For the last three years, baseball has been going crazy, thanks to free agents. It has been an entertaining, healthy and generally profitable madness.
In the last month, however, signs have appeared that the game may finally be in danger of going genuinely and precariously insane.
The previous three November reentries were called sweepstakes. This November may go down as baseball's earthquake.
"Nobody ever dreamed that things would go this far," says beleaguered Haywood Sullivan, Boston Red Sox president. "The middle-level player is now getting more money than Reggie Jackson and Catfish Hunter were being offered just three or four years ago.
"Every team has a pyramid salary structure. How high can that pyramid go?"
Off the evidence of this November, no ceiling is yet in sight. If early free agent salaries brought a sense of celebrity glamor to baseball, then this autumn's signings seem to be a tawdry celebration of mediocrity raised on high.
Al Hrabosky, a relief pitcher coming off a poor season (3.76 ERA), got a $5.9 million contract with Atlanta that brings him deferred payments and cost-of-living increases for the next 35 years. The Mad Hungarian has become the Laughing Hungarian.
Dave Goltz, who was tagged for more hits than any pitcher in baseball in '79 (282), parlayed his 14-13 record into 3 million Los Angeles Dodgers dollars. Sore-armed Bruce Kison, who never has won more than 14 games in his nine seasons, was worth $2 million to California.
The recitation is numbing. The New York Yankees are paying Bob Watson $2 million for four years to be a part-time designated hitter. The Yanks thought old Rudy May might make a decent long relief man, so they offered him a pittance -- $1.1 million.
"Those two Yankee signings were like a punch in the mouth to every other team," said one American League general manager. "They gave those two players more than twice as much as any rational person could offer them. That set the tone."
In that stampede atmosphere, Nolan Ryan -- one game over .500 for the last five seasons and headed for his 33rd birthday -- became baseball's first $1 million-a-year player. "That's all right," said Ryan's new Houston teammate, J. R. Richard, who makes a mere $800,000 per. "When I sign my next contract, then I'll set a new record.
It is not Ryan's plunder that staggers general managers, but the $400,000 a year that nonentity southpaw John Curtis got from San Diego this week.
"Who is John Curtis?" said one longtime AL general manager. "The book says he's 31 years old, been in the majors 10 years, and I've never heard anyone mention his name. Now he signs for a million."
This run on the bank has reached only its midpoint. True, of the 28 available free agents who were drafted by more than one team, almost all the bigger names have signed. Nevertheless, 16 small fry still are available and they are having stacks of money thrown at them from high windows.
The orioles, for instance, have given up bidding for reserve catcher Milt May, who probably will sign with San Francisco shortly.
The highest-paid player on the AL champs was Jim Palmer at $260,000. To get May for their bench, the O's would have to offer $400,000 a year for several seasons. Palmer, not surprisingly, wants $3.5 million spread over six years.
What we have here is capitalism in full laissez-faire frolic: supply and demand run amuck.
"We are seeing the auction syndrome," said Milwaukee General Manager Harry Dalton. "You go to the auction and see an old moose head that you never thought about until you got there.
"The auctioneer says, 'Available today only and never again. Here's your once-in-a-lifetime-chance.' So, you get the auction fever.
"Then, when you get the damn moose home and put it on your own mantlepiece, it looks hideous and contradicts the style of everything around it and you want to throw up.
"I don't want to denigrate the players in this year's draft, but I think a lot of teams have bought a lot of ugly moose heads."
"What baseball's ownership has inflicted on itself in the last month is madness in its highest form," said Hank Peters, general manager of the Baltimore Orioles.
"It was one thing to see great players getting great salaries. Now, suddenly, we are seeing ordinary ball players -- and even below-average players with chronic injuries -- getting multiyear, multimillion-dollar contracts.
"I'm appalled. I fear for my industry. I don't see how clubs can justify such total lack of self restraint.
"I don't blame the players or their agents.They must not be able to believe what's happening themselves.
"Management is totally at fault. We're dragging each other down in this mad grabbing for free agents.
"Teams like us (the Orioles), for example, can ignore these salary precedents temporarily -- and we have," added Peters. "But we can't do it indefinitely. Ultimately, it affects everyone."
Perhaps the most dramatic change within baseball in its short free-agent era is the shift in the game's internal hostilities. Just four years ago, the battle lines were the predictable management against labor.
"Now, its management against management," said Peters. "About six teams are causing all the rest of the 26 to lose their judgment."
A perfect example this year is the Dodger -- adamant, almost arrogant, disdainers of free agents and fat contracts. Until now.
"This year the Dodgers finished fourth," said a National League general manager. "They got ripped in the press for losing Tommy John to the Yankees. And they lost the local media spotlight to the Angels.
"So, the Dodgers just panicked. They were so desperate to get Goltz, who was everybody's No. 1 pick, that for the last 12 hours they were bidding against themselves.
"They kept calling Goltz's agent back and making new offers after everybody else had stopped. The word inside the game is that they topped the next-highest bid by $600,000."
In Boston, where Sullivan admits, "We aren't a team; we're a religion," the fans became so furious over the loss of Watson to the Yanks that they opened a holy war agaist Bosox brass.
So the Sox swallowed their pride, and perhaps their judgment, to make huge bids for old Tony Perez and injured Skip Lockwood. It was a $2 million kiss-and-make-up solution with their fans.
This latest quantum jump in baseball finance has come at the most ominous possible moment. The owners have their annual winter meeting next week in Toronto and the central topic on their backroom agenda will be their strategy for the upcoming labor negotiations on the basic agreement that expires Dec. 31.
In fact, management is so determined to present a united front (for once) that club owners have reported authorized fines of up to $500,000 for any management person who opens his mouth and says anything publicly about the negotiations now in progress.
Nevertheless, one general manager talked this week about the unspoken central point on every mind -- the idea of compensation for lost free agents, along the lines of rules in eigher the NFL or NBA.
"Not long ago, a step backward like that was almost unthinkable," said the NL general manager. "Marvin Miller (head of the players association) has conditioned the players for years to think of the work 'compensation' as a crime.
"Everyone has assumed that to demand a compensation rule would bring on a strike and a financial blood bath. With attendance at a record high, it's been assumed that everybody could survive without it.
"Now, people in management may start talking about it more seriously."
The most unlikely prospect, of course, is that common sense and a spirit of mutual fair play will prevail.