For baseball fans, the next week represents a preview of the coming Christmas celebration. You’ll come down to the tree, start passing out presents and watch the expression on the faces of your loved ones, hoping to find that you got just the right gift, the one thing they’ve always wanted. And of course, hoping to avoid a look of disdain when they open up a gift that couldn’t have more widely missed its mark.
Of course for baseball, this all takes place behind closed doors but in the public eye and instead of standing in line for a couple weeks at your local retailer to return a bad gift, bad moves on the part of some front offices will find them staring down the unemployment line. Failing to give your team a gift isn’t always the worst thing that can happen this time of year, but no one appreciates a pair of socks or some pink bunny pajamas (A Christmas Story for you young’uns, look it up or watch TBS on Christmas Day).
It’s time for the Winter Meetings, of course!
Now it has been said that Christmas is the time for giving and that all the commercialism and nature of coveting is unbecoming a holiday that celebrates the selfless acts of a savior to millions. The Charlie Brown notion about the true meaning of the holiday season notwithstanding, the Winter Meetings are where everyone goes to obtain that which they want, be it salary, prospects or movable goods. And there is one moment in Reds history that crystallizes the concept of seeking salary probably more than any other.
Dateline December 5th, 1978: Peter Edward Rose signs $3.2 million contract with the Philadelphia Phillies.
Rose became the owner of the short lived title of “largest contract in baseball history.” Free agency had sprung up a few years prior and quickly became the only thing in baseball that could decimate the Big Red Machine before age performed the deed. Other players had left their teams, other dynasties had fallen and the new era of the player had officially begun.
But a player like Rose was different. He was born in Cincinnati, raised in Cincinnati, prospected in Cincinnati, drafted in Cincinnati and phenomenal in Cincinnati. When he left, the name of the game wasn’t “mercenary for hire” though everything rapidly gravitated toward that title. It couldn’t even be considered a simple bad investment, something you might describe a trade for a player who then leaves immediately in free agency. No, this was the prodigal son of the city, Cincinnati through and through. Reds’ fans had to watch as he suited up in maroon pinstripes or the occasional sky blue uniform as he helped his new team win a World Series title at the beginning of a decade that saw no playoff appearances for the Redlegs.
The timeline of the entire transaction made the whole thing appear even more unseemly and tawdry to the innocent baseball eyes of the time. The Reds had made attempts to court Rose into signing a contract, but Rose made his position pretty clear to ownership and to most of the baseball world: he would participate in the free agency draft that year. 12 teams and the Reds all picked Rose and the bidding war began. The Reds were involved, made a million dollar offer, but were outbid by numerous teams. Rose narrowed his teams down to eight and then four, dropping the Phillies out of the race and then bringing them back in. In the end, it came down to a collection of teams including the Pirates, the Braves and the Phillies among others, with the Phillies winning out by offering a 4-year contract worth $3.2 million, a gaudy, unheard of sum of money for a ballplayer at the time.
Rose, perhaps trying to stem the criticism he knew he would face, made sure to explain that he was not taking the largest contract he was offered, but that defense was of little use. The entire landscape of baseball had changed and there was no turning back. Fans were used to ownership treating players as if they were nothing more than cattle that could be used entirely for their own purposes, but this new brashness with which a player flaunted his abilities and skills in front of prospective buyers and actually used his leverage to drive up his price? Why, it was unheard of.
And the players saw the writing on the wall as well. By the following year, according to Baseball Almanac, Nolan Ryan would eclipse the $1 million annual salary mark by signing with Houston. Two and a half years later, Rose’s old teammate from Cincinnati, George Foster, would eclipse $2 million with the contract he signed with the Mets. It took another seven years for Kirby Puckett to eclipse $3 million. The quick initial spike in salaries to get to $2 million and then the slow rise to get to $3 million may indicate that the owners were initially sitting on a big pile of cash that eventually leveled out into equitable salaries for all of their players, but that hindsight wasn’t available when Rose signed his contract.
And the move definitely paid off for the Phillies. They got their world championship, the first team to seemingly purchase it retail, and Rose got the salary he sought. But for some fans who hadn’t yet experienced the heartbreak of losing their favorite player to free agency, the age of innocence had been put to bed. And now, as the Reds gear up for this year’s Winter Meetings, they won’t be looking to purchase their next championship by offering a “gaudy” contract to a free agent, but they hope it to be busy and productive, especially on the trade front.
And it better be. Coming home from shopping and telling everyone all they’re getting is socks? No one wants to be that guy.