This article was written by Steve West
This article was published in the
Introduction and context
The 1988 Winter Meetings were held at the Marriott Marquis Hotel in Atlanta, Georgia, from Sunday, December 4, until Wednesday, December 7. These meetings came at the tail end of the collusion cases, as teams were beginning to open their wallets and spend money again, and a lot of teams were looking at both free agents and trades to get better quickly. The stars of the meetings were both the free agents and the Texas Rangers. Any one of the deals the Rangers made would have been big news, but they made two huge trades, and added a free agent signing, that would redefine the franchise for years to come.
Heading into the meetings, it was becoming apparent that the collusion between owners of the previous few years was breaking apart. In 1985 the owners had met with Commissioner Peter Ueberroth, who had told them not to sign other teams’ free agents, because doing so was a waste of money. They held the line during both 1986 and 1987, but an arbitrator had ruled against them in September of 1987 and again in August of 1988, and would do so again the following year.
So now, at the end of 1988, teams were starting to spend money on free agents again. More free agents had signed between the end of the season and the start of the Winter Meetings than had done so in the past couple of years, but there were still several high-profile players waiting for their turn in Atlanta. In addition, several trades were already in discussion, most notably the possibility of the Dodgers acquiring Eddie Murray from the Orioles, and with face-to-face talks, it was hoped that some of those would be resolved in Atlanta.
Before the meetings had even begun, several free agents had signed new contracts. Notably, the A’s had signed one of their own free agents, outfielder Dave Henderson, to a three-year deal, and got right-handed pitcher Mike Moore, a free agent from the Mariners, to sign for three years and almost $4 million. The A’s then said they were done signing players, and were thankful they hadn’t let Moore get to the Winter Meetings, as he would have cost a lot more once the bidding wars began.
Other free-agent deals were happening quickly as the meetings approached. Dodgers second baseman Steve Sax signed with the Yankees for $4 million the week before the meetings began. Infielder Ron Oester re-signed with the Reds, while much-traveled lefthander Dave LaPoint, who had pitched for both the White Sox and Pirates in 1988, chose to move to the Yankees in the run-up to the meetings. Each of these moves took a job from someone and opened another spot somewhere else. Willie Upshaw, for instance, decided to go play in Japan, which opened up first base for the Indians, another hole for them to fill.
With some big free agents still available – the top of the class being Houston right-handed pitcher Nolan Ryan and Boston left-hander Bruce Hurst – there was talk about the possibilities of trades happening during the meetings. The news centered on Orioles first baseman Eddie Murray, who had expressed discontent with the poor performance of the team, and wanted out. Trade talks with the Dodgers were ongoing and received a lot of attention just before the meetings.
There was, of course, both excitement and skepticism among the front-office personnel. Depending on whom you talked to, the opinion might be that nothing was going to happen in Atlanta, or that a lot might happen. Several GMs talked about the old days, when the Winter Meetings were for wheeling and dealing. Prior to 1985 the interleague trade deadline was at the end of the meetings, putting a lot of pressure on teams to get something done. “In the past, you knew if you couldn’t get something done at the meetings, there might not be another opportunity,” Roland Hemond, the Orioles GM, said.
That rule had been changed, though, and now the pressure was not there to complete a deal so quickly. Teams could get the lay of the land, and then spend weeks or months during the winter working out deals. And with both trades and free agency down, some expected the meetings to be less important, with little happening. “There aren’t as many deals being made. There’s too much at stake. Too many complications, too many contract problems. And, you know, there’s not as much drinking going on,” said former American League President Lee MacPhail.
The flip side was with the ballplayers, and with their own agents. “What you’ll be running into now is agents. You’ll be tripping over them. You won’t be able to get through the lobby without running into one. And if you even say hello to them, they’re liable to use it against you in arbitration,” said an unnamed agent before the meetings.
But some still thought things were going to happen. Angels owner Gene Autry had told Peter Bavasi in November: “I have a lot of money to spend and not a lot of time (to live), and I want a World Series ring.” Autry had then instructed his GM, Mike Port, to sign Ryan and Hurst no matter the cost. With the Rangers and Astros also homing in on Ryan, and several teams interested in Hurst (the Cardinals offered him a three-year, $5.1 million offer the Thursday before the meetings, but withdrew it the next day), there were lots of expectations.
