Red Sox

Lost in the mail: How a comedy of errors cost the Red Sox Carlton Fisk and Fred Lynn in the 1980-81 offseason

“The Fisk episode was the worst moment for Red Sox fans since the team sold Babe Ruth."

Carlton Fisk
Carlton Fisk played in Boston until the end of the 1980 season. The Boston Globe/Frank O'Brien

On Feb. 12, 1981, Red Sox part owner and general manager Haywood Sullivan strode into the expansive press room of Fenway Park that was already packed with local media for what they thought was merely a hot stove luncheon.

As reporters sat down to eat their steak tips and hunter’s rice, Sullivan — though he may not have realized it — took the final few steps of a bygone era. Stopping briefly to gather himself, he cleared his throat and made a monumental declaration.

“I just found out five minutes ago that Fisk has been declared a free agent.”

Carlton Fisk, son of New England, All-Star catcher, hero to a generation of fans, was suddenly on the open market. When news broke, it was unmooring for Red Sox fans. It was as if they had suddenly been told the State of New Hampshire was up for auction.

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“We’ve suffered through things we said we’d never forgive them for,” a fan told the Boston Globe of Red Sox management while awaiting the decision. “But this time it’s different. This time it’s Fisk, and Fisk is one of us.”

Whether anyone was ready for it or not, the 33-year-old was officially baseball’s latest free agent. Though he had unequivocally said, “I don’t want to leave the Red Sox,” as recently as January, Fisk already appeared to have moved on. When asked later that day by WBZ’s Bob Lobel if he had spoken with the Boston management, he gave a blunt answer.

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“We told them they would be treated like every other team,” said Fisk.

That Fisk would leave was not yet a foregone conclusion. But even as Sullivan told reporters that “we want to re-sign him very badly,” he couldn’t help but add — in terms that fans undoubtedly found ominous — “we want to keep some sanity here, and I won’t get caught in a slingshot.”

Having stirred up reporters with his dramatic announcement, Sullivan bristled at what came next. Timing, as recent events had shown, was not his strength. Yet just before he “engaged in a shouting match” with Lobel over the nature of their television interview, he turned and delivered the only line with which Red Sox fans would’ve wholeheartedly concurred.

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“Open the damn bar,” he declared, inadvertently creating a soundbite Lobel would replay frequently.

When Fisk eventually signed with the White Sox a few weeks later in March on a five-year deal worth $2.9 million, New England’s nightmare was complete.

But how had it come to this? How had a player who had so perfectly symbolized the region — and who said that only a few months earlier he “never could have visualized” any scenario where he wasn’t on the Red Sox — suddenly been allowed to become a free agent and leave?

Two days late.

The literal answer, unbelievable as it remains, was that a piece of mail had been sent two days late.

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The Red Sox failed to send Fisk and then-teammate Fred Lynn (the 1975 Rookie of the Year and American League MVP) their contracts by the Dec. 20 deadline as established by baseball’s Basic Agreement, as the contracts were instead mailed on Dec. 22.

Fisk, as arbitrator Raymond Goetz declared on that fateful February day, would attain free agency, while Lynn had been hastily traded to the Angels before the ruling in January.

Still, the more definitive answer to the question lies in the relationship of Sullivan, who represented an older era of baseball (freely admitting in 1981 that “I liked the days when everyone had a good time around baseball”) with the inexorable trend towards increased player power.

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The result was a compounding series of unforced errors that the Red Sox endured in publicly humiliating fashion during the 1980-1981 offseason.

The journey to that calamitous point began decades earlier.

“If nuclear war were to break out, it would only make page two in Boston.”

Sullivan’s origin in baseball was an encapsulation of the older era he’d emerged from. The future Red Sox executive only ended up in baseball because professional football lacked the financial resources to persuade him when he was a college athlete in the 1950s.

As a highly touted recruit in both sports, Sullivan (a Georgia native) chose the University of Florida, where he excelled as a quarterback and a catcher.

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“He could fire the baseball, he could hit, and he could flat throw the football,” teammate Doug Dickey said of Sullivan. “He had a great arm. Haywood was a man among boys.”

The Red Sox lured Sullivan out of college early with a $75,000 signing bonus, but despite a promising start, injuries limited his playing career.

Haywood Sullivan Red Sox

Haywood Sullivan (right) during his time in the Red Sox minor league system.

His journey from player to front office member was swift. By 1964, he was a minor league manager. By 1966, he’d moved into the front office, as Red Sox director of player personnel.

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In 1976, after the death of former Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey, the team was put up for sale.

Along with Buddy LeRoux, a former Celtics and Bruins trainer, Sullivan helped spearhead a group bidding for the team. Though they were selected by Yawkey’s widow, Jean, the sale ran into trouble when it was examined by Major League Baseball.

Neither LeRoux nor Sullivan possessed the kind of wealth necessary to bankroll a team. According to a Sports Illustrated account, LeRoux and Sullivan personally pledged just $200,000 of the total $15 million bid (supported by 11 other partners).

