman, San Diego Union-Tribune, March 17, 1998.

35 Ross Newhan and Michael A. Hiltzik, “Owners Approve Sale of Dodgers to Murdoch,” Los Angeles Times, March 20, 1998. https://articles.latimes.com/1998/mar/20/news/mn-30888.

36 Mike DiGiovanna, “Locals Are One Unit Shy,” Los Angeles Times, December 1, 1998. https://articles.latimes.com/1998/dec/01/sports/sp-49509. Associated Press. “Johnson Signs with Diamondbacks, Belle with Orioles,” Augusta Chronicle, December 1, 1998. https://chronicle.augusta.com/stories/1998/12/01/oth_246225.shtml#.WUh7kdvkeY4.

37 Jason Reid, “Brown Narrows Field to Four,” Los Angeles Times, December 12, 1998. https://articles.latimes.com/1998/dec/12/sports/sp-53248.

38 Jason Diamos, “Brown Becomes the Richest in Baseball,” New York Times, December 13, 1998. https://nytimes.com/1998/12/13/sports/baseball-brown-becomes-the-richest-in-baseball.html.

39 Ibid.

40 Ibid.

41 Michael Knisley, “A $105 Million Headache,” The Sporting News, December 21, 1998: 47.

42 Associated Press, “Brown, LA Set Baseball’s New Magic Number,” Log Cabin Democrat (Conway, Arkansas) December 13, 1998. https://thecabin.net/stories/121398/spo_1213980027.html#.WUh-ztvkeY4.

43 Jason Diamos, “Brown Becomes the Richest in Baseball.”

44 Associated Press, “Brown, LA Set Baseball’s New Magic Number.”

45 Larry Stone, “Memories of Winter Meetings Past,” The Hot Stone League, December 7, 2009.

blogs.seattletimes.com/hotstoneleague/2009/12/07/memories_of_winter_meetings_pa/ & Ross Newhan, “Baseball; … Or Is It? Despite Industry Backlash, There’s No Buyer’s Remorse,” Los Angeles Times, December 13, 1998: D1

46 Michael Knisley.

47 Jason Diamos.

48 Associated Press, “Brown’s Contract Irks the Have-Nots,” Deseret News (Salt Lake City), December 14, 1998. https://deseretnews.com/article/668656/browns-contract-irks-the-have-nots.html.

49 Ibid.

50 Ibid.

51 Ibid.

52 Associated Press, “Brown, LA Set Baseball’s New Magic Number.”

53 Buster Olney, “Tactics in Brown Deal Called Into Question,” New York Times, December 16, 1998. https://nytimes.com/1998/12/16/sports/baseball-tactics-in-brown-deal-called-into-question.html.

54 Ibid.

55 Ibid.

56 Ibid.

57 Buster Olney, “Boras Defends Dealings With Brown,” New York Times, December 18, 1998. https://nytimes.com/1998/12/18/sports/baseball-boras-defends-dealings-with-brown.html.

58 Ibid.

59 Jason Reid, “Brown’s Agent Takes a Swing at the Critics,” Los Angeles Times, December 18, 1998. https://articles.latimes.com/1998/dec/18/sports/sp-55252.

60 CBSNews.com Staff. “Clemens Withdraws Trade Demand,” CBS Sportsline, December 22, 1998. https://cbsnews.com/news/clemens-withdraws-trade-demand/.

61 Murray Chass, “Clemens Demands to Be Traded,” New York Times, December 3, 1998. https://nytimes.com/1998/12/03/sports/baseball-clemens-demands-to-be-traded.html.

62 Ibid.

63 Ibid.

64 Buster Olney, “Owners to Start Meetings as Clemens Saga Winds On,” New York Times, December 11, 1998. https://nytimes.com/1998/12/11/sports/baseball-owners-to-start-meetings-as-clemens-saga-winds-on.html.

65 Ibid.

66 Associated Press, “Clemens, Brown the Hot Topics at Winter Meetings.”

67 Bob Hille, “Trade Deficit,” The Sporting News, December 28, 1998: 54-55.

68 Buster Olney, “Astros Won’t Meet Clemens’s Pay Demand,” New York Times, December 14, 1998. https://nytimes.com/1998/12/14/sports/baseball-astros-won-t-meet-clemens-s-pay-demand.html.

69 Ibid.

70 Ibid.

71 Ibid.

72 Ibid.

73 Ibid.

74 “Mets Drop Bid for Clemens,” New York Times, December 17, 1998. https://nytimes.com/1998/12/17/sports/mets-drop-bid-for-clemens.html.

