The Last Man Standing

2019-02-04 JerryReinsdorfHaroldBaines
White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf applauds at the 2008 dedication of future Hall of Famer Harold Baines’s statue at U.S. Cellular Field.

Jerry Reinsdorf, a baseball owner once described as a man with “about as much serenity as someone facing a dentist’s drill,” has at least one unique position among baseball’s baronage. He’s the last man standing of the owners who got caught with their pants down over 1980s collusion and those who pushed for and got the 1994 players’ strike.

And, as Jay Jaffe now writes at FanGraphs, he’s a big market owner who prefers to think, act, and spend like a small market owner. Depending entirely upon immediate circumstances, of course.

His White Sox have been tied to this winter’s market for Manny Machado. They became an especially acute tie-in after signing both Machado’s brother-in-law, Yonder Alonso, and his friend Jon Jay. Those who’ve followed Reinsdorf’s tenure as the White Sox’s owner ponder that being in that market is out of character for Reinsdorf, until it isn’t.

The speculation had it that the White Sox were ready to offer Machado seven years and $175 million, which agent Dan Lozano torpedoed as a “reckless” speculation, but Jaffe wonders whether it was actually “the guaranteed core of a deal containing options and other wingdings that would push its total well above $200 million—if not all the way to $300 million—while also giving the team greater protection than they might otherwise have in such a long-term deal.”

And, as Jaffe observes further, if the seven-year/$175 million report really is the whole package, “I think we can all agree that $175 million, at $25 million per year, won’t get the job done for either [Machado or Bryce Harper], even in this apparently depressed market—not with the Padres entering the fray and the Phillies still lurking.” (At this writing, the Padres are thought to be going all-in on Harper. And, a ticklish Monday tweet had a Phillies’ corporate jet on the tarmac at McCarran International Airport, in Las Vegas, Harper’s native territory, almost a month after meeting Harper and his wife in Vegas.)

How much of a shock would it be if the White Sox land Machado at or close enough to his thought-to-be-sought total package? It may depend upon how you define “shock” and apply it to Reinsdorf.

It was Reinsdorf, after all, who was in the middle of baseball’s salary-suppression collusion mess of the 1980s. He’s the owner who called then-Phillies owner Bill Giles to remind him of his fiduciary duty (translation: help kill the market) while Giles tried a first time to sign free agent Tigers catcher Lance Parrish. (Giles eventually did get his man.) He’s also the owner who wrote to both the Tigers and then-commissioner Peter Ueberroth to say he had no intention of even thinking about signing another free agent Tiger, future Hall of Fame pitcher Jack Morris.

He was one of the reasons the owners ended up handing $280 million in November 1990 to all the players affected by those shenanigans, including Parrish and Morris. “The single biggest reality you guys have to face up to is collusion,” then-commissioner Fay Vincent told the owners. “You stole $280 million from the players, and the players are unified to a man around that issue, because you got caught and many of you are still involved.”

A few years later, it was Reinsdorf more than any other owner, including then-Brewers owner/then-acting commissioner Bud Selig, who hammered away at the mantra of putting the Major League Baseball Players Association in their place and jamming a twice-rejected salary cap down their throats, passing a three-fourths majority rule for the owners agreeing to any labour pact, and forcing the 1994 strike. He was the labour hawks’ labour hawk. Until he wasn’t.

Because not long after the strike settled, Reinsdorf (possibly urged by his future Hall of Famer Frank Thomas) decided that sticking it to the American League Central rival Indians was more important than real or imagined fiscal sanity when November 1996 came around. Whitey Herzog, in You’re Missin’ a Great Game, described it a lot more colourfully than I ever could:

Here’s the biggest antilabor hawk of all time, the guy who spent years lecturing [former Angels co-owner] Jackie Autry and the other owners on fiscal restraint. He wanted to force a strike and he wanted to cancel a World Series, if only just to break the players’ backs. He got his way in ’94 and put the game on a respirator. Yet the second the thing was settled, who was there backing the Brinks truck up to Albert Belle’s house? Reinsdorf gave him so much money it bent the whole salary structure out of whack. He needed a big-name draw. He didn’t want his division rivals, the Indians, to keep Belle. He wanted what he wanted and screw the rest of it.

As a matter of fact, Ebenezer Scrooge got so damned excited he forgot how to count. The top salary at the time, in 1996, was $8 million. Reinsdorf skipped past nine and ten and went straight to $11 million a year! That was the biggest fast-forward in the history of the salary spiral.