The ensuing investigation of the bid drew enormous local coverage.

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“If nuclear war were to break out, it would only make page two in Boston,” Red Sox spokesperson Bill Crowley later told Peter Gammons.

It was only after Jean personally backed the bid herself that it gained enough financial legitimacy to be allowed. Sullivan became general manager of the team, in charge of baseball operations.

But even with Jean, Boston’s new ownership got underway with immediate questions about its capacity to sustain a major market team.

“For them, it was a total ‘no-lose’ situation.”

Simultaneously, the landscape of baseball — stagnant for decades — was rapidly shifting. After almost a hundred years of having it all their way, owners had seen the power balance begin to swing towards the player during the 1970s.

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Led by Curt Flood’s challenge of the “reserve clause” — which baseball owners had successfully employed since the 19th century as a tool to keep players even after their contracts had expired — and Baseball Players Association president Marvin Miller’s efforts to collectively bargain, a path to free agency was opened by 1976.

Salaries and payrolls began to rise as players, a small number of whom were finally able to hit the open market each year, started drawing competitive interest from multiple teams bidding for their services.

Between 1970 and 1980, the average MLB salary rose from $29,303 to $143,676, its greatest proportional jump in the last 50 years.

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The Red Sox, far from being spared this trend, were right in the middle of it. Seemingly just in time for the landmark Seitz Decision (when baseball arbitrator Peter Seitz essentially nullified the reserve clause at the Major League level and opened the path to free agency), Boston produced a golden generation that catapulted them into the 1975 World Series.

Led by Fisk, Lynn, Jim Rice, and a range of other talented players, the Red Sox were one of the most exciting teams in baseball. Fisk, seemingly the embodiment of New England’s dream for a World Series, hit an iconic home run to win Game 6 of the Series, willing it fair:

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Boston’s youthful team created a new level of excitement around Red Sox baseball.

Yet their ability, as baseball owners across the league were learning, would eventually have a corresponding impact on the team’s payroll.

Jerry Kapstein, one of baseball’s early power agents, signed several of Boston’s young stars. Fisk, Lynn, and shortstop Rick Burleson all became clients.

And in an attempt to harness the negotiating leverage caused by the creation of free agency, Kapstein made a bold play: He secured five-year contracts for Burleson, Fisk, Lynn with an option for a sixth year. The only problem was that, according to Miller, Kapstein had bargained away the players’ free agent rights, making the sixth year (and additional years) binding.

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In his autobiography, “A Whole Different Ball Game,” Miller explained what Kapstein had done.

“The catch was that they also gave up their free agency right when the contracts expired,” said Miller. “Kapstein had given Boston ‘the right of first refusal.’”

Miller later reasoned with the Boston players over why they could not do that even if their ultimate intent — as Fisk maintained — was to remain with the Red Sox anyway.

“There’s no argument,” Miller told them. “You can stay with Boston if you choose, but you can’t give away the right to be a free agent and leave. It violates the Basic Agreement.”

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Quietly, Miller had the clause removed from the contracts.

“I made it clear that only the provisions that took away their rights would be eliminated, and the rest of the contract would remain unchanged,” he added. “For them, it was a total ‘no-lose’ situation.”

Miller’s elimination of Boston’s “right of first refusal” clause would have enormous implications.

“That actually got be a fairly big story just because people never thought that would happen.”

By the end of the 1980 season, any optimism that had permeated the start of Sullivan’s time as one of the team’s three “general partners” had long since evaporated.

“The excitement over 1975 was never repeated,” Gammons said in a recent interview. Since assuming control of the team in 1978, Sullivan had presided over one of the greatest second half collapses by any Red Sox team ever, as the Yankees reeled in Boston’s seemingly insurmountable divisional lead down the stretch and went on to win the pennant after a devastating one-game playoff.

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The following years produced underwhelming results (with two more non-playoff seasons). And as the end of 1980 approached, the looming crisis of multiple expiring contracts neared. Sullivan, by not even attempting to renegotiate with Fisk, had made one of the team’s most loyal members feel disrespected.

“His feelings were rapidly changing due to what he perceived as a lack of interest and a lack of respect from the Red Sox,” wrote Fisk biographer Doug Wilson. “Will McDonough reported in the Globe that Carlton had not forgotten the remark Sullivan made about his elbow in the spring of 1979: ‘His contract may be bothering him more than his elbow.'”

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In an off-the-cuff conversation with Gammons at a Philadelphia cocktail party that October, Sullivan matter-of-factly admitted he wasn’t going to be able to afford to keep all of Boston’s stars.

“He told me, ‘Well, I think I’m going to have to trade them. And we’re certainly going to find what we can get for them,’” Gammons recalled Sullivan saying. “That actually got be a fairly big story just because people never thought that would happen.”

Still, the assumption remained that Boston would have contractual control of the Burleson, Fisk, and Lynn contingent, believing (erroneously) that they continued to have a right of first refusal.