Business and politics
On the business side of baseball, much was happening at the meetings regarding ownership, broadcasting, and hiring. Commissioner Ueberroth gave his annual State of the Game speech on Monday. He stated that baseball had cleaned up the drug problems it had faced in the early 1980s, and talked about the progress that baseball had made in hiring minorities, who now made up 10 percent of front-office personnel (up from 2 percent), but he acknowledged that baseball needed to do more in hiring minority managers, general managers, and other visible positions. “We have room to still be critical and, in some areas, very critical,” he said.
In response, Hank Aaron blasted baseball’s actions. “There are more minorities interviewing, but I don’t see them getting the job. You see Joe Morgan, Bill Robinson, Billy Williams. They’re all qualified and deserve more than an interview,” he said. Aaron said that most of the increase in minorities had been in places like the ticket office, while Bob Watson, new assistant general manager of the Houston Astros, said that minority hires “are mostly window dressing.” Aaron also said that Ueberroth’s words were “the same old bull, just dressed up a little bit.”
After Ueberroth’s speech, the owners met for five hours, considering several different issues. Owners were asked to look again at the sale of the Texas Rangers from Eddie Chiles to Edward Gaylord, a deal they had rejected earlier in the year. Owners were afraid that Gaylord would turn his television company, Gaylord Broadcasting, into another superstation, competing with local stations across the country, which would siphon off both fans and local advertising dollars in their own markets. They decided to table the matter, sending it back to committee for further discussion.
The owners did approve the sale of the Baltimore Orioles. Former owner Edward Bennett Williams had died of cancer in August, and had said that he did not want his family to retain ownership of the team. His widow, Agnes, sold the team to a group led by team President Larry Lucchino and New York financier Eli Jacobs, along with former vice presidential candidate Sargent Shriver and Robert Shriver Jr., for $70 million.
Owners did not formally discuss the possibility of major-league expansion, but several cities were on hand for informal presentations. “Expansion. Very simply, it must come, and it must be planned and planned well,” said Commissioner Ueberroth. He expected that baseball would be expanding in the 1990s, and representatives from Washington, Denver, Florida, and Buffalo presented their cases to ownership. On the other hand, Commissioner-elect Bart Giamatti said “we’re very, very far away from (picking) cities.”
The owners had elected Giamatti, the National League president, as the next commissioner in September, and he was due to take office in April, at the start of the new season. The NL met to consider candidates to replace Giamatti, but decided to continue their search and wait until January to decide. “While the annual meeting was a goal, it was never a deadline,” said Walter O’Malley, Los Angeles Dodgers owner and head of the search committee. “The committee is being as deliberative as possible so as to make sure it chooses the right person for the position.” The committee finally chose former major leaguer Bill White in February. White became the first African American to head a major professional sports league. After his earlier criticism of baseball’s minority hiring practices, Hank Aaron was pleased at the appointment of White. “I don’t think they could have found anyone more qualified than Bill White. He knows baseball,” Aaron said.
One other consideration for owners was a new national television contract. The six-year deal with ABC and NBC was due to expire after the 1989 season, and there was great interest in getting a new agreement done. Although the contract was not completed during the meetings, Ueberroth said he thought it would be accomplished within a week, and it was – on December 14, MLB signed a four-year deal with CBS, which beat out the other networks in a bidding war. The contract, valued at $1.8 billion, was significantly higher than expected, and CBS would end up losing half a billion dollars on the deal. In January baseball completed an additional four-year, $400 million deal with ESPN.
Another announcement was made during the meetings. “The New York Yankees became the first major-league baseball team to sell all of its television rights to a cable network Friday when they announced a 12-year deal with the Madison Square Garden Network. The MSG Network will show 75 games in each of the 1989 and 1990 seasons. WPIX-TV, which has carried Yankees games for 38 years, will broadcast 75 games each of those two years under an existing contract. Beginning in 1991 and through the 2000 season, MSG has exclusive rights to 150 games a season. The value of the package was not announced, but a source familiar with the deal said it was worth about $500 million.”
During the meetings several awards were handed out. The Sporting News named Orel Hershiser, the Dodgers’ star right-hander, the Major League Player of the Year, holding a news conference to honor the player, who had gone 23-8 and was named MVP of both the NLCS and World Series. Hershiser also was awarded his first Gold Glove, joining players like Pirates outfielder Andy Van Slyke, Padres catcher Benito Santiago, Mariners second baseman Harold Reynolds, and Angels outfielder Devon White as Gold Glove rookies, while Mets first baseman Keith Hernandez won his 11th. TSN also named Fred Claire, the VP of player personnel for the Dodgers, as their executive of the year.
