What ‘s your most memorable scene from a gangster film?
“I don’t want to go to New York,” my wife said, a half-empty glass of Cabernet accentuating her words, “I don’t care how much the Yankees will pay us.”
It’s October 1980. We’re enjoying some wine while standing on a porch in Providence, Rhode Island, a gorgeous Victorian with a wraparound, set against one of those 100-year old homes built by the well-to do of New England in the 1880s, walking distance to the ocean. Six, seven bedrooms. High ceilings. Lovely neighborhood; expansive front lawns, personal tennis courts. The choppy wind and constant drizzle would be the perfect analogy for the conversation my wife and I had at the time, trying to figure out where my career would be taking us.
This was my agent’s house. Four years past the death of the reserve clause, those who figured out the system were doin’ all right. If you thought Scott Boras was the ultimate super-agent, then you never met Jerry Kapstein.
After the Peter Seitz decision allowed Andy Messersmith to seek any team he chose, it also made a number of ballplayers free agents after the 1976 season. Smart, young men seized upon the moment to represent these players in their negotiations with owners around the league. Jerry Kapstein was one of these clever young men. Brilliant, Harvard-trained, remains one of the smartest guys I know. It was a whole new ballgame for athlete compensation, and Jerry got on the field in the very first inning.
For some of you old enough to collect baseball cards at the time, but still too young to read newspapers, you opened packs of TOPPS 1977 and found new ballclubs you never knew existed like the Toronto Blue Jays AND Seattle Mariners. Maybe you also found a bunch of players with painted caps from different teams that didn’t seem quite correct. Bobby Grich on the ANGELS? You thought he was an Oriole, right? That was Jerry’s work. Joe Rudi and Don Baylor, Angels, too? That was Jerry. Rollie Fingers & Gene Tenace were on A’s, no? No, Padres, thanks to Jerry. Kapstein had represented close to 60 players in 1976, many of them tested the free agent waters and received more money than they can ever imagine. What this situation gave Jerry wasn’t simply a steady stream of income. It gave him negotiating leverage with the owners, which got the players larger contracts and ultimately, even more money and more players for him to represent.
Smartest guy I know.
After the 1980 season ended, my wife and I flew out to Rhode Island to spend the week with Jerry at his house and discuss my options as a free agent. It was my first time at the re-entry draft rodeo, but I knew someone was going to pay me. There were a slew of teams with bullpen issues to address and my solid two months in Montreal enhanced my prospects for a nice contract. Jerry and I had some great conversations about each of the cities we felt would end up drafting me. We had a hope that at least four teams would get in the mix: the Expos, the Yankees, the Phillies and the California Angels. Through all the dinners that week, both in Jerry’s house and at the Italian restaurants around Providence, it was the same discussion: my wife didn’t want to leave California. I knew she had Jerry’s ear, she kept telling him, “I want to stay on the West Coast, my family’s on the West Coast.” The last thing I wanted to do in the world was disappoint her.
Marriage is a great institution, but for Baseball it’s awful. Forget groupies and all the basic jealousy issues. If your wife doesn’t want you playing in a certain city, you have to make some serious decisions not just about your career, but your family as well. Teammates were rooming together less and less on the road by 1980 and life could get very, very lonely. You’re not out every night with the guys after a game in the majors; sometimes it’s just you, room service and bad TV in the hotel. You find yourself wanting a relationship, meet somebody you like along the line, the pedal hits the metal and next thing you know, you’re married. The choices and decisions you would make were no longer, “Ok, I’m being traded to the Cardinals, I guess I’m goin’ to St. Louis,” or “The Phillies want me, the area seems nice, think I’ll live and play there for three seasons.” It’s a transient lifestyle. It’s not for everyone. Now you have someone else in these conversations – sometimes within earshot of the agent – and it completely changes the dynamic. And yeah, this becomes information the agent factors into the final decision.
My wife adored Southern California, it was her home, and mine as well. Both of our families lived pretty much right around the corner. I had been playing in home parks with blood relatives in attendance virtually my entire career. From 1973 to 1976, I played in San Fran, where I had a host of cousins all around town. Outside of short, bookended stays in St. Louis in early ‘77 & the last two months of the 1980 season in Canada, I played nearly four years in San Diego, my hometown. Sure, it was great to see a familiar face from my high school days or family at just about every home game, but I wanted something, I don’t know, something….different.
