In my first effort for SI.com (which appeared yesterday afternoon), I detail ten landmark free agent signings. It was a chore widdling the choices down to ten, but with a little help from pals like Maury Brown, Rich Lederer and Steve Treder, I felt like I was able to put together a representative list.
I'm sure we all can all throw out some memorable free agent deals over the years, both good and bad. How about Larry Hisle, Bruce Sutter, Bill Campbell, Mo Vaughn, Bobby Bonilla, Darren Dreifort, Chan Ho Park, and Manny Ramirez for starters? Oh, there are too many juicy ones to count. However, in trying to keep the piece as succinct and punchy as possible, there was naturally a lot of good stuff that didn't get mentioned. For instance, Reggie Jackson may be the most celebrated deal that helped put a good team over the top, but Pete Rose's four-year, $3.2 million deal (which, at the tender old age of 37 made him the highest-paid player in the game) in 1978, and Kirk Gibson's three-year, $4.5 million contract with the Dodgers in 1988, also fit nicely into that category.
George Steinbrenner and Angels' owner Gene Autry were two owners who embraced free agency with open arms. Remember those Angels teams of the late seventies and early eighties? One of the more interesting developments occured when Lyman Bostock, a promising young center fielder, was lured away from the Twins by Autry to play in California. Bostock hit .150 in April of '78 with the Angels and was so distraught that he went to Autry and offered to give back his salary for the month. Autry wouldn't hear of it.
Unfortunately, Bostock, whose father played in the Negro Leagues, met with an untimely end shortly thereafter. According to link provided by baseball-reference.com:
Bostock worked the rest of the season to get his batting average up over .300. On Sept. 23, 1978, with his batting average sitting at .296 after a game with the Chicago White Sox, Bostock visited his uncle in Gary, Indiana. While he was sitting in the back seat of his uncle's car at a stoplight, a man walked up to the car and fired a shotgun blast through the side window that caught Bostock fully on the side of the face, killing him instantly. He was 28.
By some accounts, the gunman, Leonard Smith, was aiming for the woman sitting next to Bostock in the car, and by other accounts, it was a case of mistaken identity. Tried for murder, Smith was eventually found not guilty by reason of insanity. Though Smith was jailed awaiting and during his trial and confined for psychiatric treatment afterward, he was soon deemed no longer mentally ill by his psychiatrists, and Smith's total time in custody ultimately amounted to only 21 months. Leonard Smith was released from Logansport State Hospital and returned home a completely free man less than two years after having taken Lyman Bostock's life in cold blood.
For me, it was particularly informative to go back and look at the Collusion years of the mid-eighties. This period was well covered in "Coming Apart at the Seams" by Jack Sands and Peter Gammons:
"The year 1984 had been a fairly typical one. Forty-six players had filed for free agency and twenty-six had changed teams. And then it stopped. Cold turkey.
The thirty-two players who went to the market after the 1985 season were in for a surprise. By the times spring training came around, twenty-eight had re-signed with their old clubs, having received no offers or none better from other teams.
The Players Association filed a grievance and when the independent arbitrator Tom Roberts ruled in the players' favor, he was immediately let go by the owners. The next year was even worse, as Gammons and Seams observe:
If there were any doubts about the extent of the owners' boycott, they disappeaared the next year. The 1986 free agent crop was the best group in history...The clubs were in no hurry to re-sign players who were eligible for free agency. As they correctly anticipated, the players each club wanted back received no interest from other clubs on the open market, and all but eight re-signed before the Januray 8 deadline.
The eight players who hadn't signed--soon to be known as the "Collusion Eight"--were Rock Raines, Andre Dawson, Lance Parrish, Bob Boone, Rich Gedman, Doyle Alexander, Bob Horner, and Ron Guidry. Parrish and Dawson were the only two who would change teams (Bob Horner did too, technically, but he left the states to play in Japan).
Guidry was at the tail-end of his career in 1987, but perhaps the Yankees' most lasting contribution to that period was when they did not sign free agent pitcher Jack Morris, who was just the kind of guy George Steinbrenner traditionally coveted. The Yankees were in bad need of pitching help and Steinbrenner was painfully aware that in spite of stars like Mattingly, Henderson and Winfield, New York was very much a Mets town at that moment. Morris, who was represented by Dick Moss (formerly the general counsel for the Players Assocation under Marvin Miller), ideally wanted to sign a multi-year deal with the Twins, but they flew down to Tampa to meet with Steinbrenner anyway (the Yanks were Morris' second choice).
After some small talk, which mostly consisted of Steinbrenner blowing smoke up Morris's ass about what a winner he was, Moss offered the Yankee owner a surprising proposal. According to Mike Lupica, in his book (co-authored by William Goldman), "Wait Till Next Year":
"George, we also have a proposal that we didn't make in Minnesota," [Moss] said. "It's a one-year deal, and it's really predicated on a simple fact: We think that if Jack Morris is added to the Yankees, the Yankees can win this season. Then if you don't want to pay Jack after that, no hard feelings, we'll go someplace else. I honestly believe this is an offer you can't turn down."
The deal was simple. Morris would become a Yankees, and the two sides would let an arbitrator devide Morris's value. Steinbrenner would come in with one sum, Moss/Morris another, the arbitrator would decide. Morris would pitch for the Yankees for the one season, then be eligible to become a free agent again at the end of 1987.
...It was the first-ever Jack Morris sale.
"One year, contract arbitration is all we're asking," Richard Moss said. The proposal was, he thought, both creative and irresistible. Steinbrenner needed pitching. The other owners needed some sort of free agent signing, as a hedge against collusion charges. The charges had already been filed once by the MLBPA, because of the previous winter's chill toward free agents. Certainly they would be refiled over the even more dazzling array of free agents now being snubbed."
Steinbrenner was surprised at the offer, Lupica reports. The blustery owner mentioned that he wasn't sure he'd be able to sign Morris in addition to the team's two biggest free agents, Willie Randolph and Ron Guidry. This struck Moss as odd if not downright ridiculous. Since when was George Steinbrenner gun shy about spending money, especially with a player of Jack Morris's appeal? Nevertheless, Steinbrenner would soon call Moss and decline the pick up Morris. The Yankees were in contention in 1987 and Jack Morris sure could have helped. The following spring, he remembered his meeting with Steinbrenner to Lupica. "The guy didn't sign me, Morris said. "But damn, he sure did love me."
Man, how it must have killed the Boss to let Morris go like that. Guess it just goes to show that Steinbrenner was a team-player when he needed to be after all.
Next Up: The best and worst free agent signings in Yankee history...