Bob Hunter of the Los Angeles Herald Examiner and Ray Kelly of the Philadelphia Bulletin were selected as co-recipients of the J.G. Taylor Spink award by the Baseball Writers Association of America.
On Sunday the meetings got off to a bang with the completion of the trade of Eddie Murray from the Orioles to the Dodgers. Murray had reportedly wanted out of Baltimore for years because he desired to play on a winning team and didn’t feel the Orioles were going to get there anytime soon. The two teams had been talking for weeks about the trade, and the Orioles finally accepted shortstop Juan Bell and right-handed pitchers Brian Holton and Ken Howell in return for Murray. In addition, Murray got a new contract with the Dodgers, signing for $6.5 million over three years, along with 20 annual installments of $135,000, beginning in 1992. Ironically the deal was held up a bit at the end: Officials from both clubs were trapped in an elevator on their way to the press conference announcing the deal.
Everybody seemed happy about the trade. “I thought this was going to happen three years ago. It got to the point where I thought I was never coming here,” said Murray. Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda was more prophetic: “It’s exciting to get a player we feel will one day be in the Hall of Fame to be on our ballclub,” he said. (Murray was inducted into the Hall in 2003).
The Orioles were looking to the future. “This was a very important trade in the reconstruction of the Orioles. We got three talented young players,” said Orioles GM Roland Hemond. The acquisition of Bell meant that shortstop Cal Ripken could move to third base. “Whatever I can do for the team, I’ll do,” said Ripken. “We’ve never had a shortstop like this come to camp since I’ve been here. So there’s a better chance of (a move to third) happening now than in the past.”
The Reds on Sunday announced that they had signed right-handed pitcher Rick Mahler to a two-year, $1,580,000 contract, adding him to a rotation (southpaws Tom Browning and Danny Jackson, and right-hander Jose Rijo) that the Reds felt had the potential to be dominant in the coming season. And the Phillies called a press conference late in the day to announce the resigning of Mike Schmidt to a one-year contract. At the appointed hour, however, Phillies President Bill Giles said there was nothing to announce, that both sides still had contract language to work out, and they were going to think about it overnight.
At the owners meeting on Monday, Commissioner Ueberroth gave his annual State of the Game speech, but the news was dominated by the Texas Rangers. Early in the day they traded outfielder Bob Brower to the Yankees for infielder Bob Meacham, but that was just helping to set up a much bigger deal. Later in the day the Rangers completed a nine-player swap with the Chicago Cubs, the most players in one deal since the Rangers’ 1980 trade with Seattle uprooted 11 players. The Cubs sent left-handers Drew Hall and Jamie Moyer and first baseman-outfielder Rafael Palmeiro to the Rangers for minor-league infielder Luis Benitez, minor-league outfielder Pablo Delgado, infielder Curt Wilkerson, and three left-handed pitchers, Paul Kilgus, Mitch Williams, and Steve Wilson. Although most of the players had at least some major-league experience, as a whole the trade was characterized as Palmeiro for Williams. Palmeiro had finished second for the National League batting title in 1988, and was looked upon as a future star. “We were looking for an offensive player, and we felt like we got our cake and can eat it, too,” said Grieve. On the other side of the deal, the Cubs felt they were looking at their future closer. “Everybody in baseball knows Mitch Williams has one of the best arms in baseball,” said Cubs GM Jim Frey.
The trade was a good matchup for the Rangers, who needed offensive help. They got 24-year-old All-Star Palmeiro, who had hit .307 with 41 doubles and 8 home runs. For his part, Palmeiro was disappointed. “I never expected this, not this early in my career, especially coming off a good year,” he said. “I really thought it wouldn’t happen this year. I thought maybe two, three, or four years down the road, but things happen and I just have to go on.” Jamie Moyer, who had gone 9-15 with a 3.48 ERA for the Cubs, was equally mystified. “I was very surprised. I hadn’t heard any rumors. I hadn’t heard anything. I look at it as a good opportunity. I couldn’t say what Texas’s record is, but they’ve got a good young team, some power and good pitching,” he said.
