In the major leagues, it is a new ball game. No more shopping around by players with their precious newly declared free agent status; no more floating their skills on the open market in pursuit of instant millionairehood. All the signs indicate there has been a stinging owner revolt.
The free agent's old tactics belong to the past. The club owners, in an outbreak of sanity, did not bid against each other as in past seasons when George Steinbrenner, most notably, went berserk with his notions of buying pennants, and wrecked the whole salary structure.
The new attitude of the club owners, when it comes to bidding for another team's free agent, seems to be mustn't touch. That the first 26 free agents who signed for the 1986 season re-signed with their original clubs may have been a coincidence, or a series of 26 coincidences. But the Major League Players Association executive director, Don Fehr, is suggesting blatant collusion by the club owners in violation of their bargaining agreement.
For the free agents who have visions of exploiting their new status and moving to greener fields, there was no there out there. Club owners who customarily had been willing to pay the price turned frigid this year, and in concert. So, back to their old clubs went the free agents, with more pay as a rule, but not at the wage jumps they dreamed about.
There is no need to weep for today's downtrodden major league ballplayer, however. Even those with no claim to stardom, the journeymen among them, get an average salary of $368,998. Thanks to the creation this year of 14 more of that breed, there are now 45 millionaires in the game. This, according to a USA Today survey.
Dave Winfield of the Yankees, who is not the highest paid baseball athlete at the $1,745,000 per season he wangled from Steinbrenner a few seasons back, has hit .300 only once in his life, yet by today's standards he is not overpaid.
But by way of contrast, harken to the complaint of 25-game winner Walter Johnson, a salary holdout in 1911: "I want $9,000 a year, just as much as Ty Cobb (who had just won the fourth of his nine straight AL batting titles)."
Winfield was paid last season at the rate of $2,387 every time he stepped to the plate, or $11,258 per game played.
The whole business of rocketing salaries began 10 years ago when the owners agreed to arbitration by Peter Seitz, a New York attorney, on the reserve clause. When he moved that pitchers Dave McNally and Andy Messersmith were not beholden to their teams beyond one renewal of their contract, the free agent business was born.
Steinbrenner leaped in with the first big offer of $400,000 a year to Catfish Hunter, who won his free agency from Oakland's Charles O. Finley on a technicality. When Steinbrenner continued to go after free agent stars, other owners joined the game and the bidding became a players paradise. The average Yankee's salary is now $546,364, the league's highest.
As recently as last season, the Boston Red Sox, who play in the smallest park in the majors and can ill afford the monster salaries, panicked to the extent that they wound up with the highest paid player in the game, their own Jim Rice, whom they sewed up to a four-year contract calling for $8.8 million.
There is no certainty that other clubs would have been bidding for Jim Rice this year. They weren't bidding for Kirk Gibson, a genuine star with Detroit who was flaunting his new freedom for those two months during which all free agents were available to other teams. Eventually, he re-signed with the Tigers at a nice three-year, $4 million deal, but it wasn't the five-year, $8 million package he wanted very badly.
Fehr told Sports Illustrated "there does not appear to be a free market operating." It is a reasonable assumption that could lead to court action or a strike threat. Fehr is certain to point out that in contrast to the 26-0 record of free agents signing with their original clubs this year, before Juan Beniquez left the Angels for the Orioles Tuesday, only one player returned to his old team in the first two years of free agency, and in 1985 only 27 percent went the re-signing route. Some attitudes have changed.
That the owners are aware they are skirting some kind of rumpus from the players union is evident from Steinbrenner's disclosure to the New York News that the owners were aware of the possibility of collusion charges. He revealed that Commissioner Peter Ueberroth had gotten the owners together on numerous occasions -- always with four lawyers in the room to guard against anything that might be construed as collusion -- and "made us tell each other how stupid we'd been in the past."
The result has been what is evident: that the owners have become stiff-backed about throwing all that money at other teams' free agents, and hope now, with such a show of no interest, to slow the proliferation of millionaires. In the player ranks, that is.