Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Dynamic Duo Of Devastation

  • What do you do?

In the off-season of 1965-66, restrained by baseball's reserve clause preventing free movement of the players and essentially tying them to their teams until said team determined they were no longer of use and let them go, two stars took action in a revolutionary way to get paid.

I'm referring to the holdout staged by Dodgers twin-aces Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale.

Back then, no one----no one----received multi-year contracts simply because they had no leverage. But Koufax and Drysdale found an innovative way to essentially take the Dodgers front office hostage and try to get paid with strong-arm tactics.

According to The Explosive Sixties, a volume in the World of Baseball series, published in 1989, this is what Koufax and Drysdale pulled:

After pitching the Los Angeles Dodgers to the pennant and world championship in 1965, Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale asked for contracts that were considered outrageous on at least four fronts. They wanted to negotiate together rather than separately. They wanted the Dodgers to deal wit their lawyer, J. William Hayes. They wanted three-year contracts. And the figure they proposed was $1 million, divided evenly between the two players and payable over three seasons.

Naturally the Dodgers were blindsided by the demands; the presence of a lawyer in the negotiating process; and that anyone would have the audacity to challenge the sanctity of baseball's rules tying players to their clubs forever. I'd have loved to have seen someone try that with Branch Rickey as his face turned beet purple and his bow tie began spinning like in a cartoon.

Many outsiders thought it was a joke; the smarter people who could see the future and how players would eventually band together and unionize, knew it wasn't.

Adding into the mix was the greatness of Koufax and Drysdale; that the Dodgers had won the World Series the prior year; and without them, the Dodgers 1966 season was doomed.

In addition to the World Series win in 1965, Koufax went 26-8 with a 2.04 ERA and 382 strikeouts; Drysdale, 23-12 with a 2.77 ERA.


Koufax and Drysdale sat out spring training. It wasn't just the entire structure of the Dodgers championship team was in jeopardy, but teetering on the precipice was the whole reserve clause and foundation of indentured servitude under which players were locked to their clubs; the players taking command of their careers in such a way was unheard of and dangerous to the only thing ownership understood----profits.

The only thing worse than the nerve of the Koufax-Drysdale holdout was that it had a chance of working!

Finally, Dodgers GM Buzzy Bavasi sat down with Drysdale (he steadfastly refused to meet with their lawyer, Hayes) and negotiated 1-year contracts. Koufax received a $40,000 raise to $125,000; Drysdale, $30,000 to $110,000.

There are many tentacles to this gutsy attempt on the part of the two pitchers and how the Dodgers responded to it.

Looking at the careers of Drysdale and Koufax, a 3-year contract would have been disastrous for Koufax at least. 1966 was his last season (he was unhittable with a 27-9 record and 1.73 ERA, leading the Dodgers to another pennant) before his arthritic elbow ended his career. Drysdale pitched well through 1968 before he blew out his shoulder. Both men were finished at a young age, Koufax at 30; Drysdale at 32.

I wonder what would've happened to the concept of long-term contracts had the demands been met and things had proceeded in an identical fashion.

Would there have been an even greater reluctance to commit to athletes long-term? Would the battle-lines have been less flexible? Had the ploy worked and things played out as they did, there would've been a basis to say "Drysdale and Koufax got long-term, guaranteed contracts at young ages and look what happened."

As it was developing, however, would other star players like Willie Mays, Juan Marichal, Mickey Mantle and Frank Robinson have taken similar steps? Would other teams follow the lead of the Dodgers and give in? And would the reserve clause have come under scrutiny years before the Curt Flood case?

I only bring this up in relation to the increasingly contentious negotiations between the Yankees and their post-season heroes Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera.

Both deals are stagnating and the news is coming out that the expected smooth retention of Rivera isn't going all that much better than Jeter's. Naturally the assumption is that both will stay----and they will----but what would happen if the two took the unheard of step in joining forces; having their agents work in cahoots; calling Brian Cashman and, in the tone of the mad bomber (Dennis Hopper) from Speed saying, "What do you do?"

