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Sunday, April 4, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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The Urge To Spend -- Free-Spending Owners Seek Road To Riches While - Some Believe - Traveling Road To Ruin

Seattle Times Staff Writer

It is either the ruination of baseball or its salvation, depending on which side of Scott Boras's briefcase you happen to be sitting.

It has revolutionized the game more than any single player or team, any rule change, any equipment modification, in the last century.

It is the very foundation, in fact, of modern baseball - the reason trades are made, the reason teams win or lose, the reason fans pay what they pay to watch it all transpire.

It is free agency, born in 1975 of another Marvin Miller master stroke and coaxed through its adolescence by the profligate, often foolhardy, spending of owners like George Steinbrenner, Ray Kroc and Gene Autry.

Can you say Ed Whitson?

Now, as free agency reaches young adulthood, feisty and full of the swagger that unchecked success will bring, it has reached another crossroads, with higher stakes than ever. The current debate is being played out against the edgy backdrop of hysteria and high-mindedness that marks two powerful forces at cross-purposes.

Not since those early days of player emancipation, in fact, when commissioner Bowie Kuhn and his minions predicted the demise of the sport (against strong evidence to the contrary, such as booming attendance and exponential revenue growth), have the siren calls of doom been louder or more fervent.

This past winter, all the creeping paranoia of an entire generation seemed to crystalize around a series of staggering signings.

Mike Piazza: seven years, $93 million. Mo Vaughn: six years, $80 million. Bernie Williams: seven years, $87.5 million. Albert Belle: five years, $65 million. Randy Johnson: four years, $52.4 million. And, the final twist of the knife, Kevin Brown: seven years, $105 million.

The scaling of the $100 million barrier by the Fox Dodgers, as Cleveland General Manager John Hart pointedly calls Rupert Murdoch's outfit, had a symbolic impact that caused hands to wring (management's) and hearts to sing (players' and agents') at an unprecedented rate.

But the Dodgers weren't the only team to take a full-scale leap into free agency. The Diamondbacks, in their second season, continued owner Jerry Colangelo's frantic efforts to buy his way into respectability.

Last year, it was, most notably, shortstop Jay Bell (five years, $34 million) and third baseman Matt Williams (a five-year, $45 million contract extension). This year, it has been Johnson, Todd Stottlemyre (four years, $32 million), Steve Finley (five years, $21.5 million), Armando Reynoso (two years, $5.5 million) and Greg Swindell (three years, $5.7 million).

Colangelo called it "protecting his investment." Others called it madness. And to many, the embodiment of a sport spinning off its axis will come tomorrow, when Brown and Johnson square off at Dodger Stadium in a matchup drawing more interest for its financial ramifications than its pitching intrigue.

From his home in Palm Springs, Calif., retired general manager Al Rosen declares that Armageddon has finally been reached. "It seems at this point, we're out of control," he said.

And from his home in New York, Miller, who pioneered what Rosen calls "the strongest union in the history of the free world," calmly states the other side of the argument.

"What does a $100 million contract mean?" Miller said. "It means the owner that put his name on the bottom of it felt the player was worth $100 million. Nothing more and nothing less."

And furthermore: "I understand the alarm that goes up in the minds of owners and management, but realistically, as long as there is money to pay it and it's all voluntary, I don't see how you can talk about an upper limit."

Certainly not in a world where ownership becomes dizzy with the allure of that one player it becomes convinced will put it over the top - never mind the ever-growing catalog of free-agent flops. And not when players like Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez, Juan Gonzalez and Manny Ramirez soon will reach the end of their contracts.

Free-agent lesson No. 1: The next mind-numbing contract is always just one superstar away, provided there are at least two owners salivating to have him. And, except for a transparent period of ownership collusion in the mid-1980s that cost them $280 million in damages, there always has been and apparently always will be such interest.

"The egos of the owners will simply not allow them not to spend," said Bob Quinn, former general manager of the Yankees, Reds and Giants. "When you have the Steinbrenners and the (Peter) Angeloses, just to name two, and the Fox network that owns the Dodgers, and the other big corporations - I don't know how you control that. Restraint and constraint - what's that?"

Those are the qualities, absent of which, that led Ted Turner to give free-agent pioneer Andy Messersmith a three-year, $1.75 million deal in 1976, and led the Red Sox to give Jose Offerman a four-year, $26 million deal last December. In between have been hundreds of eye-raising contracts worth billions of dollars, owners decrying the system at the same time they authorize their GMs to write the check.

Offerman's is this year's Loathsome Deal, the annual bloated contract that general managers scream is the one that will finally throw the pay scale completely off kilter - and this time we mean it. Prior Loathsome Deals include Wayne Garland's 10 years, $2.3 million in 1977; Dave Winfield's 10 years, $18 million in 1980; Bruce Sutter's six years, $10.6 million in 1985; Bud Black's four years, $10 million in 1990; Barry Bonds' six years, $43 million in 1993; Albert Belle's five years, $55 million in 1995, and Jay Bell's five years, $34 million in 1998.

Some of those signings worked out beautifully, and some flopped horribly. That sums up free agency - the potential for a huge score that can transform a franchise, and an equal, if not greater, chance for misery and heartache.

"It's like buying a pre-owned car," said Giants Manager Dusty Baker. "You're taking a chance on the transmission going bad, or that the car was in a car wreck. Or you can get an outstanding car with low mileage. You just don't know."

Free agent lesson No. 2: You pay your money, you take your chances.

"Getting the right guy is more difficult and more challenging than just to say it," said Atlanta General Manager John Schuerholz, who scored with free agent Terry Pendleton and flopped in Kansas City with reliever Mark Davis. "They're human beings, not machines."

