Checks, crosschecks mark arbitration time

Ken Rosenthal

February 12, 1991|By Ken Rosenthal

Agent Craig Fenech was about to argue his first salary-arbitration case when his client, former Orioles pitcher Dave Schmidt, reminded him not to lose his temper.

Sound advice, but Schmidt couldn't follow it himself. Once Texas blamed him for the unearned runs he allowed in 1984 -- that's right, the runs deleted from his ERA because of poor fielding by his teammates.

"The minute the meeting was over, I almost had to peel Dave Schmidt off [Texas general manager] Tom Grieve," Fenech recalls. "He was in Tom's face, yelling to trade him, get him the hell out of there."

Welcome to the wacky world of salary arbitration, a world the Orioles seem destined to enter Thursday for the first time since winning a decision over infielder Billy Smith in 1978.

The club today avoided arbitration by signing newly acquired first baseman Glen Davis, who was asking $3.65 million, a record request for the process. So was the club's $2.9 million counteroffer. They decided to spilt the difference instead of letting the arbitrator pick one figure or the other.

As you might imagine, these things can turn fairly nasty, which is why the Orioles would prefer to settle with Davis, a sensitive slugger who has yet to wear their uniform.

At best, arbitration is a sticky debate over a player's value.

At worst, it is baseball's answer to the steel-cage match.

Remember Leon Durham? In his hearing after the 1984 playoffs, the Cubs showed a videotape of the Tim Flannery grounder that rolled through his legs and cost them a 3-2 lead in the deciding game of its playoff series with San Diego.

Imagine what the Red Sox would have done to Bill Buckner.

The strangest argument Orioles general manager Roland Hemond recalls from his tenure with the Chicago White Sox came from the agent for outfielder Bob Molinaro.

"He was one of our few single players, and his representative said he was helping to draw young girls to the park," Hemond says. "Molinaro was winking: 'Hey, that's pretty good, Roland.' He had all sorts of jewelry on, a great tan. He had just been to Florida."

Alas, the arbitrator looked the other way.

Hemond, 9-4 in arbitration, got the nod.

The process, for those who must know, was created by the 1973 basic agreement as a way of ensuring higher salaries for players who were past a certain service level, but did not yet qualify for free agency.

Eligibility has been the central issue in the past two labor disputes, but most cases settle rather than go to hearings, which typically last four to five hours, with the arbitrator rendering judgment the next day.

The player is present at the hearing, and it isn't unusual for a teammate, or even an opponent, to testify on his behalf. Clubs often hire specialists to try their cases; the Orioles plan to use Hemond, statistician Eddie Epstein and counsel Lon Babby.

The arbitrators? They're selected jointly by the players' union and owners' Player Relations Committee. Unfortunately there is no guarantee he -- or she -- knows anything about baseball.

Tal Smith, a negotiator who handles cases for several clubs, recalls an arbitrator who grew thoroughly confused when someone referred to a player's September promotion as a "cup of coffee."

Then there's the story of pitcher Bill Gullickson, who was giving a brief overview of his career in a 1983 hearing when he casually noted his first professional start was in the Florida State League.

"What was the score of that game?" the arbitrator demanded.

Smith later calculated that Gullickson had already pitched 155 games as a professional. Mercifully, the arbitrator didn't ask for every score.

"It certainly can be called anything from an inexact science to a crapshoot, depending on the arbitrator's ruling," says Kansas City vice president Joe Klein.

Then again, the arbitrators merit sympathy too.

In 1989, the agent for Texas outfielder Pete Incaviglia mentioned that his client had knocked a ball through a wall in a spring-training game. Interesting, but Inky's super-human feat had taken place three years before.

He lost his case.

"It's more boring than the public would think," agent Alan Hendricks contends. "It's not like Judge Wapner on People's Court."

On the other hand, Texas assistant GM Wayne Krivsky says, "It's game day. You're anxious. They're anxious. Particularly if it's a significant case with a lot of money on the line. The meter definitely tips more toward an episode of Perry Mason than a dull day at the office."

Thursday, the Orioles are looking at Perry Mason.

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