If this were the year 2000, it would be less treacherous for the players to use such a stunt and presumably not as lucrative. But it's not the year 2000. It's the year 2010. They're not 31 (Rivera) and 26 (Jeter); they're 41 and 36. In addition to that, George Steinbrenner is no longer around to overrule his baseball people and negotiate personally with a player he wants to sign.

What would happen if Rivera and Jeter said, "$120 million for both of us on 3-year contracts,"?

Would the Yankees panic at the prospect of a united front? Would they dare Jeter/Rivera to leave and try to get a similar package elsewhere? Would the tandem say, the combination is only for the Yankees; if it's not agreed upon, they'll go elsewhere separately.

There's a recent sports-related precedence for this type of phenomenon as the Miami Heat signed 3 big name free agents----LeBron James; Dwyane Wade; Chris Bosh----as a group. I don't follow basketball at all, but the Heat has stumbled out of the gate at 8-6 and are under rampant scrutiny. All three are in their primes so there's a basis to making the aggressive signings. When you have great players, they'll find their way.

With Jeter and Rivera, it's different. They're not young; there's no "max contract" in baseball where it doesn't make much difference where they go since they'd get the exact same money; for Rivera and Jeter, the need to stay with the Yankees is both financial and aesthetic----they won't get the same contracts anywhere else and neither would want to sully their images by wearing different uniforms. The Yankees have similar concerns as to crisis control and public response.

What would the fallout be? The fan reaction? The industry reaction? The team reaction?

Clearly, the proper strategy would be to tell them to take a hike; to wish them luck and move on. But could the Steinbrenners deal with allowing both Jeter and Rivera to leave? Brian Cashman could; but the Steinbrenners? I don't know.

On the field, the Yankees could survive a regular season with Joba Chamberlain closing or bringing in a Rafael Soriano; they could find a shortstop or third baseman if they shifted Alex Rodriguez back to short; but in the post-season is where Rivera has made his reputation and there's no other closer who can be trusted to record those high-pressure outs without fear of failure; would they trust a Stephen Drew, Adrian Beltre, Mark Reynolds or whoever rather than Jeter to work a walk or get a clutch hit in October/November?

We know that the Yankees don't determine their season as successful based on making the playoffs or even making the World Series. As unfair as it is to make anything into a "championship or die" affair, that's where the Yankees are.

What would the Yankees do? And could it work for Jeter/Rivera?

The Yankees appear determined to at least put forth the pretense of ignoring emotions and fan desires and making sensible deals with both legends; but it's going slowly----far slower than anyone anticipated. Neither are leaving; neither would get anything close to the money the Yankees are going to give them; both will get paid by the Yankees...but what if?

What if they took the courage and iciness that has been a hallmark of their 5 championships and transferred them to a tough negotiation telling the club to give in or else?

Who'd win the staring contest between team legends and the bottom-line? Between financial sanity and being emotionally extorted?

The wise baseball decision would be to move on; but this is about more than cold hearted reality.

What would happen?


  • Post-season award winners:

I gave my post-season award winner picks on October 6th. Here's who I picked and why back then----The Prince of New York's 2010 Award Winners.

  • Promises, promises...

I'm aware that I keep saying I'll re-ignite my Hot Stove Previews pretty much every day, but I keep getting distracted. I'll start again tomorrow (unless something wild happens).

  • The Prince on the Podcast:

I'll be on with Sal at SportsFan Buzz tomorrow.

Sal handles me deftly. Not sure how, but he does.


Jeff said...

I wouldn't quite compare Jeter and Mo's situation to that of the Heat but I see what you're saying.

I think the other side of that scenario is how much of a hit the pair might take from the fans -- the very individuals who hoisted them up on that untouchable pedestal. You think Yankees fans would tolerate a Jeter departure based on a Jeter/Mo alliance that appears to be -- on the surface at least -- an act of strong arming? I dunno. I think it'd be 50/50. Half the fans end up hating Jeter, half end up hating the Yankees.

She-Fan said...

Interesting idea about double teaming, but Jeter and Mo are like Mars and Venus. Both are Yankees icons for sure, but Jeter is the guy out front and he likes it that way. Mo prefers the quieter approach; I think he'd rather retire than not play for the Yankees. What Jeter needs to do now is to come back to the Steinbrenners and Cashman with a bona fide counter offer so the negotiations can get real.