Monday also contained a lot of chatter around Bruce Hurst. With several teams involved, it was starting to look less like a money issue. Boston GM Lou Gorman said that the Hurst situation would probably take a few days to resolve, because “His family wants to go to San Diego but he’d prefer to return to Boston.”
Monday also featured the Rule 5 draft, in which teams could select players from other teams’ minor-league rosters. A dozen players were taken, with outfielder Geronimo Berroa and utilityman Rich Amaral being the most notable names. The Toronto Blue Jays lost three players during the draft, suggesting that they had a strong farm system and should be improving over the next few years.
Having acquired a new first baseman in Palmeiro on Monday, the Rangers made another blockbuster trade on Tuesday, sending their incumbent first baseman, Pete O’Brien, utilityman Jerry Browne, and outfielder Oddibe McDowell to the Indians for second baseman Julio Franco, the leading hitter among all second basemen in 1988. In two trades the Rangers had upgraded the right side of their infield and remade the heart of their batting order. For their part, the Indians felt they were giving up quality but getting multiple good parts back. “You can’t make a trade and improve yourself without giving something up,” said Indians GM Hank Peters.
The Phillies traded All-Star right-hander Kevin Gross to Montreal for two other righties, Floyd Youmans and Jeff Parrett, and an agreement that they would not reclaim left-hander Jeff Tabaka, who had been drafted by the Phillies from the Expos in Monday’s Rule 5 draft. Having also traded left-hander Shane Rawley in October, the Phillies had now given up two of their better starters. They had, however, finished last in the NL East with their 65-96 mark (10½ games out of fifth place), and new GM Lee Thomas felt they needed to gamble given their position.
The trade for Youmans was risky, given his drug history. Thomas said he believed Youmans to be clean now, even though he had been suspended for 60 days during the season for drug abuse. Thomas acknowledged the perception of a problem. “We think we’re making a gamble here, but we think it will work out,” he said. (It didn’t. Youmans won just one game in a Phillies uniform, was released in late June, and pitched just a handful of games in the minor leagues after that.)
The minor-league draft was held on Tuesday. Thirteen players were selected, nine of them pitchers. One of the oddities was the first pick, right-hander Ben Rivera, by the Braves, who selected him from their own team. They had left him unprotected due to a clerical error, and wanted to make sure they kept him. The other players selected were the usual group of players who might or might not ever make a major-league lineup, but teams paid $50,000 each for the opportunity to give them a chance.
The major-league managers luncheon was held on Tuesday, giving skippers the opportunity to get together to discuss various issues in the game. After the lunch, Pete Rose talked up the Reds, and especially his first baseman, Nick Esasky, who had been the subject of a number of rumors. “I understand he says he lost his confidence here and would rather play elsewhere,” Rose said. There continued to be rumors about Esasky throughout the meetings, and sure enough he was traded to the Boston Red Sox a few days after the meetings ended.
The Twins and Yankees had been talking about a trade for Dave Winfield, but the Yankees rejected the Twins’ offer and, when they tried to make it something completely different, the Twins took exception. Twins GM Andy MacPhail said the possibility of his team’s acquiring Winfield “was as close to being dead as it could be.”
Wednesday proved to be the third consecutive day in which the Rangers took the headlines. This time it was the signing of free agent Nolan Ryan to a one-year deal, plus a one-year option, with $2 million guaranteed and various bonuses potentially taking the deal over $3 million.
The Astros had made Ryan an initial offer to return, but when they said they would not budge from that offer they were quickly outbid. The Giants also had some early involvement, but the final decision for Ryan came down to the Rangers and the Angels. Both offers were for similar dollars, and Ryan finally decided to stay in his native Texas. “I am a diehard Texan. It didn’t come down to a monetary decision. The overriding fact was what I felt was best for me and my family,” Ryan said.
Wednesday at midnight was the deadline for teams to either re-sign their free agents or offer them arbitration, otherwise the teams would not be able to negotiate with the players until May 1. This meant that several players returned to their teams, among them right-handed hurlers Scott Sanderson (Cubs), Greg Harris (Phillies), and Ted Power (Tigers). The biggest name re-signing was Mike Schmidt, who returned to the Phillies on a one-year deal which had a base of $500,000, and incentives that could take it over $2 million. Schmidt, a three-time National League MVP, had had surgery in September for a torn rotator cuff, so the incentives included milestone payments on May 15 and August 15 if he was still on the roster; he reached the first date but not the second, as his Hall of Fame career concluded at the end of May.
