Baseball's free agents pay off, except sometimes when they don't
Los Angeles — Baseball's free agents, especially those with the power bat of a Reggie Jackson, the fastball of a Nolan Ryan, or the consistency of a Pete Rose, are enormously attractive to opposing teams.
Front-office executives invariably view them as multi-talented players who can (1) immediately create a surge in season- ticket sales, (2) help build a pennant winner, or (3) provide a championship team with one more year at the top.
On paper the free agent move always works. On the field, however, its record (especially in regard to pitchers) has often paralleled that of buying oil stocks by mail.
Free agents are professional athletes who have played out the option years of their contracts and thus can sell themselves to the highest bidder.
Generally, negotiations become serious when the figure $1 million is mentioned, although it need not necessarily stop there, especially if the contract is for more than one year. In some cases, even journeymen ballplapyers have become rich overnight.
In addition to the huge salaries they provide, contracts for "name" free agents sometimes offer such extra benefits as no- cut or no-trade clauses, delayed payments for a better tax break, and huge loans at very low interest.
But the acquisition of most free agents is still a gamble. Sometimes they hide injuries; on other occasions their competitive edge appears to have been dulled by all that money and security; or somehow thay manage to come up well short of all the wonderful things expected of them.
There have been exceptions, several involving the New York Yankees, who signed outfielder Reggie Jackson as a free agent in 1976; pitcher Rich Gossage in 1978; and pitcher Tommy John in 1979.
New York certainly would not be the power team it is today nor baseball's best draw on the road without them. But even the Yankees got burned on pitcher don Gullett, a big winner with Cincinnati, who hasn't worked an inning for New York since 1978 and still has three years remaining on a six-year contract.
Last season the Philadelphia Phillies invested heavily in free agent Pete Rose, whose fiery leadership and near-automatic 200 hits per season were supposed to bring them a pennant. Rose produced all right, but in a year when the Phillies' pitching staff and some of its sluggers did not.
When the Boston Red Sox signed free agent Bill Campbell to a huge contract in November of 1976, he was probably the best relief pitcher in the American League. In fact, the Minnesota Twins used Campbell so frequently out of the bullpen the year before that Bill won 17 games.
Today, because of injuries, the Red Sox don't know whether to pay him off or put his arm on display with the glass flowers at Harvard University.
Back in 1976 owner Gene Autry of the California Angels nearly emptied his saddlebags to sign free agents Don Baylor, Joe Rudi, and Bobby Grich to million-dollar contracts in time for the 1977 seson. That kind of hitting, coupled with the pitching that California already had, would certainly lift the Angels to new heights in the American League.
But California, which had gone 76-86 in 1976 without any of these three big names in their lineup, actually won two fewer games in 1977. Those signings plus some subsequent free agent acquisitions did eventually bear fruit last year , however, when Baylor was named the AL's Most Valuable Player and the Angels won their division title.
The Los Angeles Dodgers, who largely stayed clear of free agents until this year, reportedly spent more than $3 million during the winter to sign pitcher Don Stanhouse of the Baltimore Orioles and pitcher Dave Goltz of the Minnesota Twins.
Stanhouse one of the best relievers in the AL last year, did not pitch well early in the season and has logged most of his time on the Dodgers' disabled list. Goltz, whose sinkerball quickly disappeared into the California smog, may soon be asked to learn his trade all over again in the bullpen.
This, of course, is just a sampling of free agents who have signed lucrative contracts in the past few years. It is not meant to suggest that every free agent deal has been a mistake.
Still, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn should probably rule that all such players carry a warning tag attached to their uniforms.
Presumably it would read: "Attention all baseball owners: free agents can be hazardous to your wealth!"