Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Free Agents for Sale

Every baseball fan realizes the days in which players remained with the same team throughout their entire careers are gone forever. No more Brooks Robinsons or Cal Ripkens in Baltimore. No more Barry Larkins in Cincinnati. Say goodbye to the Mike Schmidts of Philadelphia. As a consequence, fans would be much better off bonding with the uniform not the people inhabiting them. The poster team of this new reality is the Florida Marlins, who successfully “rented” numerous key players for a season or less en route to two world championships in a decade and promptly sold, traded or lost them through free agency in the off-seasons immediately following their titles.

Apart from making it difficult to become attached to any individual player, another casualty of this revolution surely has been team chemistry, that intangible few can measure but whose absence nearly everyone can detect. Myth would have it that harmony in the clubhouse is not a precondition to success on the diamond. Legendary are the teams (the Oakland A’s of Charley Finley, nearly all Billy Martin-managed and/or George Steinbrenner-owned Yankee clubs) who fought among themselves, with the manager, with ownership or all three and still won championships.

In the era of free agency, however, the number of unhappy teams still playing in October will continue to decline, or, at best become one-season wonders. Some may argue this turnover of teams represents league parity, but for the most part a disproportionate number of teams playing in the post-season are either from large markets or have ownerships with deep pockets. Money is the catalyst in this chemical equation.

High-priced stars with guaranteed contracts and no-trade clauses make far more money than the people who write their names on the lineup card each day. Their loyalties to the team, the fans, and to the city in which they play are tenuous at best. This generation’s players simply will not put up with as much crap as their predecessors. More to the point, huge free-agent contracts induce many of them not to stay around one clubhouse long enough to irritate or ingratiate themselves to their teammates or management.

Free agency changed the atmosphere dramatically and forever. Players in their final season before filing for free agency are as likely to be traded by the July 31 deadline as not and, then, only for the remainder of the current season. Or they are likely to make is so clear to present management they will not re-sign with the club, they leave the front office little choice but to get as much for them as they can while they can.

Players entering both their prime and their free agent year, the very type of athletes on whose shoulders franchises used to be built, are traded away at mid-season, often for prospects who won’t even appear with the big club for some time if at all. The acquiring teams are frequently contenders or teams who think they should be contenders and, thus, cannot stand still in the eyes of their fans. But these newly attired players, shown in press conferences trying on new jerseys and adjusting new caps, arrive with no guarantees they will remain beyond the current season. The future thus mortgaged, the new club must convince the new player this is the place to stay. More often than not, they fail to do so.

It is not uncommon for great players, franchise players by any definition, to play for three different clubs in the space of two or three years. Look at Pudge Rodriguez, one of the premier catchers, who went from Texas to Florida to Detroit in three successive years. I can now imagine the day when entire teams are reconstituted at the end of each season, the players auctioning themselves off on Ebay.

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