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Sport Sections
Thursday, November 23
Part III: Player movement a fact of life

When fans grumble about free agency, the thing they seem to grumble about most is that players these days seem to change zip codes more often than Richard Kimble. In many ways, you can't blame them.

"You worry sometimes," commissioner Bud Selig says, "that franchises won't be identified anymore with certain players. You hope, as a sport, to have as much of that (player identification) as possible. Robin Yount may be the last player in a market (Milwaukee's) size to spend his whole career in one city."

If that were really the case, it would indeed be unfortunate. But we've looked at the whole issue of player stability, too. And this just in: Not everybody is Mike Morgan.

In 1975, we found 15 players who had played for their current team in the 1965 season and were still there 10 seasons later, without being traded or sent to the minor leagues.

Those 15 players: Carl Yastrzemski and Rico Petrocelli (Red Sox), Paul Blair (Orioles), Bert Campaneris (A's). Tony Oliva (Twins), Willie Stargell (Pirates), Lou Brock and Bob Gibson (Cardinals), Pete Rose and Tony Perez (Reds), Larry Dierker (Astros) and Bill Freehan, Willie Horton, Gates Brown and Mickey Lolich (Tigers).

You would think that number would be much higher than it is nowadays. But guess what? In the 2000 season, we also found 15 players who had played for their same team 10 years earlier and had been there continuously, except for rehab options.

Those 15 current players: Cal Ripken and Brady Anderson (Orioles), Sandy Alomar (Indians), Edgar Martinez and Jay Buhner (Mariners), Tom Glavine and John Smoltz (Braves), Mark Grace (Cubs), Barry Larkin (Reds), Craig Biggio (Astros), John Franco (Mets), Tony Gwynn (Padres), Ray Lankford (Cardinals), Frank Thomas (White Sox) and Gary DiSarcina (Angels).

In the interest of accuracy, there were four other players in '75 who could also be added to that list, except that all spent time in the minor leagues during the 10-year period from 1965-75: Phil Niekro (Braves), Jim Palmer (Orioles), Roy White (Yankees) and Ed Kranepool (Mets).

But that doesn't dramatically change our point: Player movement a quarter-century ago wasn't that much different than it is now.

In those days, it was just a different kind of player movement.

"Don't kid yourself," long-time agent Tom Reich says. "Back then, teams all got rid of stars when they didn't want them anymore. They got rid of Willie Mays. They got rid of Frank Robinson. They got rid of Hank Aaron. They got rid of Joe Morgan. They just traded guys using the Branch Rickey theory: It's better to get rid of a guy a year too soon than a year too late."

But Selig, naturally, disagrees with that argument, too -- citing (what else?) disparity.

"That wasn't an issue in the '50s," he says. "You had Clemente in Pittsburgh. You had Aaron in Milwaukee. Market size wasn't the factor it is today. Whether that's good or bad depends on whose perspective you look at it from."

Any time you have 30 different teams and players shifting all over the map, it's obvious not everybody will like every entry in the transactions column. But the fact is, thanks to free agency, fans are more riveted by player movement -- on the whole -- than ever before.

We guarantee you, more people will read a newspaper story about A-Rod's possible destination than read any Mariners game story all season. And there is far more talk, over a far longer time frame, about which free agent is going where than there ever was over the few blockbuster trades of the '60s and '70s.

"The hot-stove league," Reich laughs, "has become the bonfire league."

But if people still want to complain about all that movement, to attribute it to free agency almost assume it's the fault of the players -- when, in fact, the majority of that movement revolves around teams using the current system in a modern, 21st-century kind of way.

"Many more players still move through trades than through free agency," Reich says. "And even with free agency, go through this year's list of free agents. What you'll find is that the vast majority are involuntary free agents. "They're not free by their own choice. They're free because their team doesn't want them anymore. And there's a tremendous difference between voluntary free agency and involuntary free agency."