The East Coast was very attractive to me. It was either that or return to Montreal. I liked it there. I had Gary Carter, my buddy and team leader to spend time with. I had a lot of friends on the team and got along well in the clubhouse. My mentor and father figure, Charlie Fox, worked in the front office. It made a fair amount of sense for me to stay in Canada. These were the issues my wife and me discussed with my agent that week we stayed at his house. Jerry was an absolutely gracious host and clearly defined every single option available to us. It was very obvious, though, when we hopped on the plane to go home at Providence Airport, nothing was resolved. My wife was dead set on me playing in California.
* * * * *
The following month, the re-entry draft came and went. Jerry was right – there would be a strong market for my services, even more then he realized. I was chosen by eight teams: The Expos, The Angels, Phillies, Pirates, Indians, Cubs, Royals and the Yankees. Some teams chose me simply to have a dialogue, but weren’t terribly serious.
I got a call from Charlie Fox about returning to the Expos. I know Stan Bahnsen, the Expos’ other right-handed reliever was a free agent as well. Charlie asked me, “So do you wanna come back?”
“I love the guys, Charlie.” I replied, “Of course I wanna come back.”
“Ok, so that’s settled, what do you want?”
“Try to get me four years if you can, at least $300k per. If it’s for three years, I want $400k. If it’s four years, I’ll take $300k. And I want a bonus of $600k.”
Charlie’s like, “Ok, Johnny, let me see what I can do.” So Charlie comes back the next day.
“So, I spoke with the guys here – they’re interested, but they’re not interested.”
“What does that mean?” “I dunno, Charlie said, “I’m not getting a good read from them on this.” In hindsight, I was most likely their backup plan in case they couldn’t sign Bahnsen, someone who could set-up, close and pitch a lot, just like me .
“They said they would like you back, but they are trying to sign someone else and if they can sign the other guy, well, you know, you’re expendable.” Tough to hear this, but right then and there, I knew I probably pitched my last game in a Montreal uniform. “Look, if they can’t sign ‘em, they’re gonna get you.” Charlie was very influential with me, so I kept that door open. That was a sad feeling, even at this level of negotiation, that they wanted someone more than me. We’re not robots.
The Phillies had asked Jerry about me. I thought a lot about living in Philadelphia. I knew some of the guys – I knew Pete Rose really well. Pete said his teammates loved the area, some lived across the bridge in parts of South Jersey, like Cherry Hill - others in the suburbs of the city – a beautiful section called “The Main Line,” where there’s gorgeous towns like Villanova (where the college is located), Wayne, Radnor, Gladwyne. Would’ve been fun to play with Pete. Keep in mind, Philadelphia had just won the World Series, Tug McGraw had just enjoyed possibly the best season of his career and was a free agent. There was an opening, if only a small one. Ron Reed, Dickie Noles & Warren Brusstar all had tough seasons in 1980, but as long as they signed Tug (which they did), going to the city of Brotherly Love was a long-shot, at best. They made an offer of three years at $400,000 per with a fourth year at $425,000, non-guaranteed. A very nice offer, no question. Something else, though, was brewing up the turnpike.
The Yankees made an offer, too – three years, $350,000 per, with a fourth year at $425,000 – less than the Phillies’ offer, BUT included a $675,000 signing bonus – again the fourth year was not guaranteed. Here’s the thing; Goose Gossage, who was a friend, was there. Bucky Dent, another friend, was there. Graig Nettles was there – me, Nettles & Goose all shared the same agent. So you had a sense that while you played for one team, you were also part of another roster - the guys you shared your agent with. If you believe otherwise, think back to some of the veterans on the San Diego Padres 1984 World Series team. Goose, Nettles, Steve Garvey. All Jerry Kapstein clients.
Smartest guy I know.
I was hearing it from all sides about New York. You’re good-looking, you’re Italian, look what’s going on with Rick Cerone – came into New York City from the Blue Jays, stepped right in and replaced Thurman Munson. Was it the best year of Cerone’s career? Maybe, but it was the best season by a Yankee catcher in three years and no one knew in December 1980 that their 26-year old catcher (who finished seventh in the AL MVP voting)would never be this good again. Cerone took Madison Avenue by storm. He became “The Italian Stallion.” They played the Tarantella every time he came to bat at the Stadium. There was a place for me in the Bronx if I wanted it. I really did want it.