Common sense often takes a hiatus in the maelstrom of ambition, greed and pressure that marks the free-agent signing period. Shrewd agents who can play teams against imaginary bidders - as some believe Boras did while negotiating Brown's contract - just raise the angst.

"A lot of players, you know going in were mistakes; you knew you were paying too much, but you had to stay competitive, you had to let the advertisers and the fan base know you were trying to win," Rosen said. "You get caught up in it, absolutely."

In 1991, Dodger general manager Fred Claire signed Darryl Strawberry to a five-year, $20.25 million deal. Strawberry, a Los Angeles native, produced well his first season before injuries and drug problems led to his release in 1994. The Dodgers were forced to buy out $4.8 million of his contract.

"The amount of interest that contract generated was enormous," said Claire, fired last year after 13 years as Dodger GM. "At that time, we were negotiating new television and radio contracts, and it proved to be a very significant contract. I'm not trying to justify the acquisition, but that type of deal does have the ability to generate interest. It can disintegrate obviously and quickly, however."

As salaries increase, so do the pitfalls of free agency. The Cecil Fielder case is a classic example of the Catch-22 facing owners at the turn of the century. Fielder signed a five-year, $36 million contract with the Tigers in 1993, but immediately began complaining when the team was dismantled around him. Key players Tony Phillips, Mickey Tettleton, David Wells and Mike Henneman were all dispatched in favor of lower-priced, younger players. Tigers management responded that it couldn't surround Fielder with better players because the Tigers were paying so much money to him.

The Mariners face a version of that problem now, as Griffey and Rodriguez challenge management to field a winning team around them. That task becomes daunting when their own prospective salary is factored in.

"If you pay a Griffey and a Rodriguez, and they say, well, you've got to have a No. 1 starter, you've got to have a closer, you're talking four guys that can make close to 40, 50 million dollars," Texas General Manager Doug Melvin said. "But the same thing is going to happen if they went elsewhere. Someone can say, `Oh, yeah, we're going to build a team and sign him for the splash of a star player.' All of a sudden, two years from now, they go, `We can't be doing this.' "

Free agency has become more mercurial than ever. Last year, the Blue Jays signed Randy Myers for $18 million over three years and trumpeted him as a keystone of their rebuilding campaign. But when the team struggled early, Toronto shipped Myers to San Diego for prospects.

"The stakes are higher than they've ever been in history, so patience just isn't there," Claire said. "But removing a player who has a large contract, once he's struggled, is extremely difficult and has its own dynamic."

The advent of corporate ownership has also changed the dynamics of free agency, leading to a crescendo of complaints about the disparity between small- and large-market teams. Miller, however, dismisses out of hand the argument that competitive imbalance is ruining the game.

"It isn't true," he said. "Sure, there's disparity, but there always was. There's absolutely nothing different. They say it's now bigger in dollars, which is true, but I suspect if you went back to what they call the good old days, and compare resources between the New York Yankees and the St. Louis Browns, you might find the percentage of disparity was greater."

Ownership sees it markedly different. From their viewpoint, the financial might of the likes of Fox, Turner, Steinbrenner and Disney is driving the free-agent marketplace on a reckless joyride to apocalypse.

Giants owner Peter Magowan calls the Brown signing, "terrible for the game of baseball. To sign a 34-year-old pitcher, a guy who plays every fifth day, to a seven-year contract, I think it's terrible."

But when asked the motivation for such a signing, Magowan - who caused outrage when he signed Bonds in 1993 before he had even been officially approved as Giants owner - doesn't hesitate.

"To win. I think it's as simple as that. Everyone wants to win, and that's fine, but the ability to win just by having a deeper checkbook by a factor of 10 over what someone else has, it's a very serious problem for the game."

Added Cleveland's Hart, "We're all at the mercy of what some of the super markets have the ability to do. I make it very clear that if the Fox Dodgers or the MSG (Madison Square Garden) Yankees, these clubs, want your player, the sky is the limit. At the end of the day, if they want them, we can't compete. Seattle's sitting here scared to death, `What if New York wants my guys, or LA wants my guys?' "

The history of free agency is littered with teams that tried to "buy the pennant" and wound up destitute and disillusioned.

In 1997, after spending $89 million on free agents that winter, the Florida Marlins won the World Series over Cleveland, then proceeded to dismantle the club piece by piece.

Free agent lesson No. 3: Be careful what you wish for; you might get it.

"They overly spent in search of a world's championship, which they attained," Schuerholz said of the Marlins. "Perhaps the 30-to-35-million-dollar operating loss was worth it. But the fact that they lost that much money and the owner decided, `Wait a minute, this was stupid to do,' proves two things: No. 1, it can be done, and, No. 2, it can be stupid."

Free agent lesson No. 4: Stupidity is rampant when it comes to free agency, or do the names Rennie Stennett, Don Stanhouse, Dave Goltz, Ted Higuera and Matt Young not ring a bell?

"There's not a general manager or owner in the world that escaped being very greedy about their chances of winning," Rosen said. "None of us avoided avarice run amok. We all committed the sin of trying to buy a winning team, and I was as much to blame as anyone."

Lee MacPhail, now in his 80s, served as president of the American League and head of the owners' player relations committee during that period when Miller deftly carved his way through baseball's power structure. Miller, head of the players association, won decision after decision that had the cumulative effect of ushering in the era of free agency.

When MacPhail retired in 1985, he remembers writing a letter to owners in which he gently urged them to show caution and restraint in free agency.

MacPhail now follows baseball vicariously through his son, Andy, who runs the Chicago Cubs (and gave Sammy Sosa a four-year, $42.5 million contract in 1997 - a classic Loathsome Deal in some quarters - so that Sosa wouldn't become a free agent).

"I'm not sure they ever got that letter," Lee MacPhail said.

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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