This article was written by Tim Rask
This article was published in Baseball’s Business: The Winter Meetings: 1958-2016
Major-league baseball was coming off a momentous season in 1991. Both the National and American League pennant winners (the Atlanta Braves and Minnesota Twins, respectively) had finished in last place in their division in 1990 before roaring back to life in 1991. The season culminated with a thrilling World Series, during which five of the seven games were decided by one run. Three of the games required extra innings, including a classic Game Seven in which the Twins triumphed, 1-0, behind the brilliant pitching of a hometown hero, right-hander Jack Morris.1
In off-the-field news, the National League had announced in June of 1991 that Denver and Miami had been awarded expansion franchises, with the Colorado Rockies and Florida Marlins set to begin play in 1993. When the 1991 winter meetings convened at the Miami Beach Fontainebleau Hilton Hotel that December, it was the first time Miami played host as a major-league city.
The Commissioner’s State of the Game
Commissioner Fay Vincent, in his state-of-the-game address on December 9, focused on three areas of concern facing major-league baseball: national television revenue, player salaries, and minority hiring.
Baseball at the time was in the middle of four-year broadcast deals with CBS (for $1.06 billion) and ESPN ($400 million). Both broadcast partners claimed to be losing money on their contracts (as much as $200 million in the case of ESPN) and Vincent warned baseball’s owners that they could see a drop in revenue of as much as 50 percent after the 1993 season, when the contracts expired.2 “If the deal were to be made today, during the worst media advertising recession in recent history,” Vincent said, “we would be looking at the unhappy prospect of accepting at least $4 (million) to $5 million less per year than in the present contract.”3
Vincent expressed concern that without the largess from the national television contracts, smaller markets would face a huge gap in revenue versus big-market franchises. “Because of local revenue disparity our clubs generate considerably different amounts of revenue,” he said. “Our most prosperous club will generate $100 million a year while at the other end of the spectrum a club will generate less than $40 million.”4
Despite the likely future drop in revenue, increases in salaries showed no signs of slowing. Vincent noted that the average major-league player salary was $851,492 in 1991, and was likely to exceed $1 million in 1992.5 “The present salary situation is out of hand and small-market franchises cannot compete in this environment,” he asserted. “Small-market teams must compete on the field and in the player compensation arena with the larger market teams. Small-market clubs simply have no choice but to arrange their payrolls in entirely different scale.”6
Vincent attacked the arbitration process as the cause of the upward pressure on salaries, saying arbitration “imposes large-market financial judgments on all other clubs, and the trickle-down effect as free-agent signings seep into the salary-arbitration process is like pitching to (Roger) Maris and (Mickey) Mantle back-to-back. If one doesn’t get you, the other will.”7
“The crucial issue for baseball is to find a way to provide fairly for a sharing of revenues between players and owners,” Vincent said. “The present salary situation is out of hand, and small-market franchises cannot compete in this environment. The recent rate of escalation of player salaries cannot last. There must be a major change in the system so all of baseball can share properly.”8
Commissioner Vincent may have projected gloom and doom regarding television deals and player salaries, but he did express some optimism over the future of minority hiring in baseball.
Major-league baseball’s annual minority hiring report, compiled by the Washington-based consulting firm Alexander & Associates, showed nonwhite representation in major-league on-field jobs (managers, coaches, trainers, scouts, and instructors) to be 19 percent, unchanged from 1990. (Kansas City’s Hal McRae was the only nonwhite manager named in 1991, among 14 openings). Front-office minority hiring fared a little better, according to the report, with 16 percent of front-office positions held by minorities, 1 percent more than at the start of the 1991 season.
Vincent suggested that clubs focus on minority hiring at the minor-league level, to ensure that the system would be well-stocked with candidates who could later move up to positions in the majors.
“I have encouraged all general managers to pay closer attention to minor-league hiring,” Vincent said. “If we are successful in adding to the pool of candidates for major-league jobs by increasing the number of minor-league managers and coaches, we will have taken a major step forward. We will increase the pool of candidates and surely more major-league hirings will result.”9
In league matters, both the American and National leagues faced thorny issues.
The American League had arguably the larger potential headache, with the announcement that Seattle Mariners owner Jeff Smulyan desired to put the franchise up for sale at a $100 million pricetag, thereby opening up the possibility that the Mariners would relocate. The Tampa-St. Petersburg, Florida, area was widely believed to be a potential destination for Seattle’s franchise.
