When the Brewers Broke the Bank to Keep a Legend
The crew had to dig deep to keep Robin Yount from joining the Angels
During the 1989 offseason, the Brewers not only managed to retain a homegrown superstar player after he had filed for free agency, but also made that player the highest-paid man in all of baseball. It was, of course, franchise icon Robin Yount. Rockin’ Robin was coming off one of his best seasons ever, putting up a slash line of .318/.384/.511 with 21 homers and 19 stolen bases. Despite the Brewers finishing with an 81-81 record, Yount won the American League’s MVP award. He was also poised to become the prize of that year’s free agent class, having played out a six-year deal signed after the 1983 season.
As he showed during his holdout before the 1978 season, Yount was far less motivated by money than most ballplayers. He played to win and it was the somewhat lifeless 1989 season in Milwaukee that had him thinking of moving on. After staying alive in a weak AL East until the final weeks of the season in 1988, the Brewers were picked by many to win the crown in 1989. But with young guns like Gary Sheffield, Don August and B.J. Surhoff struggling, the team limped out of the gate and needed a second-half surge to finish at .500. Yount was reportedly disappointed in the way some of the younger players handled themselves, thinking them too selfish and the organization too accommodating to their ways. When the team began to creep towards the top of the division around the All-Star break, management assured the players they would make the necessary moves to make a title run. The only move that was made was a trade for 40-year-old pitcher Jerry Reuss, who registered a 5.35 ERA over seven starts with Milwaukee.
On November 10, Yount filed for free agency for the first time in his career. With Larry Yount, Robin’s brother, acting as his agent, the most decorated player in franchise history was now on the open market. Throughout November, Larry assured the press that money was not his brother’s primary concern. He wanted badly to win a World Series before he retired. The Brewers tried to address Yount’s concerns about team chemistry, as Dan Plesac and Gary Sheffield began to pop up in trade rumors – both players thought to have been the cause of friction in the clubhouse. Meanwhile, the Dodgers, Cubs, Blue Jays and Braves all went about courting Yount.
Larry Yount, who acted as his brother’s agent, was a former pitcher. He appeared in one Major League game, but left with an arm injury that occurred as he was warming up.
By early December, the prospects for a Yount return to Milwaukee looked grim. It was reported that the Angels, Cubs and Padres had all offered Yount contracts. In Milwaukee, circuit court Judge Charles Schudson took the unusual step of publically encouraging school children to write letters to Yount, asking him to remain a Brewer. As speculation swirled around Yount and the Angels, the L.A. Times reported that money might be more of a concern to the Younts than they were letting on. The paper wrote that the brothers had been involved in a number of Arizona land investments gone bad, and needed $3 million up front as a part of any contract package. “I think that it is, first of all, nobody’s business. Second, we can handle whatever supposed problem there is with Robin signing or not signing,” Larry Yount told the Journal in a non-denial denial of the problems.
If the Younts did need money, they could hardly possess a more convenient asset than Robin’s skills in the Fall ’89 baseball marketplace. A number of big deals had already highlighted the offseason. Mark Langston back to the Angels for $16 million over five years, Kent Hrbek back to the Twins for $14 million over five years, Rickey Henderson to the A’s for $12 million over four years, Joe Carter to the Padres for $9.2 million over three years, and Kirby Puckett and Bret Saberhagen, who re-upped with the Twins and Royals for $9 million each over three seasons. The Brewers had offered Yount $9.6 million over three years, but the Angels reportedly had an offer on the table for a staggering $17 million over five years. “Mark my word,” an agent told the Journal, “there is no way the Milwaukee Brewers are going to re-sign Robin Yount, It would bankrupt the franchise.”
But in the end, it was at home in Milwaukee that Yount found the right balance of riches and promise. The $9.6 million the Brewers gave him meant that his return was certainly no act of charity, but Yount left money on the table in order to play where he wanted. Encouraged by the recent signing of Dave Parker (the first free agent the Brewers had added in a decade), Yount finalized the deal on December 19. Always a man of few words, Yount issued a simple statement on the matter, “I look forward to being with the Brewers for the next three years in our effort to win a world championship.”
For 1990, per the www.baseball-reference.com database, Yount earned $3.2 million – the highest single-season salary anyone in the game had ever made. But Yount’s payday was just one landmark among many in the salary boom of the 1990s. By 1991, when many of the back-loaded contracts signed before Yount’s began to tick upward, at least 17 players earned more than $3.2 million. By the time Yount’s deal expired, the Mets’ Bobby Bonilla was earning over $6 million per year and the Brewers – at the front end of a twenty year losing streak – couldn’t even dream of competing financially with the league’s big spenders.
In a sense, the record contract that kept Robin Yount in Milwaukee was a flop. Yount did not play anywhere near the level of other players who got similar money that offseason, in 1990 or afterward. But he was a reliable centerfielder and a leader on the last two winning teams the club would field until Ryan Braun arrived in 2007. And more important than Yount’s play was the fact that he was playing as a Brewer. It was because of the deal that he got his 3,000th hit at County Stadium and retired as a Brewer. In hindsight, it was the absolute perfect time for the Brewers to break the bank.