The January 8 Eight
So with all this boring and infuriating labor talk taking up the spaces that should be filled with baseball, I thought it might be fun to look back at a classic of the genre, one that will be familiar to all of you who have read the classic Lords of the Realm.
The January 8 Eight — always particularly special to me because January 8 is my birthday — were eight top baseball players who on Jan. 8, 1987, refused to re-sign with their teams because they knew that they were getting cheated. As it would turn out, they WERE getting cheated — the owners were brazenly colluding with each other to freeze out the players. But we’ll get to all that.
The eight players in question were:
Doyle Alexander (offered 2-year, $800,000 per year by Atlanta)
Bob Boone (offered 1-year contract with $30,000 raise by the Angels)
Andre Dawson (offered 2-year contract with pay cut by the Expos)
Rich Gedman (offered 3-year contract at $880,000 or so by the Red Sox)
Ron Guidry (offered 2-year contract at substantial pay cut by the Yankees)
Bob Horner (offered 3-year contract at substantial pay cut by Atlanta)
Lance Parrish (offered 2-year contract at $1 million by Detroit)
Tim Raines (offered 3-year, $4.8 million contract by the Expos)
Each of these contracts were infuriating to the players for different reasons. Raines, for example, was coming off a season in which he could have been the MVP. He won the batting title, led the league in on-base percentage and stole 70 bases. The Expos were offering him just a $100,000 raise over what he was making and telling him that he’d better take it because there was no more money out there for him on the free-agent market.
“Don’t be a martyr like Curt Flood,” he would recall Expos president John McHale telling him.
Lance Parrish was coming off his fifth consecutive All-Star season — over that time he’d won three Gold Gloves and three Silver Slugger Awards — and he had been drastically underpaid throughout. He felt sure that as a free agent he had a Gary Carter-like offer coming; Carter was getting paid more than $2 million per year.
Instead, the Tigers offered him half that and, like the Expos had with Raines, assured him that there was no more money out there for him on the open market.
The Andre Dawson deal was a little bit different. Dawson had been the Expos’ most iconic player for a decade. He did everything — hit line drives into the gaps, hit home runs, stole bases, won Gold Gloves, rifled down runners. He was a riveting force. But all that play did take a toll on him, particularly his knees, and in 1986 he played in only 130 games and for the first time in more than a half decade did not win a Gold Glove.
The Expos offered him less than he made in 1986 and dared him to try the market.
“They’re asking me to take a pay cut,” he told the press. And I hold almost all the team’s offensive records. I think I deserve better. … If I never play another game in my life, it’s no big deal.”
Rich Gedman, coming off his second-consecutive All-Star season, was looking for a contract in the range of Tony Pena’s $1.2 million deal — the Red Sox offered $900,000 and warned him to take it.
And, as they say on Gilligan’s Island, the rest:
Ron Guidry at age 35 was coming off a down year — 9-12, 3.98 ERA — and the Yankees responded by offering him a $150,000 or so pay cut. Yankees owner George Steinbrenner insisted that this was already way above market value and refused to budge even when Guidry and his agent asked for $50,000 more.
Bob Horner was coming off a 27-homer season (which, believe it or not, was good enough for fifth in the National League) and was looking for a raise on his $1.8 million contract; instead he was offered a 30 percent pay cut.
Bob Boone, at age 38, was playing defense better than ever, he won his third Gold Glove, and he thought that would be of some value on the open market; the Angels offered him a slight raise and promised that would be more than anyone else would offer.
Doyle Alexander had eaten up 200 innings; the Braves offered him a pay cut.
The most infuriating part for the players — as you have undoubtedly picked up — was the utter and arrogant certainty general managers and owners had that no other teams would bid. How could they be so sure? Well, the answer to that was quite clear, even then: They were conspiring with each other.
As John Helyar so entertainingly explains in Lords, the commissioner of baseball then was Peter Ueberroth, who apparently never missed an opportunity to lambaste the owners for their stupid free-agent signings.
Like, for example, he would go up to Atlanta owner Ted Turner in front of the other owners and say something like, “Hey, how’s that Bruce Sutter signing going?”
And he might add something like, “Hmm, paid him $1.7 million last year for 18 innings. Now, I’m no math whiz, but what does that come out to per inning, Ted?”
Ueberroth has always denied leading baseball’s collusion, but he certainly does not deny that he strongly discouraged teams from signing free agents, particularly to long-term deals. And he did it openly, in front of the entire group, in such a passionate (or demeaning) way that it unquestionably galvanized (or frightened) the owners into inaction. And what happened to the January 8 Eight was almost beyond belief.
