When we left the free agent marketplace last winter, the poker game had scared away everyone except a few regulars -- George Steinbrenner of the Yankees, Gene Autry of the Angels and Joan Kroc of the Padres. Steinbrenner virtually invented the modern baseball salary with his free agent bidding, and last winter he pretty much redefined the post-collusion market by throwing cash at both good players (Steve Sax, $4 million) and average ones (Andy Hawkins, $3.6 million; Dave LaPoint, $2.6 million). Meanwhile, Autry told a couple of free agents to ring his doorbell and he'd beat whatever their previous best offer had been. He was shut out, but nonetheless did his part to help Bruce Hurst get $5.25 million from the Padres and Nolan Ryan get $3.2 million from the Rangers. When they were done, they'd established some new parameters and a few weeks later, Roger Clemens, Orel Hershiser and Dwight Gooden collected by signing contracts that would have been unheard of a few weeks earlier -- approximately $7 million for three years. Steinbrenner and his friends were indirectly good to a lot of others, including Andy Van Slyke of the Pirates, Jose Canseco of the A's and Will Clark of the Giants, all of whom got raises of close to $1 million. Before it was done, there were dozens of baseball people (and some agents) who'd been staggered by the new salary structure. Barry Rona, former head of the owners' Player Relations Committee, called it "unbelievable," and not too many people disagreed. In 1967, when owners still had players in a stranglehold, the average major league salary was $19,900. In 1975, the year before free agency, it was only $44,676, but by 1978, had shot up to $99,876. Next season it's expected to sail past $500,000 per man. This year's market -- the craziest of all -- came with the usual cries of trouble, of big-city teams spending small-market teams out of business and of baseball's power teams settling onto both coasts. Yet while the Yankees, Angels and Padres continued to stoke the fires of free agency, they were joined by the Tigers, Mariners and Red Sox, three teams that haven't played this game very often. When serious negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement begin next month, the owners will emphasize that maintaining a competitive balance is the strongest argument for their proposed revenue-sharing, salary-scale proposal. They will say the Milwaukee Brewers can't compete with the New York Yankees in the open salary arena. But this week, the players surely got another piece of evidence that the Brewers could if they chose to: If the Mariners and Tigers can spend millions for free agents, why can't everyone? After all, the Tigers lured Tony Phillips from the Oakland Athletics, and the Mariners lured Pete O'Brien away from a competitive offer by the Red Sox. And, no, neither the Tigers nor Mariners expect to lose money in 1990. Every good player may eventually wind up in California or New York, but 13 years of free agency hasn't destroyed the game yet. This is the winter more teams bid more money for more players than at any time in history. At last week's winter meetings in Nashville, 19 free agents walked away with about $68 million and got average annual salaries of about $1.5 million per man. From Kent Hrbek and $14 million to Fred Lynn and $500,000, it was a fiercely competitive, sky's-the-limit auction. This, perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not, is the winter when baseball teams are about to see their annual share of network television revenues almost double -- from $7 million to about $13 million. This is also the winter that 10 teams are coming off record attendance, and when the game apparently has never been better. Still, the question troubles a lot of people: Is there no ceiling? Can teams continue to spend and spend and spend? Perhaps. Even Chuck O'Connor, the owners' chief negotiator, predicts baseball is a game that "should continue to prosper." That means television revenues, ticket prices, attendance and salaries will maintain an upward spiral. That means that teams who won't bid millions for free agents had better spend millions for player development. Which raises an interesting question: Is spending for free agents as foolish as it appears? Does it cost more to develop a superstar or buy one that's already established? The answer isn't as clear as it seems because, as A's General Manager Sandy Alderson said recently: "I've thought a lot about that. Mike Moore {lured from Seattle} cost us this much and Jose Canseco cost us this much. Moore was a straight cost {$3 million}, but to get Canseco here, we had to spend hundreds of hours scouting players and hundreds more developing them. To get one Jose Canseco, you do spend millions. "So while I don't agree that free agency is the best way to build a team, it can be cost-effective if you spend the money wisely." The owners will insist that the fundamental system -- especially arbitration -- be changed, but like the players, they see the sport as virtually recession-proof. Another argument has been that since so many players like to live on the West Coast, teams there have an easier time getting free agents. That hasn't proven to be the case, and