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Mike Downey

Nothing Is Free About Free Agency

February 19, 1986

I filed for free agency the other day. It happened after I asked the boss for a raise of $75 a week. He agreed, but then he reneged. He said he thought I wanted a raise to $75 a week.

We haggled for several days. I warned him that I would offer my services to other companies. He said a person's gotta do what a person's gotta do. I told him I loved working for him. He told me you always hurt the one you love.

I told him I needed the money for the security of my family. He reminded me that I had no family. I called him a creep. He threatened to sue me for definition of character.

Finally, it went to arbitration.

A total stranger sat down and introduced himself. He knew little or nothing about our business. He was about as qualified as a Wall Street Journal editor at a photography contest. I didn't trust him. He looked like the kind of guy who could change a $9 bill into 3s.

It was weird having him hear my case. I showed the arbitrator my statistics from the last year--stories started, stories completed, total ink used, libel suits won and lost.

The boss countered with my failings--deadlines missed, bad punctuation, stale humor, bad speling.

I was crushed.

"How can you say those terrible things about me?" I asked. "I've always been a team player."

"Hey, it's just business," the boss said.

Free agency was not as easy as I thought it would be.

I thought all you had to do was threaten to leave, spout a few homilies about loyalty, mention that you needed more money to keep your babies in diapers and "secure their future"--and poof, somebody wrote you a check for millions.

That's the way the baseball players do it.

Fernando Valenzuela and Dwight Gooden, the men with the golden arms, give you all sorts of touching speeches about how much they love playing for their teams and for their fans--"the best fans in the world"--but if the bosses don't come up with a couple hundred thousand dollars more, they go straight to arbitration and start making noises about free agency.

Already, after making a deal that will pay Valenzuela something like $2 million to throw baseballs in 1988, his agent is talking about what a great position Fernando will be in at the end of this three-year contract.

And the Dodgers will give him the bucks, because we all know that Valenzuela will go right out and sign with the Texas Rangers if they don't.

Sure he will.

Bill Madlock was mentioning the other day what a special organization the Dodgers had, how generous they were, how comfortable they made things, how rival players all envy the Dodgers and wish they were playing for them.

Valenzuela is one of those comfortable Dodgers. They brought him to the majors. They have seen to his needs. In return, he has pitched wonderfully. Fair exchange.

He doesn't want to pitch anywhere else. He has said it a hundred times. But that free agency sword comes a-dangling over the Dodgers the minute his contract comes up. Pay me or maybe Pittsburgh will.

Kirk Gibson did it in Detroit. Before the 1985 season, the Tigers made him an offer. Gibson said it was very fair. But he said he wanted to test the free-agent waters.

Deep waters ran still. There wasn't so much as a ripple for Gibson. The Tigers kept a three-year offer on the table, but Gibson acted offended. He said he would upchuck if he had to swallow that deal. But wait a minute. Who betrayed whom?

Baseball negotiation is becoming a silly and risky business. Pitcher Dave LaPoint just joined Detroit in a trade. He promptly went to arbitration. He demanded $550,000, and he won.

His record last season was 7-17.

First baseman Greg Brock of the Dodgers, who is improving every season but has not yet reminded anyone of Don Mattingly, went to arbitration with the Dodgers. Later he was upset by the negative things said about him to the arbitrator. Little things such as: He still has to prove he can hit.

Guess the Dodgers should have looked that arbitrator squarely in the eye and said: "This guy is a ballplayer, boy. Even we don't know why we don't give him more money."

A guy named Bryan Little, who allegedly plays shortstop, told the Chicago White Sox he was taking them to arbitration because he wanted to make $190,000 this season.

If Bryan Little makes 190 grand this season, Fernando Valenzuela ought to make 190 million.

Even if he does work only about 35 or 40 days a year.

As for me, the boss ought to be ashamed of himself if Bryan Little makes more than I do. At least my boss has heard of me.

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