Strike three big'ns from the list of baseball free-agent eligibles: Phil Niekro committed to remain an Atlanta Brave, Rick Cerone renewed as a multiyear New York Yankee, Jason Thompson settling in for a long stay with Pittsburgh. Certify as now definite for next Wednesday's reentry draft: Don Baylor and Joe Nolan. Squash the Dodgers' would-be deal for Floyd Bannister; now watch the Angels try to sign the Mariners' lefty before he becomes a clear-cut free agent Saturday midnight.
And see if Steve Garvey, who now has formally filed for free agency, goes for a hefty last-ditch L.A. offer. Dodger President Peter O'Malley says if he doesn't accept by Saturday, goodbye, "we will not select Steve's name" in the draft.
While DH Baylor, a six-year Angel, and Nolan, one-year Baltimore catcher, officially enlisted for draft, catcher Cerone said he "always wanted to stay part of the Yankees" (contract terms undisclosed); Thompson and the Pirates set a news conference today at which they may hint how close Willie Stargell's slugging successor comes to the $5.5 million, five-year package he'd asked; and Braves owner Ted Turner reported Niekro set with an $800,000 contract for 1983. Turner said knuckleballing Niekro, 17-4 at age 43, "will always be a Brave and will probably be pitching until he's 50" . . .
Now catch the word from Kansas City's George Brett -- well, from the third baseman's brother and business adviser, Bobby Brett -- after just one year of a five-year, $5 million Royals contract: "We want a lifetime contract guarantee . . . If not, it'd be better to trade him. I don't know of any employer who wants an unhappy employe." And Royals brass "haven't made George a happy man. They made George a very unhappy man. He's very unhappy right now."
Replies the K.C. general manager, John Schuerholz: "The discussion of a lifetime contract is not inappropriate. It is the timing that we disagree with."
Right now, the Royals are concerned with premier DH Hal McRae, about to go reentry. Such a payroll problem evidently scrubbed Bannister's tentative move from Seattle to Los Angeles. Even forgetting Garvey, if Bannister were to get the upward of $700,000 a year he demanded, what would the Dodgers have to pay his fellow left-hander, Fernando Valenzuela?
At 95, the oldest major league ex-regular has died: Ray Fisher, in Ann Arbor, Mich. Vermont righty Fisher won 97, lost 93 with Yankees and Reds, 1910-20, then coached U. of Michigan baseball 38 years (.687).