Sports 101

Baseball's free-agent season has begun, and players are shouting "Show me the money!" When Nolan Ryan signed a landmark contract for $1 million a year in 1980, it shocked the baseball world. Today, that amount seems minuscule. The New York Mets just paid $123 million for only two players: All-Star catcher Mike Piazza signed a seven-year, $91 million contract and Al Leiter a four-year, $32 million deal. Although they re-signed with the Mets before testing the free-agent market, it paves the way for other high-caliber players and continues to drive the marketplace upward.

Q: What is a free agent?

A: A player who is not contracted to play for any team. He is free to negotiate with any club interested in him.

Q: How many baseball players filed for free agency this year?

A: 135 players, but there are still about 130 who haven't committed yet.

Q: What's so special about the free agents of 1998?

A: The class of '98 includes many of the top players: a Gold Glove-winning batting champion (Bernie Williams), two recent MVPs (Mo Vaughn and Ken Caminiti), a starting pitcher who helped pitch his last two clubs to the World Series (Kevin Brown), and one of the most dominant left-handed pitchers in the game (Randy Johnson).

Q: With all these big-money players on the market, how are teams going to fit them into their budgets?

A: It varies from team to team, but those with new ballparks (eight new facilities have opened this decade; seven more are under construction or being planned) can rely on increased ticket revenue. Teams also rely on lucrative TV deals. The Boston Red Sox already have announced a 15 percent increase in ticket prices to pay for the player or players they expect to sign to replace first baseman Mo Vaughn.

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