“This all makes sense,” Jerry said, “They want you there, there’s endorsement opportunities you haven’t even dreamed of, the money’s right, I think we should do it. I know how your wife feels, but she married your career, this is your decision, we need to make this move.” I wanted to see myself in the uniform. I wanted a baseball card that said YANKEES above my picture. Jerry fed into all these dreams. “Look, you’re gonna make more money off the field than on the field. You’re gonna be Madison Avenue and if you pitch well, you’re gonna be big time Madison Avenue. Most important, you’re gonna be a Yankee.” During this time in my life, every discussion with my wife became about staying in California. Every night was a stressful debate about my future. To her credit, the fights were NEVER about the money – we all knew someone was going to pay me, Jerry made sure of that. It was about a consistency of a home life surrounded by extended family, multiple friends and acquaintances who had known me since grade school. A home life in California. What I experienced in Montreal at the end of 1980, made me think, maybe I needed a break from that for a few years. Too many people over at the house. Too many people constantly coming by. No privacy whatsoever. Constantly getting calls about tickets. I left tickets for my folks and my siblings. Occasionally, aunts, uncles, cousins would call, and even that was no big deal – they were family and I loved them. It wasn’t them. People I knew in town who never reached out before suddenly found my number when I got to the Padres. People who I didn’t get along with in high school suddenly called me to make amends. It was a situation I really had no problem getting away from and I couldn’t think of a better place than New York, a team as far away as possible and a ballclub I had one of the best chances to win a pennant. I knew this was the final contract I would ever sign – I was constantly in pain, constantly hurt, nothing that would show up in a physical, but the body told me every day I wasn’t 21 anymore. I could still hit 95 on the gun with consistency, but there was pain there.
So while I’m thinking “Yankees vs a team in California that may or may not want me,” “Do I return to Montreal on a lesser contract,” “How will I resolve this mess with my wife,” Cleveland comes out of the clear blue sky and offers me $360,000 per for three years with a 4th year for $420,000, an option that was not guaranteed. Now the Yankees 4th year was not guaranteed, either. Why did the Indians jump into the mix? They had to part with their excellent closer in Victor Cruz to get Bert Blyleven, a great starting pitcher. They really had no closer now. They ended up moving a 16-game winner in Dan Spillner into the bullpen. Cleveland would’ve been nice – some of the suburbs outside the city are just beautiful. Now, I’m starting to have all these teams throwing money at me, the one club that mattered the most to my wife, the California Angels, didn’t care at all. Jerry was sent a note from Buzzie Bavasi, the Angels general manager, basically saying they didn’t want to negotiate with us. The West Coast was out.
So we were focusing on the Yankees. That was our best opportunity, the best money and I knew I would be comfortable with the other guys. So Jerry says to me, “Go buy a new suit, we’re going to NY.” “Did you commit to Steinbrenner?” “Yes, I did. He wants to talk to you.”
So later on the phone that day, George Steinbrenner says to me, “Johnny, I’m gonna give you what you want, but I’m not gonna guarantee the last year.” I said, “That’s fair, George.” “If you do well on the three, we can talk on the fourth.” “I’m committing to you, George.” Now, I stuck my neck out to say to George Steinbrenner, “I’m committing to you,” that’s like a handshake. Like signing in blood. Jerry said to Steinbrenner, “Okay George, you can go ahead and let it loose.” “Let it loose” means he can tell the media we have a deal. It was in the New York Times, the New York Post, it went everywhere. I’m really happy about this. My wife, not so much.
“I don’t wanna go to New York, I don’t wanna be on the East Coast,” she said, and another grating discussion ensued.
“We’re goin’ to the Yankees,” I nodded, “You better start looking for schools.” We went to bed, didn’t really resolve much, but I went to sleep dreaming of Monument Park, dreaming of playing in the center of the media universe.
This was the night of December 9th, 1980.
The phone wakes me up at 2:30 in the morning, December 10th, 1980.
It’s not Marv Albert looking to set up my first interview in front of the NYC fans.
