2001 Winter Meetings: All Quiet on the Charles

This article was written by Clayton Trutor

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


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

Introduction and Context

The 2001 Winter Meetings were held in Boston at the Marriott Copley Place Hotel from Sunday, December 9, to Friday. December 14. This was the second time the city had played host to the meetings, the first time being just five years earlier, in 1996. Commissioner Bud Selig’s announcement, made soon after the World Series, that two teams would be dropped from the major leagues (reportedly the Montreal Expos and Minnesota Twins) hung ominously over the Winter Meetings.

Representatives of the owners and the players union agreed to postpone further discussion on the time-frame of contraction at the Boston meetings. Owners discussed a new revenue-sharing plan, but action on the issue was pushed back. Similarly, the Major League Baseball Players Association and the club owners put off more concrete discussions of a new labor pact until later in the offseason. Except for perennial big spenders like the New York Yankees and the New York Mets, player movement, either through trades or free agency, lagged at these meetings when compared to the outpouring of spending at the 2000 Winter Meetings in Dallas.

Player Movement

Caution characterized the trade and free-agent markets at the 2001 Winter Meetings. The vast majority of marquee free agents remained available at the end of the week, including Barry Bonds, Chan Ho Park, Moises Alou, Juan Gonzalez, Jason Schmidt, Johnny Damon, and Tino Martinez.1 Each of them, however, signed a lucrative deal either with their old club or a new club by the middle of January. Whether the reluctance to sign big-name free agents was a product of the economic downturn, the belief by some owners that a dispersal draft was imminent, or, as the union and some prominent player agents suggested, “collusion” on the part of big-league clubs to keep prices down, the six free-agent signings announced at the 2001 Winter Meetings totaled a mere $60 million in salaries. This total differed considerably from the record-breaking $739 million spent on 25 players, including the jaw-dropping Alex Rodriguez and Mike Hampton deals, at the 2000 meetings in Dallas.2

The most lucrative free-agent signing negotiated in Boston was the seven-year, $120 million deal the New York Yankees made with Oakland A’s slugger Jason Giambi. Giambi and the Yankees finalized the contract over the weekend after the Winter Meetings and announced the move the following week. The Giambi signing came on the heels of the Yankees’ inking former Cleveland set-up man Steve Karsay to a four-year, $22.5 million deal in Boston.

Other noteworthy free agent signings included those of veteran reliever Norm Charlton, returning to Seattle for 2002, emerging closer Keith Foulke, signing a two-year contract with the White Sox, and pitcher Jay Powell signing for one year with the Texas Rangers. The St. Louis Cardinals signed Oakland’s standout closer Jason Isringhausen to a four-year, $27 million contract. The reigning AL West champion Athletics responded by swapping third baseman Eric Hinske, who would win the 2002 AL Rookie of the Year award, and pitcher Justin Miller to Toronto for closer Billy Koch.3

The New York Mets proved to be the busiest team on the trade market in Boston, as GM Steve Phillips moved to rebuild the club for another World Series run after a disappointing 2001 season. On the opening day of the Winter Meetings, the Yankees and Mets announced their first trade in eight years. The teams swapped former perennial All-Stars, with the Mets sending third baseman Robin Ventura to the Yankees for outfielder David Justice. Both players had struggled through injury-shortened 2001 seasons. Justice’s tenure with the Mets was predictably short-lived, since he was now more of a designated hitter than a position player — Phillips shipped him to the A’s for veteran reliever Mark Guthrie and pitching prospect Tyler Yates on the final day of the Winter Meetings.4

The Mets also sought to improve their pitching staff by acquiring left-hander Shawn Estes from the Giants for outfielder Tsuyoshi Shinjo and middle infielder Desi Relaford. However, the Mets’ blockbuster move at the Winter Meetings was an eight-man deal that brought in future Hall of Famer Roberto Alomar, along with two prospects, left-hander Michael Bacsik and slugging first baseman-outfielder Danny Peoples, from the Cleveland Indians in exchange for outfielders Alex Escobar and Matt Lawton, right-hander Jerrod Riggan, and two players to be named later, who turned out to be infielder Earl Snyder and lefty pitcher Billy Traber.5