Not one of them got a better offer than the one they turned down.
In fact, the whole thing became a dark comedy. Tim Raines, after winning the batting title, was offered a PAY CUT by the San Diego Padres, Atlanta Braves and Houston Astros*. He couldn’t understand the upside-down world he was living in. “People expect you to take a 50 percent pay cut because you’re a free agent?” he asked in horror.
Raines eventually went back to the Expos for just a touch more than they had originally offered.
*According to Helyar, Astros owner John McMullen told Raines he shouldn’t sweat the pay cut because “once you’re making a million, why worry about anything over that?” Funny, that’s also the line of reasoning many people use on Twitter to blame the players.
Lance Parrish was determined, one way or another, not to go back to Detroit — so when he and his agent, Tom Reich, heard Phillies president Bill Giles mention Parrish in a television interview, they decided to go in for the kill, one way or another. Giles, of course, was severely warned by other owners* to stay off Parrish. According to reports, Detroit president Jim Campbell repeatedly called Giles and ranted, “How can you go after my player? If you make a run at him, I’ll go after [Phillies star] Von Hayes.”
*One of those owners who warned him was a guy in the Milwaukee car leasing business by the name of Bud Selig. But let’s not expand the story too much.
Giles tentatively still agreed to meet with Reich and Parrish (“It takes some stones for you to be here right now,” Reich conceded at the meeting) and he came armed with a one-year, $1 million deal, significantly less than Parrish wanted. But Parrish and Reich surprised him by saying that they would consider it.
“Hey, if it’s a matter of money,” Phillies star Mike Schmidt said, “I’d be willing to contribute $500,000 from my salary.”
Joking aside, Giles began panicking and wavering. Campbell kept calling and threatening; it finally got to the point where Reich publicly said that he would sue the living hell out of the Tigers (“And if the Phillies back out of this,” he reportedly told friends, “they could be part of it too”).
This led to Giles adding a clause in the contract that would prevent Parrish from suing the Phillies and MLB over the deal, which is a weird thing to ask for unless you know you’re doing something pretty shady. Collusion really was an open secret. In the end, Parrish agreed to waive his right to sue the Phillies specifically (but still leaving open the possibility for the union to take legal action against the owners in general) and he signed for $1 million, exactly what he’d made with the Tigers a year earlier.*
*In the end, Parrish was awarded more than $1.5 million in the collusion judgment.
Bob Horner had an equally wild ride. After Atlanta offered him the half-million-dollar pay cut, he recalled Braves general manager Bobby Cox saying, “You’re going to burn at the stake if you don’t take this.” That seems unnecessarily aggressive, but Cox was right in that nobody else offered even close to what Atlanta did. San Diego offered Horner a much steeper pay cut, and when Horner considered actually taking it, that offer was pulled.
It got to the point where Horner was offered a deal in Charlotte (for $3,001 per month) to play minor league baseball and serve as a pro wrestling double (“If he gains 20 pounds,” wrestling promoter Frances Crockett said). Instead, he signed to play in Japan for $1.3 million or so.
Most of the others in the January 8 Eight just went back to their teams on May 1, the earliest they were allowed to return. In the end, Ron Guidry and the Yankees split the $50,000 difference. Rich Gedman went back to the Red Sox feeling like “a beaten dog,” and then had to endure general partner Haywood Sullivan’s lecture on the evils of greed (Gedman did get more than $1 million in the collusion judgment). Bob Boone signed with the Angels for exactly what they had offered on Jan. 8. Doyle Alexander went back to Atlanta for less than what they had offered on Jan. 8.
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And then — finally, our crescendo — there’s the Andre Dawson saga.
You probably know this story, but if you don’t — hang on because it’s just beautiful.
Dawson was deadly serious about quitting the game before playing on anything but his own terms. He was a great athlete and a proud man and a force of nature; he wasn’t about to let people treat him badly. He’d given the Expos the best 10 years of his life. He’d given them all the effort he had. He’d given them body parts.
For them to undercut him like this, first chance they had, well he would not stand for it.
But what choice did he have? The owners had clamped shut all offers. Finally, Dawson’s agent, Dick Moss, decided to take things in his own hands and approach Cubs president Dallas Green. His pitch was simple: Dawson would flourish again if he could just play on a natural grass field. He loved Wrigley. The Cubs were coming off a 90-loss season. Chicago would love him.
Even more, the players would absolutely love him.
“If we got Dawson right now, it would give us a real boost,” Ryne Sandberg told reporters.