“It’s Jerry,” my agent mumbled into the phone, “Don’t say anything, get your clothes on, get in your car and come to the house immediately. I got you four years guaranteed, $600,000 bonus with the California Angels.” If you want any better evidence about who pulls the strings sometimes in these player/agent relationships, keep in mind, I was the one traveling in the middle of the night.
“Huh? Jerry, what are you doin’, we’re goin’ to New York later today-“
“No, we’re going to see Gene Autry later today.”
“This is my career we’re talkin’ about, I just made an agreement with the Yankees and Steinbrenner, it’s been all over the news. NY Post, Daily News, this is dangerous, we just agreed to terms, what are you doing?”
“Your wife wants you on the West Coast, I worked my butt off to get you here-“
“But am I gonna pitch there?”
“Just get in the car and come down here before he changes his mind.“
“But it’s not good for my career-“
“Just come down here. We’ll talk when you get here.” I enter Jerry’s place n a pair of sweats and T-shirt. He hands me a contract. I said, “No, no, no, I’m not signing that. This benefits you, not me.” Of course, the money benefitted me, but I knew in my heart there would be long-term ramifications of blowing off the Yankees. No one does that to George Steinbrenner. God forbid you crossed him, and this was a betrayal of the highest order. Embarrassing him in the newspapers.
“Just sign the contract, John-“
“This is gonna come back to bite me in the ass-“
“Sign the contract-“
“This isn’t good for my-“
“You get to be the closer, John-.” That changed everything.
“Where’s the pen?” I signed the contract. I wanted New York over all other places if I was only pitching the 7th and 8th innings. Goose Gossage was a superstar, all-star reliever, and a great guy. Would’ve been my pleasure to hang out with him in the bullpen and watch six innings of baseball for six months. But being the closer, that’s…..
“So I’m the closer for the California Angels?” I repeated this.
“You’re the closer for the California Angels.”
“I have to talk to George-“ Jerry waved his finger at me.
“I will talk to George.” I laughed at that statement. It didn’t matter. George would accept this coming from Jerry. Jerry had power. Jerry had leverage. Jerry represented his All-Star closer, among other important players. George would be mad at me, and hold it against me, but never the agent. Never an agent as powerful as Jerry.
“Your wife wants you on the West Coast, I’ve been working behind the scenes to make that happen.”
Do you know what really happened? Earlier that night, the Angels acquired Butch Hobson and Rick Burleson, the Red Sox All-Star Shortstop in a trade for Carney Lansford, Rick Miller and Mark Clear, the Angels, right-handed reliever. The trade was essentially a vehicle for the Red Sox to get rid of Burleson, who was having contentious contract talks with the ballclub. Through the mechanics of this trade, Burleson became the highest-paid shortstop in the game. Do you really have to guess who Rick Burleson’s agent was at the time?
Yup, smartest guy I know.
Look, I understand the nature of leverage and its importance. If my agent was a relative or some obscure lawyer from Santa Monica, the terms of my deal might be different. The money would definitely be different and less of it. Did being with a prominent agent make things easy for me? Did I receive better contract terms than if I had a lesser agent? You bet. Don’t forget, the baseball players’ strike was the elephant in the room at this time. It was very important for me to at least be signed and secure.
* * * * *
When I entered Angels’ camp in Casa Grande, Arizona, February 1981, I had some friends there. Again, Grich & Donny Baylor, I knew through Jerry. Kapstein offered my services to Baylor to help out with players’ union affairs. Billy Travers I knew from the minor leagues. Quick story, Billy played for Danville in Illinois, the Brewers Class A team in the early ‘70s while I was at nearby Decatur. Some nights after we played against each other I’d be sitting in a lousy motel room all alone, the phone would ring. “What the hell ya doin,” this burly, gruff voice barked at me. “Nothin’, I’m sittin’ here watching TV eatin’ a bucket of fried chicken.” It was Gorman Thomas on the phone. “That’s stupid. Come on out with us.” He was with Travers. I’d run out with Gorman and Billy and bar crawl all night. This is how you knew a lot of guys around the league and how I had some ready-made friends arriving at Spring Training 1981. The time I spent with Billy that year was great. The news I received the first day of camp, not so much.
