No Match for Pretzels and Souvenir Pucks


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.

These examples illustrate the ways a franchise can afford to keep its stars happy, without taking large chunks out of its pocketbook or salary cap each year.

More and more franchises are using creative financing to fulfill contractual obligations.

One of the more outrageous contracts was Steve young's $40 million deal with the Los Angeles Express of the USFL. The contract would have run for 40 years--just enough time for $1 million to grow to $43 million at the interest rates of the time. Therefore, if the USFL (or the Express) had survived, the Los Angeles franchise would actually have made money on Young's contract.

The latest of the "extra-long contracts" negotiated were the lifetime contracts of three Kansas City Royals in 1984. Besides a generous base salary, the players--Quisenberry, Wilson and George Brett--will also receive interest payments from real-estate investments.

Then, after they retire, a supplemental income kicks in, and the players can receive money in lump sums of $16 to $23 million each or take it in annual payments.

Despite the best efforts of the owners, however, matters are coming to a head in the highest-paid sports: baseball and basketball.

The NBA has already solved its problem with the salary cap, which helps teams keep costs down but makes for a difficult chore in choosing who is to be kept on a team.

But major league baseball has no salary cap, and owners have turned to different tactics in order to keep salaries down. Last year, management cut the playing roster from 25 to 24 men--saving only about $100,000 per team.

During the past off-season, teams offered less to their first-year players. B.J. Surhoff, a rookie catcher who had a lot to do with the Brewers' 13-0 start, makes only about $65,000 a year--the minimum wage.

Free agents galore went unsigned last winter. It may be left to history to determine whether the non-signing resulted from owner collusion or fear.

This year's few free-agent deals grew out of necessity. The Cubs needed offense, so they picked up Andre Dawson. The Phillies needed a catcher, so they picked up Lance Parrish.

But what of the future? Some say that salaries can only go up, due to inflation, prosperity, or just plain greed.

But there is one other factor that hasn't been talked about as much as in the past, and that is status. The thought that the highest-paid player is the best player has been around for a while.

The most overt example of statusgrubbing did not occur in baseball but in basketball. Consider the year that both Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell were getting their contracts renewed. A few days after Red Auerbach signed Russell to the tune of $100,000, Chamberlain demanded $100,001. The rivalry that the two big men had on the court spilled off the court.

In the future, salary inconsistencies may continue to crop up, as owners take cost-cutting measures (reminiscent of grandfather clauses) on players who are unable to fight back.

But no matter how hard the owners try to keep salaries down, the genuine demands of superstars will have to be heeded. There will never come a time when top talent exceeds top salaries.