“If we could sign him,” Jody Davis said . “We could say we’re a much better team.”
“If we got Dawson, it would give us a big lift because of the kind of player and person he is,” Rick Sutcliffe added.
Green made a joke about how other players like Sutcliffe* could chip in to get Dawson (“We could put a contribution box in the clubhouse,” he said) but insisted he simply was not going to pay big money to a free agent. “Can he turn 70 wins into 90 wins?” Green grumped to reporters.
*Later, it was reported that Sutcliffe did, in fact, kick in $100,000 to help sign Dawson.
But Moss was not someone who accepted words like “No.” So he offered to just have Dawson show up at camp without a contract. They could see how good he was and then decide what to do. Green initially agreed but quickly backed off. “If we get Andre over here,” Green said, “it’s going to raise everybody’s hopes. And if somehow it doesn’t work out, everybody on the team is going to be depressed about it. So we’d better not do it.”
Again, Moss was not someone who accepted words like “No.” In late February, he just showed up at training camp and told reporters that, soon, Dawson would be playing for the Cubs. He also made it clear that the only reason the Cubs had not signed Dawson already was because Ueberroth and the other owners were not allowing him to do so.
“I’ve known Dallas a long time, and I think Dallas is a decent man who wants to do the best thing for this club and for the fans of the Cubs and the city of Chicago,” Moss said. “But Peter Ueberroth really doesn’t care about the fans of the Chicago Cubs.
“What Peter Ueberroth cares about — and what he has the club owners concentrating on — is making money.”
This put Dallas Green in a bad spot, and he hit back hard. “The blatant innuendos and accusations he allegedly told the press is a perfect example of why so many people in baseball intensely dislike the man. … Andre should fire him.”
So that seemed to end things again. But, as mentioned, Dick Moss was not someone who accepted words like “No.” So, three days later, he and Dawson just showed up at Cubs camp with a thick envelope that Moss said was a contract the Cubs simply could not refuse. And maybe it was. But Green refused to even meet with them.
So Moss came back the next day, this time with a much simpler offer …
“Andre Dawson is willing to sign a one-year contract with the Chicago Cubs on whatever terms Mr. [executive vice president John] Madigan and Dallas Green think is appropriate.”
Now that was bold. They literally left the figure blank and said that the Cubs would not have to figure out their offer until after they had seen Dawson play during spring training.
Green was furious — well, I guess it’s better to say that he remained furious. “It’s a bunch of bull,” he said. “We come to spring training, and the guy that is in charge of a particular free agent wants to put on a dog and pony show at my expense, in my complex, using my press …”
I don’t know if the reporters saw themselves as “Dallas Green’s press,” but they knew drama when they saw it. Yes, sure, Green threatened to cut off negotiations, saying, “We don’t need Andre Dawson.” But on the other hand, he would have to face a Cubs fan base that might want to know why he hadn’t signed Andre Dawson when HE COULD WRITE IN THE FIGURE.
It was a mess … but one hell of a story. The next day, the Tribune reported the feelings of some of the younger Cubs players who might not make the team if Dawson were signed, foremost among them Chico Walker, a 28-year-old outfielder going into spring training with a starting job for the first time in his career. “We don’t need Dawson,” he said rather desperately. “If I hit first and [Dave] Martinez hits second, we’ll have a lot of speed up the middle, and we’ll have good outfield defense. I mean what more could you want?”
Two days later, Green put $500,000 in the blank space on the contract, threw in an extra $150,000 if he could stay healthy through the All-Star Break, and signed Dawson.
“We had thought the club’s definition of fairness would have been more realistic,” Moss said. “But our offer was unconditional.”
Andre Dawson in 1987 hit .287 with a league-leading 49 home runs and 137 RBIs. He won another Gold Glove. He won the MVP award. And in the last home game of the season, in his last at-bat of the game against the Cardinals, Andre Dawson homered. It was in so many ways a meaningless hit. The Cubs finished last that year. But for Cubs fans, it was something special. “To me, it’s one of the greatest moments of my life as a Cubs fan,” actor Jeff Garlin says. “I cried. I actually cried. Just everything about it.”
You kind of wish things had worked out smoothly after that … but alas, this is baseball, and stuff just doesn’t work out smoothly. Dallas Green left after accusing his players of “quitting with a capital Q.” The Cubs and Dawson fought over the next contract, went to arbitration, Dawson lost, he got paid $1.85 million, had a terrific season and would play four more years with the Cubs and then play with Boston and the Marlins before retiring. He would, after a long wait, be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
He would also get $1,218,342.60 from the owners who colluded against him.