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|Wednesday, November 22|
|The decision that changed the game|
|Bud Selig remembers having the news delivered by phone in his old office at County Stadium.
Gene Orza recalls reading the verdict in the newspaper before heading off to work at the National Labor Relations Board.
John Schuerholz can still picture himself sitting in a court room in Kansas City, listening to the arguments in a case that would change his life and his sport forever.
It is 25 years ago this month since arbitrator Peter Seitz began hearing the case that would go down as one of America's most revolutionary acts since the Boston Tea Party.
As we look back now, a quarter-century later, on this landmark decision that turned two veteran pitchers into free agents, it seems more momentous than the Beatles visiting Ed Sullivan. But at the time, back in the offseason of 1975, we could probably sum up the feelings of the moment in two words:
Could we even envision life in baseball -- in any sport -- without free agency? Could we even try? Even men in management -- men who probably would love to roll the clock back to a world with no free agents -- can't program their imaginations to work that vividly. "There's no way to know what life might be like," says Selig. "You can never know. We operate in a whole different world. The manifestations are so enormous, so complex, so numerous, that there's no sense in even trying to comprehend our world without them." "I don't know how anyone could comprehend it," says Schuerholz, whose seniority as a general manager (19 years in Atlanta and Kansas City) ranks only behind Pat Gillick's. "We've been in this system so long that life before it is just a distant, faint and dusty old memory." How faint? How dusty? The year was 1975. Carlton Fisk's homer had just finished curling around the foul pole.
Jim Palmer, in his 10th season with Baltimore, was collecting his second Cy Young award.
Pete Rose, in his 12th season with Cincinnati, had blown away everyone in the major leagues in hits (215) and runs (130).
Bob Gibson, staggering through his 17th season with St. Louis, had given up a September grand slam to Pete LaCock, walked off the mound and called it a career.
The average major-league baseball player made $44,676.
The minimum salary was $16,000.
The highest-paid player in the land was Carfish Hunter, at a shocking $640,000 a year.
Baseball's national TV contract paid the entire sport $17.5 million a season.
And local TV revenue averaged $1.3 million per team. (The Yankees now take in nearly twice that much per week.) Could we ever go back to that world? "The people who criticize free agency so easily today don't realize how bad baseball was 25 years ago," says long-time agent Tom Reich. Could the long-defunct reserve clause even work here in the next millennium, with 30 teams, with 750 active major-league players, with a society dominated by such an instant-gratification mind set? Oh, it's possible. But only in about the same way that travel in covered wagons would work. "The thing people have to understand about the reserve clause is that the number of teams affected by the reserve system is directly proportionate to its evil," says Orza, who left that job with the NLRB 16 years ago to become one of the guiding forces in the Players Association. "In 1876, when it was just eight guys in a smoke-filled room, it was not a big deal. A hundred and 24 years later, with 30 teams, it would be evil in every way. "The fact is that free agency liberated the clubs from their bargain with the devil -- which was the reserve clause. If you have 30 teams and the 12th-best second baseman in baseball goes down, the only guy you could replace him with under the reserve system is the 31st-best second baseman. But with free agency, maybe you could replace him with the ninth-best, or the fourth-best, or even the best." For those who would like to live in that 1975 universe again, we just want you to think about that. Say the Mets lose Rey Ordonez. To replace him, they can only hope to buy a shortstop from the St. Paul Saints or maybe trade for a second-tier player from another team. That would be their choice under the reserve system. Or they can trade for All-Star shortstop -- and impending free agent -- Mike Bordick. That was their choice this July. They were able to make a choice that helped get them into the World Series. So maybe this system isn't as disastrous as its critics sometimes make it out to be. Taking care of business
There is a simple way to look at free agency and all it has wrought. And there is a not-so-simple way. The simple way is to sing a song all fans know by heart by now: Money-money-money-money. Those players make too much XBLPTMNXG-ing money. Yeah, fine. Sure they do. Messersmith-McNally helped the free-agent train pull out of the station. The arbitration car then got hooked to the caboose. And salaries got kind of nuts. Who doesn't know that? But as in all things, it isn't that simple. "It was free agency that really made baseball a business," Helyar says. "Since they had to start paying players market rates, they had to go out and generate more revenue and market the game better. Before 1975, most clubs, other than Bill Veeck, didn't do that. It was only after '75 that they got sophisticated about selling season tickets and selling TV rights and marketing themselves. "So it's easy to say, 'Look, the average salary went from about $50,000 to almost $2 million, and isn't that terrible.' But people never pay attention to the revenue side of the business. And free agency changed that whole side of it." It's amazing how many people look back on 1975 as the peak of baseball's glory days. But that myth goes up in flames if you merely study a barometer as basic as attendance. And a look at attendance in the 1975 season is a jolt to anyone who has come to consider 3 million fans to be almost routine for a good team.
The Decision: Part II
The Decision: Part III
The early days of free agency
Free agency: How it happened
Jayson Stark archive