April 10, 1979. 7:30 p.m. Arlington Stadium. The home opener of the 1979 major league baseball season. The public address system crackles.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, presenting the Texas Indians. . .In left field, potentially hitting .300 but don’t bet on it, Johnny Grubb. At third base, giving the franchise defense it’s never had there, Buddy Bell. Out in the bullpen, where once we couldn’t bear to look, all-star reliever Jim Kern. And on the bench, ready for action if rookie Nelson Norman doesn’t cut it at shortstop, Larvell ’Honey Bear; Blanks.
“And now, the Cleveland Rangers. . . On the mound, one of many gifted Texas pitching prospects now pitching elsewhere, Cleveland ace Rick Waits. In right field, multi-talented and multi-traded, Bobby Bonds. At third base, the same third base where he has alternately starred and stunk, Toby Har-rah. Slated to be the big man. out of the Cleveland bullpen this season, just as he was slated in Texas last season, Len Barker. Also out in the bullpen, tomorrow’s starting pitcher and yesteryear’s Arlington savior, David Clyde. And on the bench, in case they’re needed, former Texas Rangers Ron Pruitt, Bobby Cuel-lar, and Dave Rivera. Let’s play ball.”
No joke, really. This season, a Texas-Cleveland game will seem like an intra-squad affair. The game might also be billed “Brad Corbett versus Gabe Paul.”
Gabe Paul, the man who orchestrated the resurrection of the New York Yankees, is now general manager of the Cleveland Indians. He’s also Brad Cor-bett’s number-one trading buddy. Since Paul took over the Indians prior to the ’78 season, there’s been a steady stream of players traveling between Cleveland and Arlington. It’s going to make for some great second-guessing in the bleachers. Brad Corbett and Gabe Paul love it. And they like each other. With all the enemies Brad Corbett has made in baseball, he’s made at least one friend.
“Brad,” says Gabe, “is just like one of those guys in the old time westerns. He wants action. His gun’s always ready. Brad is always willing to listen-you can call him any time. In the last year, we’ve kicked around hundreds of possibilities. Of all the executives in baseball, he’s one of the easiest to deal with.”
A lot of other baseball men have suggested that Corbett is just plain easy. No wonder Brad likes Gabe. “Gabe and 1,” says Brad, “talk every week, usually two or three times a week. And when we’ve got something going, we’ll get together several times a day. When it’s tradin’ time, I’ll make over a hundred calls a day. But Gabe and I have developed a special rapport. The best thing about him is that you can trust him. But you gotta watch him. He’s like an old Indian trader. When you’re finished with him, you go outside and count all your feathers.”
The trading game that Paul and Corbett play isn’t what one imagines these upper echelon dealings to be. “Gabe,” says Brad, “always comes to town and tries to get me drunk, hoping I’ll agree to something. Last time he was here we met at the Hilton. We wound up at 3 a.m., both pretty well oiled. He lost his wallet and I lost my keys.”
“Brad,” says Gabe, “always thinks he can get me drunk, but he always winds up getting drunk himself. The thing I’m really proud of is that he’s never been able to drink me under the table.”
Sometimes the two even get some business transacted. Like the night of the Bonds-and-Barker for Kern-and-Blanks trade. “We’d been at the Old Swiss House restaurant in Fort Worth,” recalls Corbett, “haggling over the trade for hours. It was after midnight, the place was fixin’ to close and we still hadn’t finalized anything. Before we left, both of us had to take a leak. While we were in the john, we decided ’Oh hell, let’s make a deal’ and we shook hands on it right there.” It seems that a number of Corbett deals have been concluded during the wee hours. “I got Richie Zisk at four in the morning and I got Dock Ellis in the middle of the night, too.”
Corbett likes to talk about coups he’s pulled on his old trading buddy Gabe. “We wanted to get rid of Willie Davis in the worst way. So we wound up convincing the Cardinals to take him. In return we got a minor league pitcher [Tommy Moore] and a shortstop we didn’t even want, Eddie Brinkman. But I knew Gabe and the Yanks wanted him real bad. A week later I got a hundred grand from Gabe for Brinkman, who never helped the Yanks a bit.”
