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Sport Sections
Wednesday, November 22
Part II: Free agency increased competitive balance

As many teams still prove every week, promotions alone won't make your club sell out every game like the Cleveland Indians. Free agency's effect on attendance went way beyond any role in inspiring fireworks nights, Turn Back the Clock Day or Bring Your Dog to the Game Night.

"The biggest thing free agency did for the sport," says Gene Orza of the Players Association, "is that it made more teams participate in the postseason. ... The explosion in revenue from 1977 to 2000 never would have happened, because free agency made so many teams competitive."

You could look it up. Turn down the volume for a minute on that owners' chorus of how few teams have hope these days and look at how the 25 years since free agency compare to the 25 years before free agency.

We studied the number of teams that have played in and/or won a World Series in the 25 years prior to free agency and in the 25 years since. You may be stunned by what we found.

  • In the 25-year period ending in 1975, only 10 teams won at least one World Series. In the 25 years since, even with one World Series wiped out by the strike and the Yankees' threepeat, 15 teams have won a World Series.

  • Before free agency, only 14 different teams in 25 years even played in a World Series. Since free agency: 19 teams.

  • Before free agency, three teams accounted for nearly 70 percent (14 of 25) of all World Series championships just by themselves -- the Yankees (seven), Dodgers (four) and A's (three). Since free agency, only one franchise has won more than two World Series in a quarter-century. (Hint: It isn't the Brewers.)

  • And while it may seem as if the one constant in baseball before and after free agency is that the Yankees win every year, even that's not quite as true. In the 25 years before free agency, they played in 12 World Series and won seven. Since, they've played in eight and won six.

    "I listen to Bud's complaint -- that we have to go back to the good old days, when everyone had a chance to win," Orza says. "Until (free agency), nobody had a chance to win. The history of baseball prior to that can be divided into periods where certain teams won all the time. And once they won, they continued to win until their players got old."

    Obviously, though, this is another area where Selig couldn't get his counter-argument out fast enough.

    "That's clearly misleading," he said, of Orza's theory. "You have to look at the last five, six, seven years. For a long time, people were able to figure out ways to win. But if you look at the last six years, if you look at the payrolls of the teams that won, that isn't just an aberration. . . . So I really reject that totally. In my opinion, 1975-90 is irrelevant now, because of economics."

    You don't need a degree from M.I.T. to know there's a huge difference these days between the Yankees and the Twins -- in every way. Yet even this year, it's hard to overlook the fact that a team with the 17th-highest payroll (the Giants) had the best record in the National League and a team with the 25th-highest payroll (the White Sox) had the best record in the American League.

    "To me," Orza says, "it's counter-intuitive to suggest that payroll disparity only emerges in the postseason. Chicago and San Francisco had the best records in baseball. And that's over a full season. If anything, that's a fairer test than the postseason."

    But this piece was never intended to degenerate into a debate over disparity. That's a debate for another offseason in the very near future. What we do need to contemplate, though, is whether free agency is responsible for that disparity.

    We found management people reluctant to get into this portion of the debate. We heard theories that it's free agency, coupled with arbitration. We heard another that it was the explosion of network TV money in the late '80s and early '90s that got the ball rolling.

    So we left it to John Helyar, author of "Lords of the Realm" and now a senior writer at Fortune magazine, to give his take from outside the battlefield.

    "Until recently," Helyar says, "when the financial spread between teams got so wide, I think you would have to say that free agency has been good for competitive balance rather than bad. ... Now you still have the same top tier of teams. It's just the spread between the top tier and the bottom tier is larger than it's ever been.

    "So all that means is that baseball has succeeded in reforming and revolutionizing the cost side of the business. Now it just needs to do the same on the revenues side. Of course, it may not be something as dramatic as the Messersmith case that does it."

    If there has been one dark constant throughout the free-agent years, it emanates from the group that has despised free agency more than any other -- and still does.

    That group is the owners. (Hey, you were expecting maybe Scott Boras and Jeff Moorad?)

    If we can trace many of the boons in the baseball business to Messersmith-McNally, we can also trace the business' most nightmarish moments to the owners' repugnance over all that case has wrought.

    Two months after arbitrator Peter Seitz handed down his decision, two days before Christmas 1975, owners locked the gates of spring training. That launched baseball's first extended work stoppage. You may have heard that it wasn't the last.

    "All the stoppages since -- baseball's eight world wars -- represent the owners' attempts to regain the control they lost with Messersmith-McNally," Helyar says. "Out of the first lockout, Marvin Miller constructed a system whereby you had to wait six years to become a free agent, so they could control the supply to ratchet up demand.

    "It was a genius move, economically. And the owners, in one way or another, have been trying to figure out a way to get back that control of the system they lost in 1975 -- without much success, I might add."

    The latest ripple effect free agency, as many claim, is disparity and competitive balance. Some way or other, they will be addressed -- and they ought to be.

    "It's the biggest thing they've got to wrestle with, obviously," Helyar says. "But they're not going to solve it by doing away with free agency."

    Jayson Stark is a Senior Writer at ESPN.com.

    Stark: The decision that changed the game

    The Decision: Part III

    The early days of free agency

    From Mr. October to Bernie

    Free agency: How it happened

    Jayson Stark archive