Arbitration is ugly. Two sides sit down across a table and come up with bizarre arguments to support polarized positions. In baseball, these debates center on varying perceptions of a player's worth.
Given that ballplayers are among the most overpaid individuals in modern society, these discussions are probably a bit hard to comprehend for folks whose raises are figured in fractions rather than multiplication tables.
These arbitration hearings must be a little bit like hassling with a used car salesman. One side is praising the paint job, the upholstery, the tape deck and the engine, and the other side is finding rust under the fender, a rattle in the transmission and a leak in the radiator. It would be hard to imagine that both sides are talking about the same car.
Baseball's arbitration hearings must be a bit like this, with one significant difference. You can walk away from the used car lot, but the baseball team cannot walk away from the player--and vice versa. When the hearing is finished, the arbitrator decides which side was the fairest in what it asked or offered. This, he will proclaim, will be the player's salary.
This type of "negotiation" will likely happen in the near future between the Padres and Kevin McReynolds. They could not come to terms on a 1985 contract and they have not yet come to terms on a 1986 contract.
To resolve such an impasse, McReynolds--or representative Tom Selakovich--files for a hearing and gets the ammunition together. Selakovich will assemble statistics which will make it sound like his client, at worst, should have been the National League's most valuable player or, at best, be reserved a spot on the wall in Cooperstown.
The Padres will counter with equal absurdity, suggesting that there are a half-dozen youngsters in places like Bisbee, Bismarck and Beaumont capable of absconding with McReynolds' place on the 1986 roster.
All of this is not supposed to be taken personally, because business is business.
A typical segment of dialogue would probably go something like this:
Selakovich--"You have to consider that Kevin was second on the Padres in game-winning runs batted in."
Padres--"Yeah, and how many of those came on ground balls to the shortstop in the second inning? Does your computer printout tell you how many of his 81 strikeouts came with a runner on third and less than two out?"
That is the way these things go. Denigrate one positive statistic and then plant a seed of doubt in another area.
McReynolds, according to Selakovich, ranks very high statistically among a list of 88 major league outfielders he has tracked over the last two seasons. These were the outfielders, he said, who have started 200 or more games over the course of the last two seasons.
Selakovich, you see, will be talking about the last two years. McReynolds, as you recall, had a rather splendid 1984 season. He hit .278 with 20 home runs and 75 RBI. It was not the stuff of superstardom, but it was nice.
The Padres will want to talk about 1985, when McReynolds hit .234 with 15 home runs and again 75 RBI. They will ask what the boss asks each of us each working morning of our lives: "What have you done lately?"
Indeed, the dialogue could get quite spicy should McReynolds' 1985 performance become a focal point. This was not a good year, but there are different ways to look at a bad year.
Let's call this "pre-constructed" dialogue:
Agent--"Seventeen National League outfielders played in more than 140 games, and only four of them hit more home runs than Kevin McReynolds. And only six of them had more RBI."
Padres--"Wait a minute. What about the seven National League outfielders who played in less than 140 and still hit more home runs than McReynolds. What's more, only six of those 17 regular outfielders struck out more than McReynolds."
Agent--"My client led National League outfielders with 430 putouts. That's 48 more than Willie McGee, who finished second."
Padres--"Fine. We're glad you brought that up. We're willing to pay McReynolds a good-field, no-hit salary. Do you know where he ranked among regular outfielders in batting average? Last. None of the others hit less than .243. Heck, Rick Sutcliffe hit .233."
All of this may sound weighted in the Padres' favor, as if the arbitrator has almost no choice but to assign McReynolds whatever salary the ballclub offers.
It is not that easy a call. McReynolds is said to be asking between $400,000 and $500,000, which may seem outlandish after such a dismal performance. However, the average 1985 salary was $368,998 and figures to be around $400,000 in 1986. It is ridiculous, but that is the way it is.
Consequently, should the Padres remain firm with an offer of $250,000, the arbitrator would likely rule against them if McReynolds' asking price was a more "reasonable" $400,000. It could be successfully argued that the very nature of being a regular causes McReynolds to be above average, thereby refuting attempts to rate him against his peers.
You can see how such verbal jousting could cause a team and athlete to come to feel that they do not love each other very much.
Of course, McReynolds has already made it rather clear that he does not have much affection for Manager Dick Williams. In his mind, even the trauma of arbitration might be a more pleasant thought than another season under Williams' stewardship.