a study by the Cleveland Indians last year showed that, with a couple of exceptions, players don't play where they live anyway. And with salaries increasing, more players will be able to maintain two residences. So the bottom line appears to be that the game is about the same as it has been the last 13 years. Salaries move with the market, and even if the market can be moved by one or two men, the game doesn't appear to have suffered. Almost everyone admits this. "I've stopped thinking about these salaries," Royals General Manager John Schuerholz said. "I had to so I wouldn't regurgitate all over myself. That's how I feel about it. My other feeling is that this is the marketplace, and if we want to compete, we have to belly up to the bar. It's crazy, but the Kansas City Royals want to stay competitive, and our owners have given us the resources to keep up." He didn't sound happy about it, but a few hours earlier, another general manager seemed ecstatic about the chance to spend a few million dollars. "It's fun," Seattle's Woody Woodward said. Woodward has new ownership and has been promised that the days when the Mariners traditionally had the game's lowest payroll and worst record are over. "When we first began talking to agents, they were surprised," he said, "but after a week here, I think a lot of people know the Seattle Mariners are going to be competitive in this thing." Woodward won't say it, but he appears to want to prove that baseball can prosper in Seattle. The Mariners have seemed on the verge of leaving a couple of times, but former owner George Argyros seemed to have trouble adjusting to this new marketplace. Can they afford to compete? "We're not in this thing to lose money," said Jeff Smulyian, one of the team's new owners. "But we also promised to be competitive and bidding for a free agent like Pete O'Brien {and Hrbek, who re-signed with Minnesota} is one way to do that. We have an exciting young team in Seattle, and if we're as competitive on the field as we hope to be, things will turn around in Seattle." Likewise, the Detroit Tigers are helping salaries soar. No one was more shocked than the Detroit baseball staff last week when owner Tom Monaghan told them he was tired of losing and wanted a fast infusion of talent. At one point in the winter meetings, the Tigers appeared close to getting Phillips, Lloyd Moseby, O'Brien and Hubie Brooks. They did get Phillips and Moseby and are still in the running for Brooks. All of a sudden, a team that agents almost never bothered to call will look a lot better to a lot of players. "The agents were very surprised when I started talking about free agents," General Manager Bill Lajoie said. "I had to make very lucrative offers to get their attention. I know that right now money might not be enough. You can't force players to come to a team that won 59 games. But it's a start." A lot of executives from smaller markets say the same thing, but no one has thrown more money at free agents and gotten fewer results than Steinbrenner. Once upon a time, he might have been a player's only bidder. Now, the player may have alternatives, and one of those alternatives might not be a place where the tension level and instability are cranked almost high enough to drown out the clubhouse stereo. "I don't know that all things will ever be equal again," said Twins General Manager Andy MacPhail. "We've seen contracts for some of our players double in the last few weeks, and we simply don't have the resources to stay in that kind of marketplace. "But it is a free market, and it's like with anything else, you exploit the things you do best. We'll do a good job developing players and acquiring them through trades and we can keep the Minnesota Twins competitive. It's a changing game, but if you still do the basic things well, you'll do fine." ...........BASEBALL'S HIGHEST PAID PLAYERS............... .....1989 Player....................Team....................Salary Orel Hershiser............Dodgers ...........$2.76 mill. Frank Viola ..............Mets...............$2.76 mill. Cal Ripken Jr.............Orioles............$2.46 mill. Dwight Gooden.............Mets...............$2.41 mill. Jim Rice..................Red Sox............$2.36 mill. Rick Sutcliffe............Cubs...............$2.34 mill. Ozzie Smith...............Cardinals..........$2.34 mill. Eddie Murray..............Dodgers............$2.33 mill. Roger Clemens.............Red Sox............$2.30 mill. Don Mattingly.............Yankees............$2.20 mill. .....1990 Player....................Team....................Salary Mark Langston.............Angels.............$3.20 mill. Rickey Henderson..........Athletics.............$3 mill. Kirby Puckett.............Twins.................$3 mill. Brett Saberhagen..........Royals.............$2.83 mill. Kent Hrbek................Twins...............$2.8 mill. Roger Clemens.............Red Sox.............$2.6 mill. Don Mattingly ............Yankees............$2.56 mill. Frank Viola...............Mets................$2.5 mill. Rick Sutcliffe............Cubs...............$2.34 mill. Ozzie Smith...............Cardinals..........$2.34 mill. Note: About 60 percent of major league veterans have not signed contracts for 1990.