That, however, was a minor triumph. Corbett gets much more satisfaction from another tale. “It was a couple years ago. Gabe was lying’ in the hospital with all sorts of tubes runnin’ in and out of him. So I hired this woman of questionable virtue to visit him. She waltzed in there with ’Get Well Soon Gabe’ written on her navel.”
Gabe remembers. “When she first came in, I told her she must have the wrong room. But she said no sir, that 1 was Mr. Paul and that she had this message for me from Brad Corbett. At that point, 1 didn’t know what else Brad had paid her to do, so I told her 1 had a horrible case of gangrene-she got out of there in a hurry. Then that sonofabitch Corbett calls and he’s laughin’ his butt off. I swore I’d get him back for that someday, but I haven’t yet.”
Trader Brad would like to think that all of his dealings are such fun and games. But Gabe Paul stories are where the fun stuff ends. First consider the statistics: The Texas Rangers that Brad Corbett bought in the spring of 1974 had 40 players on their roster for training camp; they invited 14 more of the club’s top minor-league prospects. Of those 54 players, on1y one has survived Corbett’s reign – catcher Jim Sundberg. As this season’s spring training begins, Brad Corbett has made 69 transactions involving 148 players. Corbett winces, and remembers. “The first move I ever made was probably my worst. I shipped Larry Gura to the Yankees for catcher Duke Sims. Oh, what I’d do to have Gura back. [Last season Gura won 16 and lost four for the K. C. Royals.] Then there was the Burroughs thing [shipped to Atlanta for Devine, Moret, Morton, May, and Henderson, none of whom remain]. But Burroughs would never have hit at Arlington Stadium. The wind had him psyched out. I know that none of those players are still with us and it’s only two years since the trade, but then realize that Adrian Devine was the key player that started the four-team swap that brought us Al Oliver and Jon Matlack. I caught hell from the press for that Jenkins trade too. But two years later I got him back for practically nothing [i.e., John Poloni].
“I regret getting rid of some people. Tom Grieve never played particularly well for us, but he was a terrific guy. I miss him. And I really liked Mike Hargrove. It hurt me to send him away. The same goes for Steve Hargan. And deep down I may never forgive myself for letting Gaylord Perry go.” Painful pause. “Trading Perry for Dave Tomlin and cash may be as bad a deal as I’ve ever made. I’m sure there have been times I dealt too quickly. But dealing is a learning process. After a while you realize that great players don’t always combine to form great teams. The 25 guys we had last year was the best collection of athletes we ever assembled and look what happened. That really hurt me. That’s why I went out and got Buddy Bell from Cleveland. He’s got class. He gives us balance and he’s just a good guy to have on a team. I’ve heard all that stuff about his stats not matching Harrah’s. But lots of very good players have average stats and vice-versa. What’s important is winning, and Bell’s a winner. That’s something I didn’t fully understand when I first began in this business. Lotsa guys around the league tried to take advantage of the new kid on the block, figurin’ they could fleece me. Maybe they did, but I’m learning.”
What Brad says he has learned is that it’s almost a waste of time trying to deal with Detroit, Minnesota, Kansas City, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles. They don’t want action. Besides Gabe Paul, his preferred trading partners are Bob Fontaine of San Diego, Bill Lucas of Atlanta, and Harding Peterson of Pittsburgh.
“There’s a kind of unwritten code amongst baseball people. You never try to cheat ’em. I know this’ll sound funny, but you don’t want to make too many terrific trades. The best trades really are the ones that benefit both teams. If you screw a guy, the next time you try to work something out with him, he’ll be trying to get back at you. If you pull too many fast ones, nobody’ll talk to you. That’s what’s so good about Gabe. All our deals have turned out okay for both of us.”
Maybe so. Brad. But it doesn’t seem likely that the mutual benefit society will continue to flourish this summer. When the Texas Indians and the Cleveland Rangers crank it up in April, somebody has to lose. No bets on whether that will be Brad or Gabe, but considering the track records, who would you bet on? Could be the end of a beautiful friendship.
Poor Brad sighs. “That’s the damn trouble with trading. By the time you find out who won or lost, it’s too late to celebrate.”