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Chris Dufresne

Mike Port's Style With Angels Could Use a Touch of Relish

March 15, 1987|Chris Dufresne

They say you can judge a man by what he eats. Mike Port, general manager of the Angels, likes quarter-pound hamburgers from a famous fast-food chain. He devours them plain.

When it comes to his burger, Port is unyielding. No pickles, no mustard, no lettuce. No kidding.

Port runs a baseball team with the same flair.

When it comes to his players, Port also is unyielding. No long-term contracts, no bonuses, no compromises. No bidding.

Baseball is business to Mike Port, and he has brought sanity to an organization that once sought a quick-fix approach to winning. The Angels, in their days of free-agent shopping sprees, received less for money spent than any organization in baseball.

But when does good business become bad business? At what point does penny-pinching affect your product? How far do you push?

How much fat can you trim from a hamburger before you're left holding only the bun?

Mike "Sesame Seed" Port is about to find out. He has been running through spring training like some mad slasher cutting grocery store prices. And his prices are insane!

As a result, the Angels start the season with the team's two best young players, Wally Joyner and Kirk McCaskill, still scratching their heads over contracts they signed. As if they didn't have enough to think about with a certain Game 5 still fresh in memory.

Meanwhile, catcher Bob Boone, the team's very heart and soul, is doing leg squats somewhere in Yorba Linda.

And all over what amounts to pocket change.

For once, it seems, Port has pushed too far.

He's running his team with a slide rule, his players having become so many economic indicators. He acts as if his company is about to file Chapter 11.

But it just doesn't wash.

The Angels, in winning the American League West last season, drew 2.65 million fans, the second-highest total in team history.

In the off-season, nearly $5 million (counting Boone) was trimmed from the team's payroll when Port wisely decided not to renew the contracts of Reggie Jackson, Rick Burleson, Doug Corbett and Terry Forster. Also, Bobby Grich and his big contract retired.

Port had the perfect financial opportunity to modestly reward the core and future of a team that came within a pitch of the World Series.

Instead, Port, ever the bottom-line company man, thought only to take advantage of baseball's changing economic climate.

He didn't bother to negotiate with several key players over the winter. He waited until four days before the Jan. 8 free-agent deadline to begin negotiations with free agents Brian Downing, Doug DeCinces and Boone.

Using the clock as leverage, Port signed Downing and DeCinces at the last minute but let Boone slip away over what turned out to be a $10,000 contract dispute.

Boone can't re-sign with the team until May 1.

Port, the businessman, was accurate in assessing the 39-year-old Boone's value in today's ever-shrinking free-agent market. He remains unsigned.

But Boone's worth to the Angel pitching staff last year was immeasurable. He honed the skills of young stars Mike Witt and McCaskill.

The Angels will not be the same without Boone. But they remain without him because Port wouldn't pay Boone an extra $10,000, or the price of one hubcap on a Jackson Rolls-Royce.

Port's dealings with Joyner and McCaskill are equally strange.

It was Port, remember, who made room for Joyner when he refused to re-sign Rod Carew for 1986.

Joyner made Port look like a genius by following with a sensational rookie season. For this, Joyner made $65,000 in 1986.

But instead of giving Joyner what he deserved, Port played a little game of economic hardball this winter.

A major league player cannot go to arbitration without three seasons under his belt, meaning that the Angels could re-sign Joyner for a fraction of his real worth.

That, of course, would have been a joke. Joyner asked for $200,000, which seemed reasonable. Port offered $160,000.

Relations were strained. Joyner eventually signed for $160,000 and incentives.

Unclear is how much Joyner's ego and attitude were damaged.

It was the same story for McCaskill, a 17-game winner last season. He recently and reluctantly signed to play this season for $232,000. McCaskill, like Joyner, had no leverage.

A year ago, though, the Angels offered pitcher Ron Romanick $300,000 in arbitration, and he had won three fewer games than McCaskill did in 1986. (Romanick ended up winning $475,000. After going 5-8 last season, he was traded to the Yankees.)

Again, it doesn't wash.

More irritating to Joyner and McCaskill is the way they have been treated by management, especially after the seasons they had.

The Angels fined McCaskill $1,000 a day when he walked out of camp last week and also handed him petty hotel charges.

Angel morale reportedly is low.

Port further antagonized some players by saying that he expected walkouts this spring but promised to field "nine functional individuals" come opening day, certainly a thrilling prospect for season-ticket holders.

Port has proven himself to be an efficient general manager. He is not alone in trying to curb runaway baseball salaries. And his franchise has been burned by free agency like no other.

The Angels seem to be extremists. They emptied their pockets for free agents a decade ago. Now, with money for players being tight, the Angels may have reason to want to squeeze even tighter.

With the present Angels, though, Port is tampering with a delicate and talented chemistry. Port had a chance to make his team happy. He didn't.

And ultimately, the financial successes and failures of companies and baseball teams are determined by its employees.

Time will tell whether Port has erred.

Still, Port would be wise to push aside his quarterly report every now and then and feel the pulse of his organization and its fans.

He should learn to loosen his tie and let down his guard. Perhaps he should dare throw a pickle on his hamburger.

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