75 Jason Diamos, “Jays’ Manager Is Hounded by War Tales,” New York Times, December 15, 1998. https://nytimes.com/1998/12/15/sports/baseball-jays-manager-is-hounded-by-war-tales.html.

76 Personal correspondence: email from Michael Teevan, VP, communications for Major-League Baseball, August 15, 2016, and February 16, 2017; selected news releases from Major League Baseball — Office of the Commissioner, November 30, 1995-August 26, 1997.

77 Jason Diamos, “Jays’ Manager Is Hounded by War Tales.”

78 Ibid.

79 Wright Thompson, “Ex-Toronto Manager Pays for Living a Lie,” Chicago Tribune, August 4, 2003. https://articles.chicagotribune.com/2003-08-04/sports/0308040180_1_new-friends-pool-hall-tim-johnson.

80 Jason Diamos.

81 Bob Hille.

82 Ibid.

83 Frank Litsky, “Clemens Withdraws Demand for Trade,” New York Times, December 23, 1998. https://nytimes.com/1998/12/23/sports/baseball-clemens-withdraws-demand-for-trade.html.

84 Ibid.

85 Bob Hille.

86 Frank Litsky.

87 Ibid.

88 Murray Chass, “Baseball to Fine Beeston Over Clemens’s Contract,” New York Times, December 25, 1998. https://nytimes.com/1998/12/25/sports/baseball-baseball-to-fine-beeston-over-clemens-s-contract.html.

89 Ibid.

90 Buster Olney, “Yankees Subtract a Star but Add a Legend,” New York Times, February 19, 1999. https://nytimes.com/1999/02/19/sports/baseball-yankees-subtract-a-star-but-add-a-legend.html.

91 Ibid.

92 Peter Botte and Dave Goldiner, “Bye, Boomer and Hi, Rocket — Yankees Give Up Wells for Clemens,” New York Daily News, February 19, 1999. https://nydailynews.com/archives/news/bye-boomer-rocket-yankees-give-wells-clemens-article-1.831130.

93 Frank Litsky,”For Wells, a New Holiday Uniform,” New York Times, December 18, 1998. https://nytimes.com/1998/12/18/sports/baseball-for-wells-a-new-holiday-uniform.html.

94 Peter Botte and Dave Goldiner.

95 “Yankees Trade Wells for Clemens,” Chicago Tribune, February 18, 1999. https://articles.chicagotribune.com/1999-02-18/news/9902190037_1.

96 Buster Olney, “Yankees Subtract a Star but Add a Legend.”

97 Ibid.

98 Will Lingo, “Minors Must Face Up to Financial Concerns,” Baseball America, January 4-17, 1999: 20.

99 Ibid.

100 Lacy Lusk, “PCL, SL Dominate Business in Minors,” Baseball America, January 4-17, 1999: 22-23.

101 Dave Cunningham, “Rays Might Move to Tallahassee,” Orlando Sentinel, March 14, 1998. https://articles.orlandosentinel.com/1998-03-14/sports/9803150508_1_orlando-rays-tampa-bay-devil-devil-rays.

102 Lacy Lusk, “PCL, SL Dominate Business in Minors,” Baseball America, January 4-17, 1999: 22.

103 Ibid.

104 https://raysbb.com/rbb/Orlando_Rays.

105 Ibid.

106 https://raysbb.com/rbb/St._Petersburg_Devil_Rays.

107 Allan Simpson, “1998 Heisman Winner Highlights Rule 5 Draft,” Baseball America, January 4-17, 1999: 24.

108 Ibid.

109 Ted Berg, “Remembering Ricky Williams’ Short-lived Baseball Career,” For the Win, USA Today, July 19, 2013. ftw.usatoday.com/2013/07/remembering-ricky-williams-short-lived-baseball-career; https://baseball-reference.com/bullpen/Ricky_Williams.

110 Ibid.

111 Ibid.

112 Ibid.

113 Steve Wilstein, “Andro Poses Health, Ethical Issues for Baseball,” Southcoast Today, December 9, 1998. https://southcoasttoday.com/article/19981209/news/312099937.

114 Mike Lupica, Summer of ’98: When Homers Flew, Records Fell, and Baseball Reclaimed America (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1999), 42-43.

115 Mike Lupica, 47-51.

116 Joe Torre and Tom Verducci, “The Man Who Warned Baseball about Steroids,” Time, February 23, 2009. (Excerpted from The Yankee Years, by Joe Torre and Tom Verducci. (Doubleday, 2009). https://content.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,1881350,00.html.

