Free Agency has become the single biggest change to Major League Baseball. We have had the Designated hitter rule, division play, division re-alignment and the Wild Card. But nothing has changed the landscape of baseball like free agency.
I have looked at this issue for a long time and from all different angles. I am totally in favor of a free market system, in which players are allowed to offer their services to whom ever they choose. Whether they base that decision on strictly money or on where they think they have the best chance to win a championship.
We live in a capitalist society. Someone with a product has the right to make as much as they can from that product. Even if the product is baseball talent.
The problem with this (free agency) is Baseball economics. The big market teams like the New York Yankees and Mets (among others) can afford to pay more to perspective free agents. Low market teams like the Pittsburgh Pirates and Kansas City Royals, can't compete. Not only can't these low market teams afford to bid on high profile free agents, but they have a hard time hanging onto the talent they already have.
I sited the Pirates. The list of players they have lost to free agency is staggering. Barry Bonds is at the top of that list. When Bonds became a free agent in 1993, the Pirates wanted to keep their two time, National League MVP so they offered what amounted to around $3.5 million a year. However, the San Francisco Giants wanted him, too. They offered Bonds $43.75 million for six years. A record contract at that time. The Pirates were finished. There was no way they could out bid the Giants. So Bonds left.
And the free agency gap continues to grow. The big contract signed by Alex Rodriguez added fuel to the fire. In 2000, "A-Rod" signed with the Texas Rangers for $252 million for 10 years. Along with the money were other extravagant contract demands. The use of a private jet for road games, personal office space usually reserved for managers and executives, a personal tent to sell A-Rod merchandise, and more billboard advertising space than Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter.
Free agency had now become ridiculous. In a move by baseball owners to curb salaries (funny since they were the ones doing the offering) a luxury tax was imposed on teams who exceed a "set" payroll amount. That amount in 2006 was $136.5 million. Any baseball club with a combined payroll of more than that would have to pay a 40% payroll tax. The Yankees and Boston Red Sox were the only teams to surpass the payroll "ceiling" in 2005.
In 2009 the limit went up to $162 million and to $170 million in 2010. The Yankees will be the only club to pay the tax in 2010. In fact, they have surpassed the limit each year it's been imposed.
So, the payroll threshold goes up and so do the salaries. What can be done? There has been talk of a "salary cap". No team would be allowed to surpass a pre-determined payroll limit. The National Football League has that now. Of course there are ways around it, like free agency signing bonuses.
This might be a way for Major League Baseball to get more equality among the teams. It is argued that players would be restricted by the salary cap when it comes to bargaining. They could still go to the highest bidder, but the list of teams that could bid would dwindle.
On the other hand, is there anything wrong with the fact that the New York Yankees have enough money to afford just about any player they want to buy? The Yankees franchise itself is worth more than a lesser market team. If George Steinbrenner were to sell his Yankees, he would command a greater selling price than David Glass would for his Royals.
It's the "capitalism" thing again. In my opinion, most baseball fans would be in favor of a salary cap. Unless they are New York fans. It would make October baseball more interesting.
But to limit a player's ability to make as much money as he can is not the way we operate in this country. If an owner has the money to buy, let him buy. I don't see a move to make it more fair for any of us to buy a 500 acre ranch or a bank(like Nolan Ryan did). Most of us don't have that kind of money, but some do. So is it fair to bring this limiting mentality into baseball?
Rumblings of Free Agency started back in the late 1960s, but became baseball law in 1975.
Curt Flood was the first player to challenge Major League Baseball's Reserve Clause. Flood originally signed with the Cincinnati Reds in 1956. He was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals in 1957.
Flood was a star for the next 12 years with the Cardinals. He was a seven time Gold Glove award winner in center field and hit over .300 six times.
On October 7, 1969, the St. Louis Cardinals announced that they had traded Flood, catcher Tim McCarver, outfielder Byron Browne and pitcher Joe Hoerner to the Philadelphia Phillies for Dick Allen, Cookie Rojas and pitcher Jerry Johnson.
Flood was upset at the trade. He had heard about it from a reporter. The Phillies were a horrible team and played in delapidated old Connie Mack Stadium. He also believed that the Philadelphia fans were racists. The Phillies were the last Major League baseball club to add a black player to their roster.
