I'VE decided to declare free agency. I'll finish this season as a loyal fan of the New York Mets, the team I've supported for nearly a quarter century. But after that, I think I owe it to myself to see what other teams have to offer. I can only hope the Mets will understand. Heck, they realize that baseball is a business and I've got to do what's best for me and my family. Becoming a fan of a particular team is typically an accident - a mere function of where you live. But player free agency, greed, and reckless front-office spending has transformed hometown heroes into little more than highly paid mercenaries. The rapidly changing cast of characters from season to season leaves fans of most teams looking out over the field and wondering, ``Who are these guys?'' Free agency for fans will break the tyranny of geography, allowing us to base our allegiances on other factors.
The big one, for this free agent, will be money. I want a team whose players' salaries are discussed in the front office, not on the front page. The team that wins my devotion will be the one that says to its players, ``Negotiate your contract in the press and we won't sign you for $4.25 an hour.''
Let other free-agent fans follow teams that are top heavy with high-priced talent. I simply want a team I can feel good about rooting for. I'm certain I'm not the only fan who feels uneasy rooting for spoiled, arrogant megastars who make more money in a year than I will in two lifetimes, yet still charge kids $20 for an autograph at a baseball-card show.
Frankly, I'm tired of having the demands of being a fan (hoping the cleanup hitter drives in the game-winning run) conflict with my better nature (hoping the jerk waves at a third strike and is put on the next bus to the bush leagues). I suppose it's safer for society to pay someone to play centerfield than to have him knocking off convenience stores for a living; just don't expect me to buy a ticket to see him play.
Some big league free agents will only consider going to teams with natural grass stadiums, or to an American League team where they can be a designated hitter to extend their careers. As a free agent fan, I'll only consider going to teams where I can extend what little enthusiasm I have left for baseball.
Raising the issue of fan free agency may drive home a point that baseball's owners, players, agents, and even sportswriters have failed to reckon with: Money has become a key component of the way baseball is discussed, changing the fans' perception of the game on a fundamental level.
Late last season, for example, in the heat of the pennant drive, Darryl Strawberry came up for the Mets in a clutch situation with men in scoring position, late in a game against the first-place Pirates. He was also in the heat of an unseemly public drive for a new contract that would make him the highest paid player in baseball. I turned to my wife and said, ``The highest paid hitter in baseball would pick up these runs.'' Real fan talk! Strawberry homered. I went nuts, shouting, ``Pay the man! Give hi m whatever he wants!'' When I came to my senses I began thinking about finding a good Division III women's field hockey team to root for.
SPORTSWRITERS and broadcasters share part of the blame for baseball's money-mindedness. They've convinced themselves that player contracts and salary arbitration are of equal interest to fans as earned run averages. It's just a matter of time before some statistical whiz (are you listening, Bill James?) devises a ``total value'' stat. It will measure a player's performance as a ratio to the amount he's paid. At the end of the season some $750,000 journeyman outfielder coming off a career year will win t he Bargain Player of the Year Award from True Value Hardware. Or Charles Schwab.
I'm not merely objecting to player salaries. Baseball's front offices may be drunk on network and cable TV money, but if the Red Sox really think Matt Young is worth $2 million a year, I have to assume they have reasonable cause to believe he's worth the investment. But more to the point, it's none of my business, and I simply don't care. Now will someone please remind the baseball establishment that gentlemen don't talk about money in public?
Likewise, I'm not some graybeard pining for the good old days. I'm aware Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, and Ted Williams were no better role models than Wade Boggs, Jose Canseco, and Barry Bonds. Human nature hasn't changed, just sports coverage. Hot-stove-league speculation about trades and roster moves has disappeared under an avalanche of stories about contract disputes and salary arbitration. The Red's Joe Oliver, a .231 hitter, pouts because he's only making $185,000 a year. The Padres' Benito Santiago sounds positively gallant in contrast when, after losing his arbitration case and settling for $1.65 million, he promises to ``take it like a man.''
The message may be finally getting through to players and their agents. It's interesting to hear Dwight Gooden, Rickey Henderson, and other players insisting their outrageous contract demands are not about money, but about the ballclubs showing respect for their talents. This is, of course, a comic attempt to show that the $4 million outfielder is no different than the average Joe. But even from the cheap seats you can see this for what it really is - an attempt to throw a blanket over naked greed.
For this soon-to-be free-agent fan, alienation from a once beloved pastime is nearly complete. I suspect I'm not the only one. But every Opening Day, foolish play-by-play announcers still utter the ritual bromide about how, ``It's time to put all the contract talk behind us and concentrate on the game.'' Too late. We already know the score.