Making Belle baseball’s first $11 million-a-year man didn’t do the White Sox any favours. For one thing, the deal included both a $5 million buyout if the team didn’t pick up a sixth-year option and a clause guaranteeing Belle’s would be one of the top three salaries in the game for the full life of the deal. That was Reinshawk’s handiwork, folks.

When Belle’s annual salary was passed by Mo Vaughn (with the Angels) and Hall of Famers Randy Johnson (with the Diamondbacks) and Mike Piazza (with the Mets) in 1998, and Reinsdorf refused to re-work Belle’s contract to continue conforming to that clause, it made Belle a free agent again. The Orioles signed him for five years and $65 million, equal, Jaffe noted, to Piazza’s average annual value. The bad news: Belle developed a degenerative hip condition that forced his retirement at 34, following the 2000 season.

Before losing Belle, Reinsdorf ordered his then-general manager, Ron Schueler, to deliver what Chicago Tribune writer Paul Sullivan calls “the infamous white flag trade“: trading pitchers Wilson Alvarez, Danny Darwin, and Roberto Hernandez to the Giants, approaching the non-waiver trade deadline, for a trio of then-unknowns, two of whom—pitchers Bob Howry and Keith Foulke—wouldn’t remain unknown for very long. Particularly Foulke, the last man standing (on the mound) when the Red Sox finally busted eight decades of star-crossed disasters to win the 2004 World Series.

“We didn’t realise August 1 was the end of the season,” fumed White Sox third base star Robin Ventura. “What can you say when you have an owner who doesn’t believe you can catch Cleveland?” asked Darwin, referring to Reinsdorf’s telling the Chicago Sun-Times, “Anybody who thinks we can catch Cleveland is crazy.” Before the White Flag Trade, the White Sox were a measly three and a half games out of first place in the AL Central.

The non-waiver trade deadline has long since become a sport in and of itself, with teams over here pondering a push of the reset button in-season, teams over yonder pondering a renewed postseason push, and teams further out there just blowing the damn thing up in panic button mode, among other reasons known or suspected. Reinsdorf may have pioneered the non-waiver blow-up.

But he has had other spells of fiscal amiability even if none of them proved as game compromising or hypocrisy exposing as the Albert Belle deal. It took awhile before Reinsdorf and the White Sox would hand a player something better than Hall of Famer Frank Thomas’s 1997 extension. But the John Danks extension (five years, $65 million, signed in December 2011) imploded when the lefthander missed most of 2012 after surgery to repair torn anterior capsule and rotator cuff. He returned, but the White Sox released him before the final year of the deal ended. With 2.5 wins above a replacement-level pitcher to show for the full life of the extension.

The White Sox haven’t been burned by Jose Abreu’s still-operating six years and $68 million, though. Not yet. The Cuban defector who got a somewhat late major league start at 27 has given them the American League’s Rookie of the Year award, two All-Star teams, and per-162 games averages of 194 runs produced with 32 home runs and 107 runs batted in. His down 2018 was thanks to a groin issue that culminated in early September surgery that ended his season below his career par; he becomes a free agent after the 2019 season.

Abreu says he’d like to continue and finish his career with the White Sox. A healthy 2019 would go a long way toward making that wish come true. Perhaps unless the White Sox decided to plunge in on Machado after all. Which might be out of character for Reinsdorf—until it isn’t, if it isn’t.

Reinsdorf is not quite as sinister as Charlie Finley was when Finley owned the Athletics, but no few of Reinsdorf’s critics would go as far as as A’s outfielder Joe Rudi once did advising incoming A’s outfielder/DH Don Baylor about Finley, “Any time you hear him clearing his throat, he’s lying.” Yet Reinsdorf is also the man who, before letting his then-new GM Ken Harrelson execute then-White Sox manager Tony La Russa in 1986, accepted his personal assistant’s suggestion and called the A’s, about to change managers, to ask if they’d like to hire La Russa, whom their then-president Roy Eisenhardt admired. The answer was yes.

Maybe it’s not to wonder much that Reinsdorf has drawn occasional comparisons to the late George Steinbrenner, about whom Reinsdorf could never decide whether he was an ally, an enemy, a nuisance, or a mountebank. But Steinbrenner was equally renowned for arbitrary executions followed by handing the beheaded assorted lucrative jobs elsewhere within the Yankees’ structure. Reinsdorf and Steinbrenner were frequent player trading partners at one time, and it’s to wonder whether they were just trying to out-smart each other rather than make sound baseball swaps.

Like Steinbrenner often enough, Reinsdorf inspires enough to advise: Trust as far as you can throw. Stay tuned.

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