Smulyan had 120 days to find a suitable local buyer, so any franchise shift for 1992 was highly unlikely. Furthermore, it was doubtful the American League would be able to alter the schedule to accommodate the Mariners moving from the Pacific Time Zone to the Eastern Time Zone.
Commissioner Vincent had voiced opposition to any franchise movement but noted, “We have to wait and see how things develop in Seattle. This state involves the consideration of whether somebody wants to buy it there. I am sure if the community properly supported baseball for the next three or four years, the problem would go away.”10
Meanwhile, the National League broached the topic of divisional realignment to coincide with the entry of the Colorado Rockies and Florida Marlins in 1993. The senior circuit proposed moving the Atlanta Braves and Cincinnati Reds from the NL West to the more geographically appropriate NL East, where they would join the new Florida franchise. Moving to the West, along with the Rockies, would be the Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals, although those two franchises expressed strong reservations about a switch.
At issue was the number of games played on the West Coast by the Cubs and Cardinals. With the two-hour time difference between the Central Time Zone and the Pacific Time Zone, the Cubs and Cardinals stood to lose up to 20 prime-time broadcasts. The Sporting News noted that in the 14-team American League, each club played 12 games against its divisional rivals and 13 against each team from the other division. The National League was considering a split of 18 or 20 games against division rivals, leaving six or eight games with opponents from the other division.11
No final decision was made regarding realignment, nor was there any information forthcoming regarding a report from the Economic Study Committee. Additionally, no action was reported on the objections that had been raised to the Atlanta Braves and Cleveland Indians mascots. The mascots, depicting Native Americans, were regarded by many as racist caricatures.12
Notable Player Movement
With no immediate resolution forthcoming to the various issues outlined by Commissioner Vincent and the league offices, the action at the winter meetings focused on player movement, whether by free-agent signings or by trades.
Prior to the start of the winter meetings, the New York Mets stole much of the thunder when they signed Pittsburgh outfielder Bobby Bonilla to a $6 million deal. The Mets also signed first baseman Eddie Murray, a future Hall of Famer, before the start of meetings, and knuckleballing right-hander Tom Candiotti also signed, moving from the Blue Jays to the Dodgers, leaving outfielder Danny Tartabull as arguably the biggest free agent remaining.13
Still, insiders looked for the meetings to be active with player movement. Baseball scribes predicted that plenty of teams were on the hunt for pitching, and The Sporting News noted that 92 free agents were available, though few were of star caliber. The Sporting News also noted that an extensive list of “Rent-a-Players” likely would be available by trade — that is, players entering the final year of their current contract in 1992.14
“I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if a good many star players were traded at the ’91 meetings,” Cincinnati Reds GM Bob Quinn said. “I know I’ll try to do my share to make that come true.” Indeed, even prior to the start of the meetings, Quinn had moved outfielder Eric Davis to the Dodgers after having already added left-hander Greg Swindell in a deal with Cleveland.15
Undoubtedly, the recent turnaround of the Braves and Twins was thought to encourage some big moves. “All of this last-to-first talk is encouraging, fun for the fans,” said Expos GM Dan Duquette. “If you make a couple of big moves you can make a significant change”16
On December 9, California Angels GM Whitey Herzog kicked off the wheeling and dealing, but only after launching some vitriol against Bobby Bonilla’s agent, Dennis Gilbert. Herzog felt Gilbert had used the Angels merely as leverage to pry more money out of the Mets, and said he would not sign any of Gilbert’s clients.
Herzog resorted to some old-fashioned horse-trading by acquiring infielder-outfielder Von Hayes from the Philadelphia Phillies for prospects Kyle Abbott, a southpaw, and outfielder Ruben Amaro Jr. 17
Just a year after helping to lead Cincinnati to a World Series win as part of the dominating bullpen trio nicknamed “The Nasty Boys,” the Reds sent one of them, lefty Randy Myers, to the Padres in exchange for infielder-outfielder Leon “Bip” Roberts and minor-league outfielder, Craig Pueschner. 18
In a deal that would have much significance in the near future, the Astros sent young outfielder Kenny Lofton and infielder Dave Rohde to the Indians for right-hander Willie Blair and catcher Ed Taubensee.19 The Indians had finished dead last in the American League East in 1991, but Lofton, installed in center field and at the top of the batting order, helped to revitalize baseball in Cleveland. He finished second (to Milwaukee’s Pat Listach) in the Rookie of the Year voting, and would go on to win four Gold Glove Awards while the Indians made the playoffs every year from 1995 through 1999, including two World Series appearances.