Flood refused to report to the Phillies. Instead, he decided to challenge baseball's Reserve Clause, saying it was un-fair to keep players signed for life, even though they had fulfilled their contracts.
The Phillies had offered Flood a $100,000 contract. A very hefty sum for that time. After consulting with the head of the Player's Union, Marvin Miller, Flood decided to go ahead with his lawsuit. Miller assured him that the costs would be paid by the player's union.
Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn recieved the following letter from Curt Flood:
December 24, 1969
After twelve years in the major leagues, I do not feel I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes. I believe that any system which produces that result violates my basic rights as a citizen and is inconsistent with the laws of the United States and of the several States.
It is my desire to play baseball in 1970, and I am capable of playing. I have received a contract offer from the Philadelphia club, but I believe I have the right to consider offers from other clubs before making any decision. I, therefore, request that you make known to all Major League clubs my feelings in this matter, and advise them of my availability for the 1970 season.
Of course, Commissioner Kuhn denied Flood's request, so Curt Flood filed a $4.1 million law suit against Bowie Kuhn and Major League Baseball.
Flood alleged that Major League Baseball was in violation of Federal, anti-trust laws.
Curt Flood went on several television shows stating that the reserve clause kept him in slavery. He got little sympathy comparing himself to a slave because of his annual $90,000 salary.
Flood was also upset because, although several retired players testified on his behalf, not one single active player testified or even showed up at the trial.
Flood's case soon went to the U.S. Supreme Court. His attorney argued that the reserve clause controlled wages and limited players to one team for life. Major League Baseball's lawyers countered by saying that what Bowie Kuhn had done was for the good of the game.
On June 19, 1972, the Supreme Court's decision came down. It was 5-3 in favor of Major League Baseball. Justice Lewis Powell had recused himself because he owned stock in Anheuser-Busch, which owned the Cardinals.
So the reserve clause stood...for now.
After the 1974 season, Oakland Athletic's pitcher Jim "Catfish" Hunter, accused owner Charlie Finley of breeching his contract. The case went before an arbitrator and Hunter won. He was declared a free agent and signed a five year deal with the New York Yankees for $3.75 million.
In December of 1975, baseball's iron clad Reserve Clause finally came apart. Los Angeles Dodger pitcher Andy Messersmith and Montreal Expo pitcher Dave McNally had both played the previous season without a contract. Both decided to try the open market. A panel of three arbitrators heard the case and ruled that the pitchers had no further obligations to their teams. Free Agency was born.
Major League Baseball appealed the decision to a Federal Court, but it was upheld. Free Agency was here to stay.
On January 11, 1977, Mike Schmidt of the Philadelphia Phillies, avoided free agency by signing for a record high $500,000 per year. Shortly after that, the owners opened their wallets and Major League Baseball salaries escalated. Here's a list of some of the first, million dollar deals.
Free Agency Salaries Per Season:
First $1 Million Contract: November 19, 1979- Nolan Ryan- $1,000,000- Houston Astros
First $2 Million Contract: February 7, 1982- George Foster- $2,040,000- New York Mets
First $3 Million Contract: November 22, 1989: Kirby Puckett- $3,000,000- Minnesota Twins
First $4 Million Contract: June 27, 1990: Jose Canseco - $4,700,000- Oakland A's
First $5 Million Contract: February 8, 1991: Roger Clemens - $5,380,250 - Boston Red Sox
First $6 Million Contract: March 2, 1992: Ryne Sandberg - Chicago Cubs - $7,100,000
First $8 Million Contract: January 31, 1996: Ken Griffey, Jr. - $8,500,000 -Seattle Mariners
Skips straight To First $11 Million Contract: Novenber 19, 1996 - Albert Belle - $11,000,000 -Chicago White Sox
First $12 Million Contract: December 12, 1997 - Pedro Martinez - $12,500,000 Boston Red Sox
First $13 Million Contract: October 26, 1998 - Mike Piazza - $13,000,000 - New York Mets
First $15 Million Contract: December 12, 1998 - Kevin Brown - $15,000,000 -Los Angeles Dodgers
First $17 Million Contract: October 20, 2000 - Carlos Delgado - $17,000,000 -Toronto Blue jays
First $20 Million Contract: December 11, 2000 - Manny Rameriez - $20,000,000 -Boston Red Sox
First $25 Million Contract: December 11, 2000 - Alex Rodriguez - $25,000,000 -Texas Rangers
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