Fernando Valenzuela walked out of a hotel coffee shop Saturday morning richer by $5.5 million after coming to terms with the Dodgers on a three-year escalating contract that makes him the highest-paid player in team history and the wealthiest starting pitcher in baseball.
Valenzuela, who was paid $42,500 in his first year as a Dodger (1981), will make $1.6 million this season, $1.85 million in 1987 and $2.05 million in 1988, thus supplanting Pedro Guerrero as the highest-paid Dodger. In 1983, Guerrero signed a five-year, $7-million contract that will pay him $1.37 million this year and rise to $1.7 million in 1988, when both he and Valenzuela will be eligible to become free agents. At that time, Valenzuela will be only 28.
By signing Valenzuela (17-10 last year), the Dodgers avoided an arbitration hearing that had been set to begin at 9:30 a.m. Saturday. The hearing was canceled after the agreement was reached in the coffee shop of the Sheraton La Reina, the airport hotel where both sides had gone for the hearing.
Valenzuela's agent, Tony DeMarco, said he and attorney Dick Moss approached the table at which Dodger attorney Bob Walker and scouting director Ben Wade were sitting and asked that negotiations be resumed. When the arbitrator, University of Kansas law professor Raymond Goetz, agreed to wait, the sides resumed talking.
The day before, Moss said, the Dodgers had made "a very significant move" in their offer. When they came up with another $100,000 in that offer on Saturday, DeMarco said, "we felt it was fair and a good figure, and recommended it to Fernando." Valenzuela accepted, and Walker called to inform Dodger owner Peter O'Malley that the native of Etchohuaquila, Mexico, had just tilted the Dodgers' financial ledger in unprecedented fashion again.
Valenzuela held out in 1982 and became the highest-paid second-year player in history by signing a $350,000 contract. The next year, he became the Dodgers' first $1-million man and baseball's first million-dollar winner in arbitration. He took successive $100,000 raises the next two seasons, avoiding arbitration at the last moment each time.
This winter, a season away from being eligible for free agency, Valenzuela submitted a bid of $1.7 million for arbitration, a figure exceeded by only one major leaguer, Boston's Wade Boggs, who is seeking $1.85 million from the Red Sox. The Dodgers countered with an offer of $1.35 million, a $150,000 raise over last season.
"It's always very nice to avoid arbitration," DeMarco said Saturday, "when you've won without having to fight."
Dodger officials, who left the wedding reception of team Executive Vice President Fred Claire Saturday afternoon to attend a press conference at Little Joe's restaurant in Chinatown and announce the signing, also expressed satisfaction, although O'Malley unexpectedly was not present for the announcement. The owner, reached by phone in his office, said he had left the wedding with other team officials but had gone to Dodger Stadium to attend to other matters. He spoke by phone, however, to both Valenzuela and DeMarco and offered his congratulations.
"This is a championship team, and championship players get high salaries," O'Malley said. "'That's the world we live in."
Asked if he is comfortable in that world, O'Malley said: "Yes, I'm very comfortable with a championship team. Championship players deserve championship salaries."
The Dodger payroll, which ranked 14th among 26 major league teams two years ago, was sixth-highest in 1985, according to figures compiled by the owners' Player Relations Committee. It should rank even higher in 1986 in the wake of the increased salaries being paid to Valenzuela, Mike Marshall ($655,000) and Greg Brock ($325,000), among others, and with Orel Hershiser another potential million-dollar winner in arbitration this week.
Hershiser, who went 19-3 last season, is scheduled to have his hearing Wednesday, when an arbitrator will choose between the $1 million submitted by Hershiser and the $600,000 proposed by the Dodgers. Hershiser's case appears to have been strengthened by the $925,000 award given Kansas City pitcher Bret Saberhagen last Friday, as well as the $1.32-million contract signed by pitcher Dwight Gooden of the New York Mets. Dodger attorney Walker refused to comment on the possible impact of those signings.
In addition, a hearing is scheduled Monday for catcher Mike Scioscia, who is seeking $825,000 and has been offered $650,000 by the Dodgers.
Perhaps it's understandable, then, why Campanis said last week that the Dodgers expect to cut their roster by one man this season, giving them 24 players. Other teams already have said they plan to make the same reduction.
O'Malley was asked if it might have been in the Dodgers' best interest to sign Valenzuela beyond 1988, when the team could either lose the pitcher to free agency or perhaps pay even a higher market price than at present for the left-hander's services.