Sports

The Serfs Of Summer

Roy MacGregor March 20 1978
Sports

The Serfs Of Summer

Roy MacGregor March 20 1978

The Serfs Of Summer

Roy MacGregor

Sports

It seems as many ironies as players were gathered in Dunedin, Florida, for the March training camp of the Toronto Blue Jays. Peter Bavasi, the club’s 35-year-old president, sat sheltered from the Gulf winds in a warm trailer, his frayed jeans contrasting oddly with the porcupine sleekness of his styled hair. In his wallet was a grey union card—Local 770 of the Retail Clerks International Association, dated January. 1965—but there was far more distance than a mere 13 years between the card and what he had to say about contract negotiations: “We must be firm—otherwise we may as well set up a cash register on the desk and let them take what they need.” Through a misty window behind him the players stood morosely in the field, toes nudging other kinds of depressions into the grass, talking, as outfielder Bob Bailor put it. “not about girls or even baseball, but about how cheap the club is.” It was difficult to recall that only a year ago about 40 laughing Blue Jays ran out onto this very field, while some 60 members of the Canadian media stood in the sun and loudly applauded. There is nothing to cheer about this year, though not from a lack of superlatives: the team was, after all, the worst in all baseball, was the most successful new franchise in history and, according the players, was surely to be the cheapest. On this day there were heavy clouds over Dunedin’s Grant Field and last year’s sunshine was only a lukewarm memory.

“We are through with contract negotiations,” Bavasi announced in the trailer. He tapped his cigarette reassuringly. “It is time now to concentrate on baseball.” He spoke only to a reporter, who nodded; he would have had great difficulty getting agreement from the 11 players who, only the day before, had seen their contracts automatically renewed by the club. Because the players were young professionals with less than two years big-league experience, they were, in effect, baseball serfs; in order for older, established players such as Reggie Jackson to command $700,000 a year as a free agent, the players’ association sacrifices the brand-new players, meaning the owners can do as they wish with them. The 11 renewed contracts became binding without so much as the player’s approving signature, and the owners could pay them whatever they decided, provided it was no less than 20% under what the players made in 1977. Last year, incidentally, the average Blue Jay made $34,300, which seems like a great deal to the average person, but it is not even half the $76,300 the average big-leaguer received or even a quarter the $139,900 the average Philadelphia Philly

was paid. The Blue Jays did, after all, realise an estimated $3.5-million profit at a time when even established sports clubs pray nightly just to break even.

Had the team not made money there still would have been resources to draw upon. Where most teams are owned either by wealthy financiers or breweries, the Blue Jays had both (R. Howard Webster and Labatt’s who both own 45%) and even had a huge bank thrown in for pocket change, the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce with 10%. A year ago Bavasi had openly doubted there was a sports franchise anywhere with as much financial clout.

Bavasi was obviously not about to bend easily. He was tough and hard-nosed, but at least he was candidly open about it. What Bavasi was keeping to himself and what might have lead to open hostility had the players known, was that the Blue Jays had established a two-million-dollar fund over the winter, a fund specially earmarked for the purchase of new, highly talented and fresh blood once the spring negotiations came to an end. Players denied a raise now could be denied even work shortly.

Only one of the Blue Jays, second baseman Steve Staggs, flatly refused even to report to camp. He sat by his phone back in Colorado waiting for contract talks that never came. A contract had arrived in the mails, but it must have been a mistake— offering only $21,000 for 1978, which is the major league’s minimum, and which he claimed would be a decrease from the contract he had signed a year ago. The cocky infielder had been popular with Blue Jays fans if not management, and he had spent much of his fall preparing a highly detailed 14-page paean of self-celebration that put him in the top 19% of his infielder peer group and, to his mind, called for $255,000 over three years. But the club showed little interest in listening. He had a contract, it did need his signature, and he could take it or leave it. “1 will not be neutered for baseball’s sake,” Staggs said. “1 hope it is not the club’s intention to treat me as a wild stallion who has to be broken, but that’s exactly the attitude they’re presenting me with.”

On the spectrum’s other end was Bob Bailor, whose baseball promise is to Stagg’s what the Florida sunshine is to Colorado’s snow. Bailor had come to Florida without a contract but secure in the knowledge that he, as the team’s best player in 1977, would naturally and easily tie his future success to the compounding interests of the club. Last year, while earning $38,000 Bailor hit well enough (.310) to set a record for expansion clubs and was selected for several all-star rookie teams. He felt he had played his own part, and that a hefty raise was due, perhaps even more than the $76,000 he and Bavasi had discussed casually last September. But when Bailor turned up in the winter with an z agent in tow and a request for around o $210,000 over two years the discussions o with Bavasi ended abruptly. “It was pretty ° embarrassing for me,” said Bailor. He, like the others, had ended up with an automatic renewal of his contract: $50,000 for one year only; take it or leave it. “I will not be dressing for any games under that contract,” Bailor said while sitting quietly in the clubhouse.

“When we met he pretty much said he was doing me a big favor by letting me play,” Bailor said of his meeting in Toronto with Bavasi. Bavasi’s claim was: “No agent can say his player—not even Bob Bailor—brought people into the ball park. We drew well last year, but no thanks to the way the players played.” To that, Bailor countered: “Maybe he’s right—but he didn’t do anything to get the people in either. They would have come anyway.” Well . . . maybe, but not likely. Back in the spring of 1976. when Don McDougall, the president of Labatt Breweries of Canada Ltd., arranged to meet Peter Bavasi over breakfast at the Century-Plaza in Los Angeles, he already knew Bavasi was the right man. “We wanted someone who could operate both the baseball and the marketing,” says McDougall. “And very, very few operations don’t have those functions divided.” Bavasi had already proven he could master both tasks.