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Burleson was dealt in early December to the Angels, in what Gammons acknowledged was a “good deal” for Boston. Even still, warning signs were flashing. Sullivan, an old-time baseball man, ran an organization that was often under-staffed and disorganized. It showed after the Burleson deal, when another team’s public relations assistant had to handle the announcement because of a miscommunication at the Winter Meetings.

“Everything was weird that year. The Red Sox PR guys, Bill Crowley and Dick Bresciani, didn’t wait around and went out to dinner,” Gammons recalled of the Burleson deal. “So when the Red Sox were trying to find them, they weren’t around. The Toronto PR guy actually handed out the announcement and ran the press conference.

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“It was a really old school baseball franchise at that point,” said Gammons. “They had the same guys working there for a long time. And there’s a lot to be said for loyalty, but sometimes you do need to change.”

Burleson, one of the team’s leaders, was now gone. Fisk, weeks after the season had ended, had still heard nothing from Sullivan or anyone in Red Sox management, only exacerbating his feeling of being disrespected. And Lynn, as had been known for weeks, was on the trading block.

Sullivan and Boston’s front office, a product of an earlier baseball era, was ill-equipped to grapple with the increasingly complex realities of player contracts. It would prove costly.

“It’s stupidity of the highest order.”

The misconception at the heart of the bizarre mailed contract disaster of late 1980 was that Sullivan and the Red Sox did not simply “forget” to send contracts to Fisk and Lynn by the Dec. 20 deadline.

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“He was advised by the lawyers in the commissioner’s office that he didn’t have to send them out because [the Red Sox] had right of refusal,” said Gammons. “And the interpretation of the intention was strongly upheld by the commissioner’s office.”

It was an intentional choice, in other words. Then, as if wavering on his original stance, Sullivan mailed the contracts anyway on Dec. 22. But the damage was done, as the right of first refusal clause had been removed years before.

Miller, upon hearing that Boston had not sent either Fisk or Lynn their contracts by the deadline set under the terms of the Basic Agreement, had the Players Association file for free agency for both of them.

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As news filtered our, criticism erupted, calling Sullivan’s intelligence into question.

“It might be the worst blunder in baseball history,” Boston Herald columnist Tim Horgan declared on Jan. 7.

Suddenly, instead of getting one more year with Fisk and Lynn, Boston was staring at the very real possibility of both walking immediately and for nothing in return. Just as the January arbitration hearing approached, the Red Sox sent Lynn to the Angels.

The return for one of the greatest outfielders in Boston history was not even close to his value: None of the three players acquired in return (Jim Dorsey, Joe Rudi, and Frank Tanana) played in Boston for more than two seasons.

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Fisk, meanwhile, had gone through with the arbitration hearing. And again, Boston’s poor organizational structure left the team dangerously exposed, especially to Miller’s sharply run Players Association.

Having knocked the “right of refusal” clause out of the players’ contracts, Miller was confident that the Red Sox had no legal authority to resist Fisk’s free agent claims.

“The Red Sox were going on that it was the ‘spirit’ in which they got the deal,” Gammons explained. “Well, the spirit doesn’t work. It’s the language, and that’s what happened.”

It was in those circumstances that the memorable scene in the Fenway Park press room unfolded on Feb. 12, but only after Goetz, the University of Kansas professor and baseball arbitrator, announced his ruling in a 21-page decision.

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Noting that the specifics of the case made him “powerless to deviate,” he sided with the Players Association. Miller offered his own unsparing critique in the aftermath.

“I don’t think it was a close case. As a matter of fact, there was absolutely no reason for there to have been such a case,” Miller asserted. “If the club does not tender the proposed contract on time, the player is a free agent. Why waste the time, energy, and money of everyone involved? It’s stupidity of the highest order.”

“I just think he had bad advice,” Gammons said in more sympathetic reference to Sullivan.

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“I would hammer him on things, like the whole thing with Fisk,” Gammons added, “and he would call the next morning and say, ‘You got me.’ And we would talk it out. As a journalist, you liked that.”

Nonetheless, Sullivan’s ownership group had managed to let the entire spine of the team — its catcher, shortstop, and center fielder — leave in the same offseason. It was an unmitigated disaster.

“The Fisk episode was the worst moment for Red Sox fans since the team sold Babe Ruth,” future baseball commissioner (and Massachusetts native) Bart Giamatti would say in 1986.

Fisk would go on to play an astounding 13 more seasons, retiring at the incredible age of 45 (entering the Hall of Fame in 2000). In his first game back at Fenway Park after leaving the Red Sox in 1981, he homered.

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Still, despite the manner of his exit from Boston, Fisk entered Cooperstown wearing a Red Sox hat.

As for Sullivan, who would sell his ownership stake in 1994 for more than $32 million, his time as general manager marked the end of an era. It was the beginning of what fans recognize as modern player movement.

And nothing symbolized that more than a local hero’s departure, triggered by some tardy mail.

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