Is Money Talking Too Loud In Dodgertown?

Twenty-five years ago, The Holdout was the talk of spring training. Baseball's top pitchers, Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, stayed away from the Los Angeles Dodgers camp in a joint demand for bigger salaries. After the two sat out a month, their combined salaries were raised $50,000, to $235,000.

These days, star salaries are again the hot topic in Dodgertown in Vero Beach, Fla.--but on a scale that makes Koufax's and Drysdale's haul look paltry. Eager to revive stagnant attendance and return his team to the World Series, Dodger owner Peter O'Malley and his general manager, Fred Claire, spent the winter signing big-name free agents to $37 million worth of contracts.

STAR SEARCH. The prime catch: Darryl Strawberry, the gifted and temperamental slugger who left the New York Mets for a five-year, $20.25 million deal. The Dodgers also lured pitcher Kevin Gross from the Montreal Expos with a three-year, $6.4 million contract, and outfielder Brett Butler from San Francisco with a three-year, $10 million pact. Because of the blockbuster deals, this year's player payroll will soar to $34 million from $20 million last year (chart).

O'Malley's motive isn't hard to read. His job is to keep the turnstiles clicking and the Dodger dogs selling, and he needs star performers and a winning season to do it. The Dodgers' attendance, which in the early 1980s regularly soared well over 3 million a year, has flattened out lately (chart).

A few more years of slow growth in ticket sales could take the shine off one of baseball's prime properties. The Dodgers rake in an estimated $25 million in revenues from attendance, parking, and stadium concessions, on top of more than $25 million in broadcast revenues. Gerald W. Scully, an economist at the University of Texas and author of The Business of Major League Baseball, figures the Dodgers have made $15 million to $25 million a year for the past three or four years and are worth roughly $250 million, if O'Malley wanted to sell. Scully thinks the Dodgers can make back in higher attendance what they spend on free agents. "It's a rather sensible thing to do," he says.

The Dodgers are hoping the extra talent they've bought will propel them to their third World Series triumph in 11 years. Last year's injury-plagued team revived in August to finish five games behind the Cincinnati Reds. Now, says Al Rosen, general manager of the San Francisco Giants: "They've strengthened their lineup from top to bottom."

But the salary bonanza is sowing seeds of discontent in the Dodger clubhouse. Veteran slugger Eddie Murray and ace reliever Jay Howell both asked the Dodgers to extend their current contracts and were turned down. Howell skipped the first four days of spring training in protest, and Murray is threatening to look elsewhere when he turns free agent next winter. No wonder the Dodgers hired a full-time traveling team psychiatrist in November.

Even if a shrink and manager Tommy Lasorda, a master motivator, can keep the grumbling down, the Dodgers still have to worry about injuries to some of their aging boys of summer. Last year, shoulder surgery sidelined 32-year-old Orel Hershiser, the pitching hero of the 1988 World Series, after he appeared in only four games. He nonetheless took home $1.6 million.

The Dodgers also find themselves paying big bucks to players whose best years may be behind them. Thirty-year-old lefty pitcher Fernando Valenzuela, enormously popular with the club's large Hispanic following, will earn $2.55 million in 1991, despite last year's 13-13 won-lost record and a 4.59 earned run average.

Worried Dodger loyalists can take some comfort in the apparent transformation of Darryl Strawberry. Prone to streaks, slumps, and violent outbursts in New York, Strawberry, 29, has become a born-again Christian, seems relaxed and cheerful, and is hitting the cover off the ball.

But it's still only spring training. O'Malley and his team can look forward to a season of skeptical sportswriters, disgruntled players, and a possible lengthy recession. In times such as these, O'Malley doubtless yearns for the day when the big holdout cost his team a mere $50,000.

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