Other significant trades at the 2001 Winter Meetings included the Yankees’ acquisition of first baseman-outfielder John Vander Wal from the San Francisco Giants for pitcher Jay Witasick. The Colorado Rockies, one year removed from their eight-year, $123.8 million signing of pitcher Mike Hampton, found themselves looking to sell off expensive assets in Boston. They traded two-time All-Star third baseman Jeff Cirillo and his $30 million contract to the Seattle Mariners for three pitchers — lefty Brian Fuentes and right-handers Denny Stark, and Jose Paniagua.6

The Business Side

Major League Baseball faced three major business concerns coming into the Winter Meetings: 1) the proposed contraction of two major-league teams, which press reports indicated were most likely to be the Montreal Expos and Minnesota Twins; 2) the need for the owners and the players union to agree to a new collective-bargaining contract by August 31, 2002, in order to avoid a repeat of the 1994-1995 strike, which had wiped out the 1994 World Series; and 3) the requirement that Major League Baseball implement the recommendations of the Commissioner’s Blue Ribbon Panel, which in 2000 declared that revenue-sharing was necessary to ensure the competitive balance of the sport. The revenue-sharing plan had to be approved by the players as part of the coming labor pact. Baseball’s leadership tabled concrete action on all three of these issues in Boston, preferring instead to deal with them at a later date.7

On November 6, two days after Game Seven of the World Series, Commissioner Selig announced that the owners had voted 28 to 2 at their quarterly meeting in Chicago to eliminate two teams, one from each league, to improve competitive balance. Press reports pointed to the Minnesota Twins and Montreal Expos (or possibly the Florida Marlins) as the most likely candidates to face elimination. Reaction to the announcement proved swift. The players union filed a grievance, arguing that contraction violated their soon-to-be-expiring contract.

Legal challenges to contraction from the states of Florida and Minnesota provided additional roadblocks to eliminating two franchises. Threats of an end to baseball’s federal antitrust exemption emanated from the halls of Congress. Senator Paul Wellstone (D-Minnesota) led the charge to end baseball’s long-standing exemption and to protect his hometown Twins. Commissioner Selig testified before the House Judiciary Committee in late November, at hearings held to examine the antitrust exemption, and claimed that major-league teams lost nearly $500 million in 2001, with 25 of the sport’s 30 teams losing money. Contraction, Selig argued, was the only way baseball could improve competition on the field and avoid further financial hardship for its franchises.8

Representatives from all 30 teams, therefore, went to Boston not knowing if contraction would be finalized at the meetings. If contraction became a reality, owners also had to consider the possibility that a dispersal draft of players from the two eliminated teams might be held at the Winter Meetings. Speculation about a wild week in Boston was quickly neutralized after representatives of the owners and the Players Association agreed to postpone contraction until at least 2003.

The agreement, which was hashed out in a meeting led by Sandy Alderson, executive vice president of Major League Baseball, and Gene Orza, assistant general counsel for the union, took contraction off the table as the two sides inched toward serious discussions of a new collective-bargaining agreement, a process that dragged out until a last-minute, season-saving accord was reached on August 30, 2002. Talk of contraction pushed back serious discussions on other major areas of difference between the players and the owners, including revenue-sharing and the extent of the luxury tax assessed to wealthy franchises. Preliminary talks on both issues were held in Boston, though a consensus on how to deal with them was not reached.9

Summary

The 2001 Winter Meetings in Boston lacked the drama many observers had been anticipating. Few major trades or free-agent signings took place. Tangible discussion of league business, including contraction and the new collective-bargaining agreement, were put off for a later date.

 

Notes

1 Jack Curry, “At the Winter Meetings, Wheeling, Dealing Will Be High on the Agenda,” New York Times, December 9, 2001: SP2; Thomas Stinson, “Baseball: Baseball Notebook,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, December 16, 2001: 9D; Tracy Ringolsby, “A Winter of Waiting May Thaw Next Week,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 8, 2001: C2.

2 “Baseball,” New York Times, December 16, 2001: SP13; Mike Klis, “Players take Center Stage, Trades Focus of Meetings,” Denver Post, December 9, 2001: SP3.

3 Buster Olney, “Knoblauch May Play at Second for Royals,” New York Times, December 12, 2001: S5; Ringolsby; Klis; Stinson.

4 Klis; Olney.

5 Olney; Stinson.

6 Klis.

7 Jack Curry, “Talks on Contraction Focus on Postponement,” New York Times, December 11, 2001: S5; Ringolsby.

8 Ringolsby; Klis; Curry, “Talks on Contraction.”

9 Ringolsby; Klis; Curry, “Talks on Contraction.”

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