Also on Wednesday, having decided that Gregg Jefferies was ready for the major leagues, the Mets traded their starting second baseman, Wally Backman, along with minor-league left-hander Mike Santiago, to the Minnesota Twins for three minor-league right-handed pitchers, Jeff Bumgarner, Steve Gasser, and Toby Nivens.
Although the meetings officially ended on Wednesday, a number of teams stayed in Atlanta for a few extra days, working to complete free-agent signings or continuing with trade discussions. The rumor mill was at full blast. The Braves were reported to be trying to trade All-Star outfielder Dale Murphy, with the Mets and Padres supposedly the prime suitors, but the Braves had a steep asking price. Another buzz had the Mets trying to get outfielder Joe Carter from Cleveland, while the Red Sox were purportedly looking to send third baseman Wade Boggs and infielder Spike Owen to Montreal, getting third baseman Tim Wallach and infielder-outfielder Hubie Brooks in return. A deal between Boston and Montreal was completed on Thursday, but of the players listed, only Owen was actually included, which perhaps tells us how fluid trades can be.
Other teams coming away disappointed were the Indians and Pirates, who both came to the meetings hoping to get a shortstop. The Cubs’ Shawon Dunston was the top target, but his price was too high. The Pirates wanted Jeff Blauser or Andres Thomas from the Braves, but Atlanta wanted Barry Bonds in any deal and the Pirates refused to include him. Prior to the meetings, Pirates manager Jim Leyland said the team needed to go to Atlanta with “open ears rather than open mouths,” but it became clear afterward that the opposite had happened. Both Leyland and GM Larry Doughty disparaged their existing shortstops – Rafael Belliard, Felix Fermin, and Al Pedrique – who had combined for just 17 RBIs during the season. Pedrique had been released in November, and both Leyland and Doughty had made it clear they were looking for someone else, which is why the asking price from teams like the Cubs and Braves was so high.
The last available big-name free agent was Bruce Hurst, who had several teams trying to sign him, including the Angels, Padres, and his previous team, the Red Sox. Once Ryan was off the list, Hurst essentially had his pick of teams, and even though the Angels were willing to pay the moon, it came down to the Red Sox and Padres. Although the Red Sox were confident he would return, Hurst finally came to terms with the Padres for a three-year, $5.25 million contract. He cited both the presence of family in San Diego, who were lobbying for him to come, and proximity to his home in Utah as deciding factors.
As the meetings came to an end, two things had become apparent: major-league owners, enriched by television dollars, had returned to their free-spending ways; and some teams had come to Atlanta with a plan in mind. The Texas Rangers’ top brass, for instance, had met before the meetings and decided that their internal plan was working and they were ready to take the next step to acquire top talent. “Our goal was to come here and make some changes to make an effort to be a contender,” said GM Tom Grieve. They had done that in spades, remaking both their offense (Palmeiro and Franco) and their pitching staff (Ryan and Moyer). Grieve emphasized that this was part of the team’s ongoing design to get better. “We were able to keep within the plan. There was pressure not to. There’s been times when things have not worked out the last few years and we’ve been tempted to change for the sake of change, but we haven’t. This year, we were ready for the next step,” he said.
Other teams were not quite as prepared as the Rangers. As always, too many teams were blowing things up just to look as though they were doing something, or making deals just because they presented themselves, not because they were something the team really needed. There was plenty of pressure to perform, to do something for the local fans to be excited about. Larry Doughty, the new GM of the Pirates, was asked in the first couple of days of the meetings if he was having fun, and replied that “I’d rather have it all done and be watching spring training.”
Later in the meetings he was asked again about how things were going, and he responded with something that many GMs might have said: “I’m not even sure if the meetings have any value anymore. You can make rule changes through the mail and you can make trades over the telephone. The only advantage to coming here and negotiating is you do it face to face, and sometimes you can tell by body language or facial expression whether you’ve struck a nerve or hit a pulse.”
 Esasky and left-hander Rob Murphy went to Boston on December 13 in exchange for first baseman-outfielder Todd Benzinger, right-hander Jeff Sellers, and a player to be named, who a month later proved to be minor-league right-hander Luis Vasquez.