The Dodgers wanted to keep their homegrown Cy Young Award winner in Los Angeles. They faced an important salary arbitration case with the pitcher one year away from free agency, determined to keep him from reaching the open market. The result was a record contract.
Clayton Kershaw went through all of this, culminating in a $215 million contract signed last Friday, but this story isn't about him. It's about Orel Hershiser, 25 years ago.
The Dodgers won the World Series in 1988, as you may have noticed given the 95 stories here about that season in 2013. Hershiser was the driving force behind the success, finishing his season with a record 59 consecutive scoreless innings and a 1.05 ERA in five postseason starts (plus one save). He unanimously won the National League Cy Young Award.
Hershiser was eligible for arbitration in 1989, in line for a big raise from his $1.1 million salary in 1988. Hershiser filed for a 1989 salary of $2.425 million, which would have been a record through arbitration, while the Dodgers countered at $2 million.
He would have been a free agent after the 1989 season.
Strangely, the hold up in contract negotiations was language regarding how to handle payments during the pending lockout in 1990. This was smack dab in the middle of baseball's labor unrest, eight years removed from a long strike and a year removed from the owners getting popped for collusion (the very reason Kirk Gibson was a free agent able for the Dodgers to sign before 1988), and five years before another strike would wipe out a World Series. Lonnie White of the Los Angeles Times explained:
Teammates Kirk Gibson and Mike Marshall both have clauses in their contracts obligating the team to pay them in the event of an owners' lockout in 1990. However, the Dodgers don't want to extend the same provision to Hershiser, agent Robert Fraley said.
Hershiser turned 30 in September 1988, roughly 4½ years older than Kershaw at this stage of their careers. But the result was the same: a record-setting contract.
Hershiser signed a three-year, $7.9 million contract in February 1989 that would pay him a $1.1 million signing bonus and salaries of $2.4 million in 1989, $1.6 million in 1990, and $2.8 million in 1991. The lower salary in the lockout-threatened 1990 campaign was a compromise, as Hershiser wouldn't be paid in case of a work stoppage that season, as Fraley told Ross Newhan of the Times:
Hershiser agreed to that provision after the Dodgers increased the amount of the signing bonus, decreased the money at stake in 1990 and increased the total package to a figure that Fraley said was "close to what we always had in mind."
Fraley added: "It's structured properly now. We took the heat off 1990."
Hershiser's deal was the largest long-term contract in baseball history, and signed a week after Dwight Gooden signed a three-year, $6.7 million extension with the Mets, and just one day after Roger Clemens signed a three-year, $7.5 million contract with the Red Sox.
"You're talking about two of the premier pitchers in baseball," Claire said of Clemens and Hershiser. "You can't have one signing without an impact on the other.
"The Red Sox were buying out one year of free agency (the third year of Clemens' contract) and we were buying out two."
Hershiser, who was eligible for free agency when the 1989 season ended, said it was a possibility he would have had to consider. His hope, however, was to stay with the Dodgers.
"In a negotiation like this, you try to take the sentiment out," he said. "You try to do what's best for your family and yourself. It's all business. I understand that.
"Now I can get back to feeling warm and goosey about being a Dodger. It's a fantastic feeling to have it out of the way. I can concentrate on baseball. I don't have to worry about free agency."
Murray Chass, in his pre-blogging days at the New York Times, noted the peaks reached by Hershiser's contract:
With the new contract, Hershiser achieved three milestones:
* Using the union and management method for determining each year's pay, he will be the highest-paid player ever for one season this year with a figure of $2,766,667. The method combines a year's salary with a prorated share of the signing bonus.
* Based on the same formula, he became the first player to sign for $3 million for one year with a figure of $3,166,667 for 1991.
* He received the biggest raise ever given a player, $1,666,667 over his $1.1 million salary last year.
Based on the average annual value of the total contract, Hershiser's $2,633,333 ranks second to Dan Quisenberry's $2,754,217.
It was a different time.
Brett Ramaker of San Diego, in a letter to the LA Times, invited folks to exit his lawn:
Year after year, players submit higher figures for their next year's salary. When is it going to end? Someone must put an end to this ridiculous greed. No pitcher or any other player for that matter deserves to make over $1 million. Why should Hershiser and other pitchers make more per year than any other player on the team? It takes everyone's participation to make a successful team or organization. That's the meaning of the word "team." I'm not suggesting that Hershiser is not an important asset to the Dodgers, but he definitely does not add $2.425 million to the organization. As long as baseball clubs are referred to as teams, maybe players should all be treated equally, as a team should be. If Hershiser wants to think of himself as a hot-shot individual, maybe he should pursue a career such as golf or bowling.
It's about time the owners start thinking and put their heads together. If they just deny these astronomical proposals, the players will be faced with the decision to play as is or not play at all.
Mr. Ramaker, the owners did try to put their heads together to combat the very problem you spoke of. It was called collusion.
I hope Mr. Ramaker is sitting down when he finds out that Kershaw will average $30.71 million over the life of his new deal.
Thanks to Steve Kinsella, whose tweet inspired this post.