Claudell Washington, RIP: Signposts

2020-06-10 ClaudellWashington

Washington’s 1980 signing with the Braves jolted the free agency market and prompted at least one owner to sell his team.

Claudell Washington, who died Wednesday morning at 65, was a useful player, not exactly one of the greats of his day, who had a little power and a little more speed. But in his first seven major league seasons (1974-1980), he also  impressed a few too many as being a little on the lax side in the outfield.

“[T]he same guy,” John Helyar recorded in The Lords of the Realm, “whose indifferent outfield play cause fans near his Comiskey Park station to hang a banner: WASHINGTON SLEPT HERE.” The same guy who averaged 1.9 wins above replacement-level overall and -4.3 WAR defensively in the same span.

The same guy who jolted baseball bolt upright in November 1980, when then-Atlanta Braves owner Ted Turner signed the guy White Sox fans compared to a sleeping president to a five-year deal totaling $3.5 million and worth about $700,000 a season.

That deal almost choked Philadelphia Phillies owner Ruly Carpenter, Helyar observed, and with good enough reason. Carpenter may have quaked over free agency, enough to hand Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt a six-year, $3.6 million contract in 1977 (before his first prospective taste of free agency), but when the Phillies started getting “close enough to a pennant Carpenter could taste it” he chased down and signed Pete Rose.

The Phillies needed a little help at the time from their television outlet, WPHL, and got it. That helped them land Rose for four years and $3.23 million plus an extra $225,000 based on total games played. It made Charlie Hustler the highest-paid team sports player on the planet at the time.

One month after that deal plus everything else working right for the Phillies culminated in a wild celebratory parade drawing half a million fans to downtown Philadelphia, Washington’s deal with the Braves convinced Carpenter that a few too many brains among his fellow owners went to bed with no hint of waking up.

He could live easily with the Mike Schmidt extension and the Pete Rose signing. These were top of the line players: baseball’s arguable greatest third baseman ever, with power to burn, a phenomenal on-base knack for such a power hitter, and well above average defense; and, one of its more tenacious slap-and-slash hitters who played the game like a guerilla warrior, even if that was as much for showing as for blowing. And the Carpenter family wasn’t exactly living on Poverty Plaza.

Even with his longtime bent toward scouting and player development, Carpenter wasn’t so blind as to ignore the results when George Steinbrenner hit the early free agency market running, blended it with scouting, and bagged back-to-back World Series titles in 1977-78. What unnerved Carpenter was the kind of owner comparative newcomer Ted Turner was and others new and old were showing themselves to be.

These and other owners, essentially, would scream all kinds of blue murder over this or that high-priced free agent signing—until they got to sign a few of their own, of course. The Washington deal, for Carpenter, secured it. The signpost said, “Disregard posturing. Business as usual,” as Helyar translated it.

Carpenter and his family would talk it over for months to come before putting the Phillies on the sales floor. A decade later, while the owners were occupied otherwise demanding the players stop them before they overspent, mis-spent, or mal-spent again, there came an even more portentious moment than the Washington signing—and an equally revelatory one.

Barely had the owners gotten past their execrable late-80s collusive bid to suppress player salaries (which cost them mucho millions in the end) when the San Francisco Giants showed top-of-the-line-looking money to . . . Bud Black, something of the pitching equivalent to Washington: good, serviceable, not even within telescopic sight of the top of the line.

If a pitcher with a 3.70 lifetime ERA to that point who barely missed bats, gave up eight hits per nine innings’ work, and walked two-thirds of what he struck out, was worth $2.5 million for four years beginning in 1991, you could smell the same blood smelled by other pitchers who may not have been Orel Hershiser’s or Jack Morris’s equals but knew they were a little more valuable than Black. The same blood and the same continuing salary inflation.

What did it say, too, when the Giants’ GM who made the Black deal and a few other headscratchers over the previous couple of years, Al Rosen, went to the 1990 winter meetings lamenting the player salaries going wild and crazy?

Is it really any wonder that today’s players, like their 1980s and 1990s forebears, trust the owners about as far as they can hit or throw them? Is it really any wonder than those with eyes to see and ears to hear know that when the owners cry “going broke” the proper response is “prove it?”

Chicago Cubs owner Ted Ricketts says it’s not like you can just shift dollars at will—yet his franchise is worth $3.7 billion after his family bought the team for $900 million in 2009. St. Louis Cardinals owner Bill DeWitt, Jr. says major league baseball isn’t all that profitable—the same man who bought the Cardinals for $150 million in 1996 and saw his team’s value become $2.1 billion this year. (He’s not so impoverished that he couldn’t purchase a third home for about $8 million in the Hollywood hills, either.)

Remember those the next time you hear the owners demanding the players surrender monies to play ball this year. Or, the next time you pick up a newspaper, flip on the television set, or hit the Internet running and discover a team signing today’s version of Washington or Black for today’s version of, say, money close enough to Jacob deGrom or Justin Verlander money.

None of which was Washington’s fault. The only thing that better resembles a case for a straitjacket than Turner showing him that money would have been if Washington had turned Turner down, human nature being what it is.

He looked promising at the beginning of his career; Bill James (in The New Historical Baseball Abstract) called him “among the best players ever to slip through the draft.” He was an undrafted free agent who had his career year at age 20 but didn’t develop from that point forward, unfortunately.

As a 1974 Oakland Athletics sophonore, Washington continued making an impression when he kept Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry from a sixteen-game winning streak that would have tied the American League record. He slashed a triple in the eighth and, in the bottom of the tenth, with Perry still in the game, he smacked an RBI single to win it. Then he went 4-for-7 helping the A’s win a third straight World Series.

Washington’s career stops other than Chicago and Atlanta included with the the Texas Rangers, the New York Yankees, and the California Angels. “[G]uarantee he was a teammate/clubhouse favorite on each team he played for,” tweeted Braves legend Dale Murphy, who played five years with Washington. “Thankful for the chance to be teammates in #ATL.”

He was a useful fourth-outfielder for those Braves even as the team transitioned from early 1980s success toward their late-1980s deflation. He was one of those players who could do a little bit of a lot but never really lived up to what he showed in 1973-74. It didn’t exactly make him unique among journeymen.

But Washington was good enough to play seventeen journeyman major league seasons. You can surely fill two stadiums with all the players who weren’t that fortunate. How many would be remembered as favourite teammates? And how many achieve celluloid immortality? (Washington did that, too: a clip of him merely ticking a foul ball into the left field seats down the foul line turned up in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.)

Washington takes all that with him to the eternal peace of the Elysian Fields and to be serene and happy there as he deserves, though here on earth assorted teammates and especially his family will miss him terribly.

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