It wasn’t until the end of the meetings, however, that anything close to a “blockbuster” trade occurred, with two big deals on the final day.
In the first, San Francisco unloaded outfielder Kevin Mitchell, the 1989 National League Most Valuable Player (plus lefty Mike Remlinger), to the Seattle Mariners. The mercurial Mitchell had evidently outstayed his welcome in San Francisco. In exchange, the Giants received three right-handed pitchers: Bill Swift, Mike Jackson, and Dave Burba.20
After the trade of a former National League MVP, the meetings concluded with a trade of a two-time American League Cy Young Award winner. Kansas City sent right-hander Bret Saberhagen to the revamping New York Mets, the club that had made so much noise in the free-agent market prior to the winter meetings. Using some age-old baseball logic, Royals GM Herk Robinson reasoned, “We finished sixth in the American League West for two straight years with Bret. Now it’s time to see if we can’t move up without him.” The Royals received three position players form the Mets: infielders Gregg Jeffries and Keith Miller, and outfielder Kevin McReynolds; Infielder Bill Pecota joined Saberhagen in going from Kansas City to the Big Apple. The Sporting News noted that many baseball minds considered the trade “highway robbery” for the Mets, although columnist Dave Nightingale dubbed the swap “mutually beneficial.” Kansas City also bolstered its roster by signing Angels free-agent first baseman Wally Joyner and trading right-hander Storm Davis back to the Orioles, his original team, in exchange for catcher (and future major-league manager) Bob Melvin. 21
The Minor Leagues
The National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, commonly referred to as the Minor Leagues, saw a change in leadership at the 1991 winter meetings. Sal Artiaga, who had led the NAPBL since 1988, had announced in the summer of 1991 that he would resign his position. After Artiaga had led the association through the contentious negotiations over the Professional Baseball Agreement (PBA) that was ratified at the 1990 winter meetings, the outgoing president lamented that the job he was hired to do no longer existed.22
Four candidates to succeed Artiaga emerged from the executive screening committee. They included one outsider (Washington attorney Stan Brand), two minor-league presidents (Charlie Eshbach of the Eastern League and Joe Gagliardi of the California League), and Mike Moore, the chief administrative officer of the National Association.23
In accordance with NAPBL voting procedures, the new president would need 75 percent approval, or 27 of the 36 votes cast. Votes were weighted by minor-league classification, with Triple-A and Double-A leagues having three votes, Class-A leagues having two votes, and short-season and Rookie-league circuits having one vote each.
After the first ballot, Gagliardi was eliminated, having received only the votes from his own league, while Eshbach led by a single vote over Moore, 16-15. On the second ballot, the California and Pacific Coast Leagues switched their support to Moore, who then held a 20-16 lead. Stan Brand was eliminated after round two, leaving Eshbach and Moore as the final two candidates.24
After a caucus period, Eshbach withdrew his name from consideration and on December 11, 1991, Mike Moore was elected unanimously as the National Association’s 10th president.25 In announcing his withdrawal, Eshbach called for unity. “I’m not prepared to hold this body up to a long and bitter floor fight, ballot after ballot,” he said. “So at this time, I say good luck, Mike Moore.”26 Moore would go on to oversee a reorganization of the governing structure of minor-league baseball. Moore called for a constitutional convention to be held in Dallas six weeks after the winter meetings. Under the new system adopted in February 1992, the National Association president would work with a board of trustees composed of one club owner from each league, along with a newly-created Council of League Presidents 27
The selection of a new minor-league president may seem like a momentous occasion, but mainstream press coverage of Mike Moore’s election was little more than a footnote to the business transacted by the big leagues.28 From the perspective of the major leagues, no significant policy decisions were reached at the 1991 meetings, and some writers even expressed dismay that the trade market seemed awfully lackluster.
Miami Herald sportswriter S.L. Price noted that Miami’s first hosting since being named a major-league city produced “sorry” winter meetings that “hit the finish line like a fat man out of breath.” The scribe concluded, “All in all, it was like watching millionaires pinch pennies. Mostly, baseball’s brains played some golf and told some lies and watched each other’s wallets very carefully.”29
That assessment may be a bit unfair, considering that, according to the Associated Press, 14 trades were made during the meetings, with 51 players changing teams. Those 14 trades represented the most since the 1983 edition of the winter meetings. By contemporary comparison, only five trades were completed at the 1989 winter meetings, and teams made six swaps in 1990.