The baseball knowledge he learned through osmosis from his father, Buzzie Bavasi, whose baseball credentials have been stamped by the Montreal Royals, Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers, San Diego Padres and, currently, the California Angels. As the cliché goes.theyounger Bavasi’s first memories are of baseball; but his second memories are of not being as interested in the actual game as his friends from the block were. What fascinated young Peter was how the concessions were run, and he grew up dreaming one day of managing his own supermarket. But baseball was there, was handy, and he had an in. He graduated in 1964 with a degree in philosophy, married his high-school sweetheart (and recent UCLA Homecoming Queen) and took her to a baseball game on the first day of their honeymoon, knowing he was probably looking straight into his future. His father, then with the Dodgers, showed no compunction in hiring him to work in Albuquerque for the Dodger minor league team there. And he quickly demonstrated a genius for promotion and management. “He always worked 12 hours a day right from the start,” says Buzzie Bavasi. “He had common sense, was interested in the financial side of it and was conservative.” He was also ambitious: from taking tickets and painting chairs he moved up quickly, going with his father to the San Diego Padres in 1968, and by 1973 was general manager and vice-president of the team. As for the marketing, he came by some of his inventions on his own and much more came from his association w ith Ray Kroc, the Chicago financier who owns the Padres and who created the McDonald’s hamburger chain. It was Kroc who taught Bavasi you could “sell the sizzle if you don't have the steaks. ”

Bavasi began immediately with a masterful—and deceptive—display of press manipulation the day after he was appointed by the Blue Jays on June 18. 1976. He phoned Hav.au and talked his old friend. Roy Hartsfield, into managing the Toronto club. Bavasi then held off the announcement for three months and four days, keeping the press speculating. Only when the press slowed down on Blue Jays news did Bavasi finally announce the Hartsfield appointment; timed, as he put it, for “best press impact.”

Beginning in Toronto “without so much as a paper clip,” Bavasi managed to assemble a natural baseball team in a matter of months. He did it by driving himself 18 hours a day . “I am consumed totally by what I do,” he says without remorse. And he expects no less from those he hires.

On the first day of this year’s first spring training camp Bavasi lectured his players on always signing autographs, on tipping hats to the crowd and on the merits of sharp creases and clean-shaven faces. He protected the fans by vetoing such marketing gimmicks as blue panties that said “I’m behind the Blue Jays.” He turned down The Human Bomb who wanted to place himself in a coffin and blow himself up at home plate on July 1. And when he okayed a souvenir halter top for the upcoming season he turned down samples until the blue dye was considered dark enough to conceal nipples.

Throughout the first year, thanks to Bavasi’s diligence, the Toronto Blue Jays could only be perceived by the public as a happy, squeaky-clean family—a refreshing and welcome change in the self-centred world of modern professional sports. It was an image shaped and cultivated by Bavasi, and protected so carefully that he once even distributed confidential memos (and later had them collected) to his employees urging them to get on the phone and help load a Toronto Sun poll on whether players have a right to long hair

and beards. He kept the “family image” firmly intact that first season. But the first season ended a financial if not an artistic success, and Bavasi was promoted to president and chief operating officer of the club last November.

The realities of the year gone by, however, were still 107 losses. Would 1.7 million fans return in 1978 to see the team fall even further? It was expected that some of the reported $3.5-million profit might be used to purchase a few genuine players from the autumn free-agent draft, but though the Blue Jays dallied with young Lyman Bostock they could not come to terms. Bostock wanted $2.5 million over 5 years and Bavasi could not part with that much. Nor, according to the unhappy players in the Dunedin camp, could Bavasi easily part with petty cash in their direction. Young Jerry Garvin—who had the lowest earned-run average among all Blue I Jays starting pitchers last year and was £ named to two rookie all-star teams—had g been hoping for $80,000 and was holding a £ renewed contract for less than half that.

1 The mood of the second-year camp was Ï of a family going through a divorce, and | Bavasi was not helping matters a great deal z by privately referring to some players as “stiff”—baseball terminology for mothfree bodies to store uniforms on. He even seemed to be enjoying the players’ misery. “Griping might be good for them,” he said. “We lost 107 games last year with a happy team. The New York Yankees had some griping, I’m told—and they won a World Series.” As for the one player who refused to report, Bavasi said, “It doesn’t matter, we shall continue to grow without him.”

In Steve Stagg’s case that is probably true, but the Blue Jays could hardly afford to say the same of Bob Bailor, the most visible and popular of all Blue Jays. And eventually Bavasi’s mouth closed and his eyes opened to see what an unhappy Bailor could do to the club. The time had obviously come for Bavasi to put a fatherly arm about Bailor and walk him across the empty field to the dugout. They sat and talked. Then they talked for three hours more in Bavasi’s office, and when it was all over Bailor had a new contract for around $80,000. If he was not totally happy he was at least going to keep quiet, and rest for the opening day. As for Steve Staggs, he could sit by his phone forever, for all anyone seemed to care.

Bavasi sat back on his chair in the trailer, ran a hand through his hair and laughed nervously. “ ‘Illusion of enjoyment’, ” he said. “Yeah, I liked that when I first used it, but I looked it up this winter and ‘illusion’ has a negative connotation to it, you know. Now I’m looking for a new word.” He removed his glasses and rubbed where the frame sat against his nose, rubbed and thought. “ . . . ‘Memory’? We’re selling ‘memory’ . . . maybe. No, ‘magic.’ That’s it—‘magic’! ”

No, that’s not it. In looking for a replacement for the “illusion” of the Blue Jays he had only to flip it over and look at the word antonym: “reality.” And welcome to it.