The winter meetings are over, but they will not soon be forgotten. It was, by all accounts, the most chaotic convention in recent memory, even though trading activity remained as light as expected and the Orioles remained in hiding for most of the week.
The Gait House Hotel in Louisville, Ky., was instead transformed Into the most active marketplace in the history of baseball free agency. On Tuesday alone, free-spending franchises spent a total of $140 million, more than the value of all but the most profitable clubs.
Outfielder Barry Bonds and dozens of lesser players exploded the myth of ownership's new-found financial restraint. Bonds finalized a record $43.75 million contract on Tuesday. Rlght-hander Greg Maddux set a new standard for pitchers on Wednesday when he signed a five-year, $28 million deal with the defending National League champion Atlanta Braves. Pitcher David Cone hit the lottery when the Kansas City Royals agreed to give him a $9 million signing bonus as part of his three-year, $18 million deal.
Player movement was particularly brisk in the American League East, where five divisional hopefuls made significant changes and a certain much-loved mid-Atlantic contender went home with nothing to show for the week but a Rule V draft pick and a couple of minor-league pitchers. The Orioles eventually did make some news when they signed free-agent second baseman Harold Reynolds to a one-year contract on Friday, but that was long after every-one had gone home.
There also were a couple of high-profile deals, but even the trade that sent premier left-hander Jim Abbott to the New York Yankees was virtually lost among the headlines that put the winter meetings on the map for all the wrong reasons.
The owners voted to reopen the labor agreement. The Executive Council announced the pending formation of the search committee that will choose a new commissioner. Civil rights leader Jesse Jackson came to Louisville to lecture baseball for its poor treatment of minorities. Marge Schott even showed up long enough to deliver a half-baked apology for her racial insensitivity.
They weren't the winter meetings as we've come to know them, but it was a very interesting week. It was a week of big winners.. and big losers. Here's a quick look back at some of them:
Winner: Bill White, who went from lame-duck National League president to possible future commissioner when Jackson nominated him as the top minority candidate for the position. Jackson also named Orioles assistant GM Frank Robinson and Atlanta Braves vice president Hank Aaron as possible candidates.
Loser: Schott (aka Mother Goosestep), whose rambling, conditional statement of apology did little to satisfy the long list of community and civil rights leaders who have called on the Executive Council to force her out of the game.
Winner: The Toronto Blue Jays. who managed to survive a potentially disastrous free-agent exodus by moving decisively to sign free-agent infielder Paul Molitor and pitcher Dave Stewart. Blue Jays GM Pat Gillick has developed a reputation for making the key moves when it counts, and he made enough of them over the past few days to keep his club at the top of the division.
Loser: The Milwaukee Brewers, who made a tremendous run at the Blue Jays last year, but were thrown for a major loss when the Blue Jays signed Molitor to a three-year contract. The Brewers had already lost. pitcher Chris Bosio to free agency earlier in the off-season.
Winner: The Braves, who have assembled the best starting rotation in baseball. The decision to sign Maddux came as a major surprise. but it makes sense for a team that is intent on going to the World Series every year until it gets one right.
Loser: The Orioles, of course. The Blue Jays and Red Sox made major acquisitions. The Orioles acquired minor-league outfielder Sherman Obando and a couple of pitching prospects who will not impact the major-league team for at least a couple of years. Reynolds will help, but he is not an impact player.
Winner: New York City, when the Yankees acquired the most inspirational player of his time when they traded three prospects to the California Angels for one-handed pitcher Abbott. They still have a long way to go, but Abbott will make them a better team on the field and in the club-house.
Loser: The New York media. How do you rip this guy?
Winner: The San Francisco Giants, who decided to improve their future by buying Bonds. The acquisition of baseball's best player makes the heart of their lineup (Will Clark, Matt Williams, Bonds) as dangerous as any to play at Candlestick since Mays, McCovey and Hart.
Loser: Yankees GM Gene Michael, who went 0-for-6 in the free-agent market. They made attempts to acquire Maddux, Bonds, Cone, Jose Guzman, Doug Drabek and Greg Swindell, but only succeeded in driving the price up for most of them. Michael finally convinced left-hander Jimmy Key to accept $17 million over four years, but that was after the Yankees contingent returned home.