Voluntary free agency, Reich says, "only comes into play with superstars." And just making it to that voluntary free agency is a feat in itself.

Take Mike Hampton. He was drafted by the Mariners out of high school 10½ years ago. He spent four seasons in the minor leagues. He was traded twice. And only now, after all that, is he getting a chance to be a free agent.

"The public needs to consider what the odds are of ever getting to that point," Reich says. "They need to consider all the years it takes just to make it to the big leagues. Most guys, it usually takes from three to six years. In some cases, it takes 10 years.

"Then it's another six full years of major league service to qualify to become a free agent. So with many free agents who file by choice, it's taken them 12 years to get there, sometimes more. You're talking about guys getting there at 29-30 years old. So there are not many A-Rods."

Still, A-Rod symbolizes fan disenchantment with the free-agent process in many ways:

  • In dollar signs. (It would take the average American nuclear engineer three centuries to earn $200 million.)

  • In having the guts to allow his agent, according to Mets GM Steve Phillips, to make actual contract demands involving billboards and a personal souvenir tent.

  • And in representing the final piece in the breakup of the Mariners galaxy of mid-'90s megastars: Junior Griffey, Randy Johnson and A-Rod.

    In Seattle these days, it would be tough to find many fans who would look at that disintegration and think of free agency as the best thing to happen to baseball. And it makes you wonder how long a group like the Big Red Machine could have stayed together in this age.

    "The Big Red Machine would probably have lasted one or two years," Gene Orza of the Players Assocation says. "And that's hard. But it should be hard. You want people to be able to use their success to improve themselves. Nobody would ever suggest that the cast of a fabulous TV sitcom should not branch out and become directors or make movies. So why do they suggest that about baseball players?"

    Come to think of it, we would love to see the rate of salary escalation for leading men and women in Hollywood these last 25 years. And there was no show-biz equivalent of Messersmith-McNally to account for that.

    "They don't even pay them anymore, do they?" Orza chuckled. "They just give them land."

    Still, we don't blame any fan for lamenting the breakup of a group of players they'd come to love and root for. Yet John Helyar, author of "Lords of the Realm,"" senses that there is far less weeping over those breakups now than is popularly believed.

    "It's 25 years later, and people have short attention spans," he says. "So I don't think it bothers fans as much that players come and go. To some extent, fans these days are willing to just enjoy the here and now if they're in a great pennant race, even if half the players may not be around the next year."

    "People are always saying players don't have loyalty to their team," says Orza. "But how many fans would agree not to leave a city for six years?

    "If you're a Minnesota fan and I said, 'You have to stay in Minnesota for six years,' most people would say, 'No, I've got an obligation to my family. If I get a better job somewhere else, I'd have to take it.' And that's the American way. Loyalty has to take second place to freedom."

    Twenty-five years ago, that kind of talk sounded like something out of the Revolutionary's Handbook. But now, here in the year 2000, it shocks only the old-timers who pine for the way life used to be.

    "It's a different time," Helyar says. "Look, we're all free agents now. Nobody works for the same company forever. Even if Messersmith hadn't come along, somebody would have. It isn't conceivable that baseball could have stayed the same way when everyone else in society has changed, in terms of mobility and the way the workplace works.

    "I think people can identify with players having to move from team to team, or getting the best deal for themselves. They're thinking, 'I'm not going to be any more loyal to, say, IBM than IBM is to me.' We can all relate to that kind of thinking now."

    Some things about the baseball business need to change. But free agency won't be one of them. Even Selig admits that. At this point, there's no turning back to a universe before Messersmith-McNally.

    "It's done," the commish says. "It is what it is. We have to live in the world we live in. And we're living in that world."

    And just to hear a commissioner of baseball acknowledge the permanence of free agency with that kind of conviction tells you exactly how far we have really come since November, 1975.

    Jayson Stark is a Senior Writer at ESPN.com.

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    The Decision: Part II

    Off Base: Free agency rules

    10 best and worst free agents

    The early days of free agency