A Winter Meetings story that will live on in Cubs lore
As the Winter Meetings begin in San Diego this week, it’s easy for Cubs fans to think of the offseason additions that brought a championship to the North Side of Chicago in December of 2015.
Seven years ago at the Meetings, the free agent additions of John Lackey, Ben Zobrist and eventually Jason Heyward to the talented group of players that Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer had already assembled solidified that great run from 2015 through 2020. A trade with Arizona for Miguel Montero was the icing on the cake for a solid gold catching staff that included David Ross and Willson Contreras (who was promoted in June of 2016).
Of the many Winter Meetings I have covered since 1987, the one that hurt Cub nation the most was the 1992 Meetings held in Louisville, Ky. Cubs 26-year-old pitcher Greg Maddux was coming off of his first Cy Young award a month earlier and was the free agent centerpiece for the event along with Pittsburgh outfielder Barry Bonds.
On Dec. 6, 1992, Bonds ended up signing a 6-year, $43.35 million contract with San Francisco as the biggest in baseball history to that point. Maddux’s story was more compelling. As a very young free agent having started his career at age 20, Maddux was just hitting his stride with 87 wins in the previous 5 years. That Spring Training, Maddux was offered a 5-year, $24 million contract to stay a Cub and avoid free agency. As fate would have it, the Cubs took the offer off of the table a week later because Maddux and agent Scott Boras had waited too long to respond in the opinion of Stanton Cook, who was the CEO of the Tribune at that time and in charge of running the Cubs.
What transpired altered the history of both the Cubs and the Atlanta Braves. The Cubs came back with the same offer during the All-Star break of 1992 that included front office executive Ned Colletti and Tribune chief negotiator Dennis Homerin presenting the new proposal to Maddux.
“It was for the same $24 million,” Maddux relayed as a guest on 670 The Score’s “Inside the Clubhouse” show as he remembered his reaction to the meeting. “They offered the same contract of $24 million at that time. That was not really what I expected or was satisfied with. It was halfway through the season and I had just made the All-Star team, so I thought the offer was a little low then and said no.”
Fast forward to the Meetings in Louisville. The Cubs eventually upped the offer to $30 million but were being out-bid by the Yankees. New York wined-and-dined Maddux and his wife Kathy, with former Cubs manager and Yankees GM at the time Gene Michael leading the full-court press.
“We had the best offer on the table and felt really good about him becoming a Yankee.” Michael told me at the time. “Greg saw all the country clubs and golfing facilities in New York and New Jersey. We were prepared to get him in the most exclusive country club in New Jersey. He loved to golf, so that was as important to him. He ultimately wanted to stay in the National League because he loved to hit. We offered him $37 million, which was a lot more than the Cubs or Braves.”
The plot thickened with three teams vying for the pitcher’s services. Cubs GM Larry Himes began to think the Cubs would be outbid and looked to sign other pitchers to solidify his staff if Maddux signed elsewhere. He did indeed do that. The $25 million was spent on free agent pitchers José Bautista, Randy Myers and outfielder Candy Maldonado.
“Scott came back to me at the Meetings and said Greg would like to accept your most recent offer,” Himes remembered about the agent coming to him late in the Meetings. “I told him, ‘I am sorry but we spent the money on other roster needs.'”
Which meant good news for the Braves. The Cubs pitcher signed with them for 5 years and $31 million. Maddux won three more Cy Young awards with the Braves and formed a dynamic trio with Tom Glavine, John Smoltz. They made history winning the 1995 World Series and going to the playoffs 14 straight seasons.
“As it turned out, I went to Atlanta.” Maddux said “Your mind changes over time. I decided I wanted a better chance to win a World Series. That was a long time ago. It all worked out good.”
Maybe it did for Maddux. He had his dream realized and then returned to the Cubs and eventually won his 300th game with them years later. For Cub fans, it would be a long wait while watching Maddux win with the Braves before they got the elusive championship.
Better results from this year’s Meetings are expected from Jed Hoyer and Co. as they start in earnest to get quality players this offseason.