“(Don) Aase’s gonna be our closer,” Jim Fregosi told me, “You’ll be in long relief. Some set-up work. Maybe.” If this happened today, I might approach the Player’s Association and complain about the chain of events. The General Manager told me and my agent one thing and then the manager and pitching coach told me something entirely different.
From day one of spring training, I knew coming here was a mistake. By the time the season began, I was basically a mop-up guy. I would sit in the bullpen with Jesse Jefferson, neither of us would pitch and just shake our heads. “Johnny D, we ain’t getting into another game ever again,” Jesse would laugh. I pitched in six games in 1981; three in April and three in May. My best outing of the season was one of the worst experiences of my career. May 6th, at home against the Yankees. Bucky Dent was enjoying one hellvua night. A two-run double to left and a dinger couple innings later off rookie Mike Witt that made the score 5-0 Yankees. I’m on the mound in the sixth, Bucky comes up and my 94-MPH fastball cracks him right on the wrist. Compound fracture. It was not at all intentional, Bucky was (and is to this day) a good friend. Another reason for Fregosi not to pitch me. I didn’t enter a game for a week and a half after that. I asked Fregosi, “Hey Jim, can you tell me when I might get on the mound again?” Fregosi wouldn’t even look at me. “Dunno, can’t tell ya.” “Well, think about it,” I said, “Because I’m not doing anyone any good just sitting on my ass in the bullpen.” I wasted away out there. Fregosi ended up getting fired soon after this and Gene Mauch replaced him. Now, I knew I was done for. Know why?
Back in 1974 when Mauch was managing the Montreal Expos, I was a rookie, Mauch and his boys were yelling things at me during the game, through warm-ups, the stuff you don’t see on TV, trying to rattle my cage. After taking enough of their abuse, I stepped off the rubber and chucked a heater right into the old man’s chest. Not too fast, but enough to make a point. Then, I ran over to the Expos dugout, pointed at Mauch and said, “You! I want you out here right now.” I wanted a piece of Mauch pretty bad. Both dugouts emptied. Mauch never accepted my challenge, but I certainly showed him up. Now, seven years later, he’s my manager. Guess who never pitched a game for Gene Mauch? I found myself with AAA Salt Lake City soon after Mauch took over the ballclub. I never pitched for them in a regular season game again.
Without a doubt, going to the California Angels and breaking the handshake deal with the Yankees was about the worst decision I ever made. I regret it every time I see myself on a Baseball Card in an Angels uniform. All for an extra $300,000. Make no mistake; Jerry Kapstein made me very wealthy, more so than if I had another agent with less leverage. Just know, as a player, that when you make a choice to go to a ballclub, be conscious of every element to that decision before you sign on the line that is dotted; most important, which people there have your future in their hands – that means the manager, the general manager, the owner and possibly veteran players with some persuasive power in the clubhouse and front office. This is vital to the free-agent decision-making process. In terms of money with today’s players, I’m not talking about the superstar that should be set for life with a year’s salary if he’s smart with his money. What I’m talking about are those long relievers and fourth outfielders in today’s game. They need to take this seriously.
* * * * *
Bittersweet post-script to this story, I finished 1982 with the Oakland A’s. Billy Martin was my manager and a great one at that. We had a nice relationship for the few months I played for him. The following spring, April 1983, I found myself the final cut out of A’s camp. Without a team, I called Billy, who was back managing the Yankees. He was happy to hear from me, said there was possibly a spot for me in the back of the bullpen. “Let me check with George and I’ll call ya right back.” Say what you want about Billy Martin, but he called me in 15 minutes. There was a bit of a laugh in his voice, but not funny ha-ha. “Jesus, Johnny,” Billy snorted, “What the hell’d you do to George?” “Whaddya mean?” Of course I knew exactly what he meant. “I dunno, after I mentioned bringing you on board, he said ‘No Fricking Way,’ and slammed the phone down.” I didn’t blame George, either. I was paid 300,000 in 1981 dollars to hear that response. Doesn’t make it any less painful.
I never had the chance to pitch in Yankee Stadium. Never had the chance to hear Bob Sheppard announce me into a 5-4 game in the seventh inning. Never had that chance to bust balls with Goose in the Yankees bullpen or jump on that pile when they clinched the American League championship in 1981.
It remains the greatest regret of my Baseball career.
***Card Art by Andrew Woolley
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