While the Yankees, Rangers and Angels (plus any of the mystery teams that always seem to be lurking) wrangle over the privilege of making Cliff Lee obscenely wealthy, I thought it would be fun to take a trip down memory lane, to reflect on the mother of all long-term contracts.
Certainly, multi-year contracts for pitchers are rife with risk. Multi-year contracts of five years or longer can be a recipe for disaster. Just ask the Rockies about Mike Hampton (eight years, $121 million) or Denny Neagle (five years, $51 million), the Dodgers about Kevin Brown (seven years, $105 million) or Darren Dreifort (five years, $55 million), the Giants about Barry Zito (seven years, $126 milion), the Rangers about Chan Ho Park (five years, $65 million), or any number of others cautionary tales. This New York Times story yesterday delves into some of the horror stories. (And also some of the successes, like Greg Maddux’s five-year, $57.5 million contract with the Braves, and Mike Mussina’s six-year deal with the Yankees.
That got me thinking about Dave Stieb and the amazing 11-year contract the right-handed ace signed with the Blue Jays prior to the 1985 season. As far as I can tell, it’s the longest contract in baseball history, at least in the free-agency era. Here are the details. This was pretty revolutionary stuff. The Stieb deal was worth a minimum of $16.6 million and a maximum of $25 million, which seems pretty tame by today’s standards but was exorbitant back then. The Blue Jays took some heat, if I recall. What’s interesting is that their GM was Pat Gillick, who had a policy throughout his career of never giving out a contract of longer than three years (a rule he broke in 2000, with the Mariners, to give reliever Arthur Rhodes a four-year deal, which didn’t come back to haunt him; Rhodes was excellent for the first three years, and passable in the fourth year).
I found a story from 1985 in which Gillick characterized the Stieb contract as a three-year deal with eight options, but it has generally been portrayed as an 11-year deal. As Stieb says in the story I linked to, “I’m gratified to the Blue Jays for giving me security for the rest of my life.”
Believe it or not, it was Stieb, and not the Blue Jays, who initially came to regret this contract. Through the first six years of the deal, Stieb had an 85-56 record (.603), with a 3.38 earned-run average. As the 1991 season approached, Stieb was coming off a year in which he went 18-6 and pitched a no-hitter. He was generally regarded as one of the best, if not THE best, pitchers in the American League, at least this side of Roger Clemens.
Meanwhile, salaries had really started to explode, and Stieb was being left in the dust. According to an article in the Toronto Globe and Mail, 36 pitchers were to be paid more than Stieb in 1991, many of whom were demonstrably inferior. Instead of the Jays getting heat, it was now Stieb and his agent, Bob LaMonte, who were under fire from other agents for selling him short. One agent, Craig Fenech, told the Globe and Mail: “It was a mistake by Stieb and his agent, no doubt. But it could affect the Jays now because it could affect Stieb psychologically. It can eat away at people when their peers make so much more money than them.”
In spring training of 1991, the Blue Jays took the extraordinary step, at the behest of Gillick and team president Paul Beeston ,of tearing up the next three years of Stieb’s contract and reworking the terms. His 1991 salary was boosted from $1.3 million to $3 million; in 1992, he went up from $1.8 million to $3.25 million; and in 1993, from $1.9 million to $3.5 million. It was a total increase of $4.35 million, and entirely voluntary by the Blue Jays.
“It was a very magnanimous gesture on their part,” Stieb, then 33, told the Toronto Star. “I never got a Christmas present like that before. It’s more like winning the lottery. I’m grateful to the organization for this gesture. It’s a reward for the 12 years I’ve been here.”
Said LaMonte, the agent for Stieb, in the Globe and Mail: “When we did the deal in 1985, it was considered to be the epic Picasso of all time. By last year, it was a dinosaur. We were not going to be the ones to approach Toronto and ask to renegotiate. We were perfectly willing to stick to the deal we had negotiated. But they approached us and I flew to Calgary to meet with Pat Gillick, Paul Beeston and Peter Widdrington (chairman of the board).”
Somehow, I don’t see the team that eventually signs Cliff Lee volunteering to renegotiate after four or five years.
Postscript: Over the next three years after the renegotiation, Stieb was hampered by back problems and won a total of nine games. He was out of baseball by 1994 before returning to the Blue Jays for a short-live comeback in 1998.