It cannot be denied that the free-agent market was quiet, with a mere eight free-agent signings during the meetings, the fewest since 1986.30
What also cannot be denied is that the biggest trade of the 1991 meetings, between the Mets and Royals, didn’t yield much return for either club. The Mets finished the 1992 season in fifth place in the NL East, 24 games behind the Pirates. And Herk Robinson did get to see if the Royals could finish sixth in the AL West without Bret Saberhagen — they could and they did. And, just like the Mets, Kansas City finished 24 games off the divisional pace.
While the 1991 World Series is now considered one of the classic championship series, it is doubtful that the ’91 winter meetings will be remembered as anything but a largely routine administrative get-together.
1 Baseball America’s 1992 Almanac (Baseball America, 1991), 33-38.
2 Rudy Martzke, “Baseball, Football Take Opposite Tack in Dealing,” USA Today, December 13, 1991: 3C.
3 Claire Smith, “Baseball: State of Game? Not the Same Everywhere,” nytimes.com/1991/12/10/sports/baseball/baseball-state-of-game-not-the-same-everywhere.html.
4 “Salary Structure Draws Vincent’s Wrath,” USA Today, December 10, 1991: 1B.
6 Claire Smith.
7 Hal Bodley, “Smaller Markets Feeling the Pinch,” USA Today, December 10, 1991: 3C.
8 Bill Plaschke, “TV Gravy Will Run Out Soon, Vincent Warns,” articles.latimes.com/1991-12-10/sports/sp-296_1_baseball-contracts.
9 Chuck Johnson, “Shut Out? Managers’ Score: 14 Openings, 1 Minority,” USA Today, December 10, 1991: 1C.
10 Hal Bodley.
11 Dave Nightingale, “N.L. Realignment Left on Base,” The Sporting News, December 23, 1991: 21.
12 Dave Nightingale, “Mariners’ Situation Tops Agenda,” The Sporting News, December 9, 1991: 28.
13 Ken Picking, “Shea-Zam!” The Sporting News, December 16, 1991: 30.
14 Dale Nightingale, “Free Trade Zone,” The Sporting News, December 9, 1991: 28.
15 Nightingale, “Free Trade Zone.” Davis was joined on his journey west by right-hander Kip Gross, while a pair of righties, Tim Belcher and John Wetteland, moved from the Dodgers to the Reds. (Two weeks later, Wetteland was flipped to Montreal, along with fellow righty Bill Risley, for outfielder Dave Martinez, infielder-outfielder Willie Greene, and lefty Scott Ruskin.) Cincinnati sent All-Star Jack Armstrong and Scott Scudder, both right-handers, to Cleveland for Swindell and minor-league right-hander Joe Turek.
16 Dan Le Batard, “Baseball’s Worst Can Now Dream of First,” Miami Herald, December 10, 1991: 5D.
17 Murray Chass, “Herzog, Angry Over Bonilla, Acquires Hayes,” New York Times, December 9, 1991, nytimes.com/1991/12/09/sports/baseball-herzog-angry-over-bonilla-acquires-hayes.html.
18 Chass, “Herzog, Angry Over Bonilla, Acquires Hayes.”
19 “Transactions,” The Sporting News, December 23, 1991: 20.
20 Dave Nightingale, “Hold On, Cowboy!” The Sporting News, December 23, 1991: 19-21.
21 Dave Nightingale, “The Heist of Saberhagen,” The Sporting News, December 23, 1991: 20.
22 Baseball America’s 1992 Almanac (Baseball America), 1991, 183.
23 Baseball America’s 1993 Almanac (Baseball America), 1992, 213.
24 Baseball America’s 1993 Almanac, 213.
25 Lloyd Johnson and Miles Wolff, eds. The Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, 2nd Edition (Durham: Baseball America, 1997), 607.
26 Baseball America’s 1993 Almanac, 213.
27 Johnson and Wolff, 640.
28 In USA Today, for example, Moore’s election is noted in the final sentence in Hal Bodley, “Herzog in His Element With Angels,” USA Today, December 11, 1991: 12C.
29 S.L. Price, “Dumping of Mitchell Sums Up Sorry Winter Meetings,” Miami Herald, December 12, 1991: 8D.
30 “Let’s Make a Deal: Baseball Winter Meetings Revive Art of the Trade,” thecrimson.com/article/1991/12/14/lets-make-a-deal-baseball-winter/.