117 Ibid.

118 ESPN The Magazine: Special Report “Who Knew?” Part III, 1998-2001 Cause and Effect: The Writer. https://espn.com/espn/eticket/story?page=steroids&num=8.

119 Steve Wilstein, “Drug OK in Baseball, Not Olympics,” AP News Archive, August 21, 1998. https://apnewsarchive.com/1998/Drug-OK-in-Baseball-Not-Olympics/id-87e8d2a7928c8de874fdc3f43b53a33a.

120 Ibid.

121 ESPN The Magazine: Special Report “Who Knew?” Part III, 1998-2001 Cause and Effect: The Writer. https://espn.com/espn/eticket/story?page=steroids&num=8.

122 Mike Bianchi, “Whistle-Blower Finally Receives His Just Reward,” Orlando Sentinel, December 27, 2004. https://articles.orlandosentinel.com/2004-12-27/sports/0412270014_1_steroids-in-baseball-mcgwire-locker.

123 ESPN The Magazine: Special Report “Who Knew?” Part III, 1998-2001 Cause and Effect: The Writer. https://espn.com/espn/eticket/story?page=steroids&num=8.

124 George J. Mitchell “Report to the Commissioner of Baseball of an Independent Investigation into the Illegal Use of Steroids and Other Performance Enhancing Substances by Players in Major League Baseball,” DLA Piper US LLP, December 13, 2007: 79.

125 ESPN The Magazine: Special Report “Who Knew?” Part III, 1998-2001 Cause and Effect: The Writer. https://espn.com/espn/eticket/story?page=steroids&num=8.

126 Mitchell: 79.

127 Steve Wilstein, “Andro Poses Health, Ethical Issues for Baseball.”

128 Joe Torre and Tom Verducci, “The Man Who Warned Baseball about Steroids,” Time, February 23, 2009. https://content.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,1881350,00.html.

129 Griffey finished with 56, Vaughn with 50, and nine other players hit 40 or more homers.

130 Steve Wilstein, “Andro Poses Health, Ethical Issues for Baseball.”

131 Ibid.

132 Joe Torre and Tom Verducci, “The Man Who Warned Baseball about Steroids,” Time, February 23, 2009.

133 Ibid.

134 ESPN The Magazine: Special Report “Who Knew?” Part III, 1998-2001 Cause and Effect: The Doctor. https://espn.com/espn/eticket/story?page=steroids&num=9.

135 Ibid.

136 Steve Wilstein, “Andro Poses Health, Ethical Issues for Baseball.”

137 Ibid.; Associated Press, “Researchers Will Study Andro Effects,” Deseret News, December 13, 1998. https://deseretnews.com/article/668554/Researchers-will-study-andro-effects.html.

The study, funded by an unrestricted grant from Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association, was published in February 2000, and concluded that in daily doses of 300 mg, oral androstenedione did increase testosterone levels in healthy men. Benjamin Z. Leder, Joel S. Finkelstein, et al. “Oral Androstenedione Administration and Serum Testosterone Concentrations in Young Men,” Journal of the American Medical Association, February 9, 2000 — Vol 283, No.6: 779-782.

138 ESPN The Magazine: Special Report “Who Knew?” Part III, 1998-2001 Cause and Effect: The Doctor. espn.com/espn/eticket/story?page=steroids&num=9.;Mitchell: 80.

139 Mitchell: 81.

140 Ibid.

141 ESPN The Magazine: Special Report “Who Knew?” Part III, 1998-2001 Cause and Effect: The Doctor espn.com/espn/eticket/story?page=steroids&num=9.

142 Associated Press. “Researchers Will Study Andro Effects,” Deseret News, December 13, 1998. https://deseretnews.com/article/668554/Researchers-will-study-andro-effects.html.

143 Steve Wilstein, “Andro Poses Health, Ethical Issues for Baseball.”

144 Bob Hille.

145 Peter Schmuck, “Baseball Burned at Hot Stove Fete. Brown, Clemens Focus Gives Winter Meetings High-Priced Black Eye,” Baltimore Sun, December 16, 1998. https://articles.baltimoresun.com/1998-12-16/sports/1998350005_1_barry-larkin-pitcher-roger-clemens-kevin-brown.

146 Randy Harvey, “So You Thought Murdoch Would Limit Spending?” Los Angeles Times, December 15, 1998: Part D, The Inside Track, Page 2. https://articles.latimes.com/1998/dec/15/sports/sp-54332.

147 Michael Knisley.

148 Will Lingo.

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