You might have seen a recent Sports Illustrated issue listing every major-league ballplayer in alphabetical order, along with his salary.
If you combed through the list a little more closely than the average fan, you may have found some inconsistencies.
Comparing Lonnie Smith and Eric Davis on ability alone, Davis would deserve a larger contract. But in reality, smith is making much more than Davis, due to free agency.
What, you may ask, is going on? Well, you see a system that deters first-year phenoms from asking for too much money--and rewards all players, regardless of ability, for playing three years in the big leagues.
Once a player has put in three seasons, he automatically is equipped with a credible threat to his ball team--the free agency market.
Free agency has featured its share of superstars--Steve Garvey, Reggie Jackson, Bob Boone, Pete Rose, Andre Dawson, Graig Nettles, Gary Carter. But it has also produced its share of duds--Steve Kemp, Dave Goltz, Rick Honeycutt, Jason Thompson.
And the most forgettable of them all--Dave Roberts.
Roberts was a utility man for Texas, playing mostly on the left side of the infield. He also caught 22 games for the Rangers in 1979. And when word got out that he could be used at a variety of positions, his free-agent value mysteriously soared.
Everyone overlooked the fact that he was a career .239 hitter. And only a few months after the Astros signed him to a million-dollar deal, they dropped him like a lead weight.
Baseball's free agent market pays players more than they're probably worth--and has helped create more $2 million per annumsalaries than in any other sport.
Jim Rice, Dan Quisenberry, George Brett, Eddie Murray and Mike Schmidt all make more than $2 million base salary; Gary Carter, Don Mattingly, Ozzie Smith and Willie Wilson fall just a hair short of that mark.
Although only Carter joined his present franchise via the free-agent route, the eight others--along with other players of their caliber--are paid such high salaries to preventthem from seeking free-agency.
In comparison, basketball's only $2 million men are Moses Malone and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Neither the NFL nor the NHL can boast any yearly salaries higher than $2 million.
No amount of tickets, soft pretzels and souvenir pucks can cover lofty salaries, so management has concocted some unusual contracts to pay off superstars.
The first of the "extra-long" contracts was given to Wayne Gretzky, who signed on with the Edmonton Oilers until the end of the century--hence uniform number 99. Then Magic Johnson signed a 25-year deal with the Lakers, earning him a cool million a year until the contract ends.