Sean Casey knew the setting would be unpleasant. But the smell was even worse.
It was a February day in 2001, in a hotel meeting room in Phoenix. Casey and the Reds had not been far apart in negotiations. Casey, who had made just $400,000 the previous season, wanted $3 million for the upcoming year; the Reds were offering $2.6 million. Casey told the club he'd compromise at $2.8 million, but the Reds wouldn't go any higher than $2.7 million.
So Casey and the club had to take their respective cases and original figures to three impartial judges in the uncomfortable process known as an arbitration hearing. And Casey, otherwise known as one of the most affable guys in the game, was agitated by every minute of it.
During a brief break in the four-hour argument pitting the player against his own club, Casey, by now sweating profusely and angered by the Reds' negative attack on his talents, vented to his wife Mandi, whom he had insisted attend the hearing, just to see how the business of baseball works.
"This is unbelievable, the fact that we're here," Casey told his bride. "And what smells in that room?"
Mandi took a whiff of Casey's suit jacket.
"I think it's you!"
Alarmed, Casey smelled himself.
"Oh my God," he said. "It is me!"
The previous fall, the Caseys had a cat that wasn't housebroken. Casey had come home from the Reds' last road trip of the season and tossed his best -- well, at that time, only -- suit jacket on the ground. The cat peed on it. Casey had the jacket dry cleaned, but didn't wear it again until the hearing several months later. The stench had stuck.
Casey's coat might have emitted an offensive odor, but he had a sweet-smelling arbitration case. He had hit .315 with 20 homers, 33 doubles and 85 RBIs the previous season. All the statistical comparables insisted his asking price was accurate, and his agent, Ron Shapiro, amplified his argument by showing the panel a quote from Reds manager Jack McKeon about how Casey was so nice and so popular that he could be the mayor of Cincinnati ("The Mayor" nickname still sticks). Casey had even proved the point before the hearing started, taking the rare step of shaking hands and eagerly introducing himself to each of the arbitrators. The Reds didn't stand a chance.
So that's the story of how a man reeking of cat urine got a $2.6 million raise.
"It was worth every minute," Casey says with a laugh now. (Then-Reds GM Jim Bowden's memory of the encounter does not involve Casey's suit.)
Salary arbitration -- the process by which the salaries of players with three or more, but less than six years of Major League service time is decided -- has been known to produce unnerving situations, and the hearing schedule, which began this week and lasts through Feb. 16 in Phoenix, could produce more. Players and teams like to compromise on a contract figure wherever and whenever possible to avoid hearings, in which a panel of arbitrators select the proposed salary figure of either the player or the team.
But sometimes hearings prove unavoidable. And sometimes the stories that come out of them are unforgettable.
The room where it happens
From the time MLB salary arbitration began in February 1974, it has been an uneasy process. The first-ever hearing involved Twins pitcher Dick Woodson, who was awarded his request of $30,000, rather than the Twins' offer of $23,000. The Twins wound up losing two more hearings that month, prompting owner Clark Griffith to tell the Minneapolis Star, "It cost me about $15,000. But I'll find some way to get my money back. I'll trade 'em."
Woodson was dealt to the Yankees three months later.
The infancy of arbitration produced plenty of wrinkles to iron out. A former agent named Dick Moss once told the Chicago Tribune the story of an arbitrator in the mid-1970s who demonstrated a glaring lack of knowledge about baseball and its players. That is, until somebody mentioned Babe Ruth.
"Ah," the arbitrator said with a smile, "now there's a name I recognize."
It was that guy's first and last case.
There was also the time in 1980 that a second baseman named Mike Edwards actually asked for less money ($50,000) than the A's offered ($58,000).
Over the years, arbitrators, agents, players and teams got better at the arbitration game, but the process is no more comfortable now than it was in 1974. Last year's drama between Dellin Betances and the Yankees is evidence of that.
Says former Mariners All-Star and current MLB Network analyst Harold Reynolds: "I remember my teammate Julio Cruz telling me, 'You never want to go in that room. You'll never be the same player coming out. You'll never see the organization the same way. The longer you can fool yourself that it's a business, the better off you are.'"
Reynolds is pleased to say he never went in that room (though he was frustrated to learn, all these years later, that he finished just 18 service days shy of arbitration eligibility in 1988, shortly after the eligibility requirement was changed from two years to three).
Wade Boggs wasn't so lucky.
In fact, you could say the notoriously superstitious Boggs -- a man whose devoted daily diet earned him the nickname The Chicken Man -- was pretty unlucky in 1986.
Boggs was going to come out of his hearing with the Red Sox that year as an arbitration record-holder whether he received the $1.85 million he was requesting, or the $1.35 million Boston was offering. But he knew his case had hit a snag before it even began, as recounted in a Sports Illustrated article from the time.
"What room are we in?" Boggs asked the receptionist at the American Arbitration Association in midtown Manhattan.
"Thirteen," she replied.
"Oh my God," a deflated Boggs said. "I don't believe it."
Yes, the sufferer of triskaidekaphobia proved prescient. Boggs lost that one.
At least Boggs' relationship with the Red Sox wasn't irretrievably sullied that day.
The same can't be said of one-time Indians catcher Andy Allanson. His hearing in 1990 was, according to a retelling by Dan O'Dowd, who was a Tribe front-office member at the time, "uncomfortable from 'hello.'"
Team president Frank Peters, who had offered Allanson $250,000, was stunned when the arbitration panel awarded him his requested $410,000. (Allanson had driven in just 17 runs in 111 games and thrown out just 19 of 93 baserunners the previous season.) A reporter asked Peters about Allanson's future with the club.
"His future," said Peters, "is in the past."
Sure enough, Allanson was released the following month.
"Of course," O'Dowd said, "we were hit with grievance."
Grievances, official and otherwise, are not uncommon in arbitration. When Pedro Guerrero was asked about the arbitrator who cast the deciding vote against him in his lost case against the Dodgers following his third-place finish in the 1982 MVP voting, Guerrero reportedly said, "I'm going to kill the [redacted]."
Even victories can bring out bitterness on the part of players. Mike Scioscia has told the story of his arbitration victory in which his .407 on-base percentage from 1985 was actually used against him by the Dodgers. They argued that the slow-footed catcher was clogging up the basepaths and getting on base too much.
Well, for all its drawbacks, the arbitration process could be worse. Or at least, less scientific.
The Reds and outfielder Kal Daniels had a spring salary dispute in 1989, before Daniels was eligible for arbitration. Owner Marge Schott suggested a coin flip to decide if Daniels would make $325,000 or $300,000.
"You knew it wasn't going to be well received by the Commissioner's office," then-Reds GM Murray Cook recalls. "But she insisted and she was the boss, and I went along with it. So we went out in the parking lot in Plant City [Fla.]."
Schott called heads, it came up tails, and Daniels got his extra 25 grand.
"That was bizarre and unique and had never happened before," Cook says with a laugh. "But arbitration seems to work, for the most part."
It worked for Casey, who came out of his experience with a bigger paycheck and some advice to share.
"If a cat pees on your jacket, don't keep it," he says. "Definitely don't wear it to an arbitration hearing."