George Steinbrenner returned to the free-agent market Wednesday, supplying the most dramatic evidence yet that baseball's owners may be legitimately concerned about the possibility of mounting penalties if the collusion of the previous two winters were to continue.
Strengthening his New York Yankees' already potent offense, Steinbrenner signed Jack Clark, the St. Louis Cardinals' free-agent first baseman, to a two-year contract at $1.5 million a year, not including a series of bonuses and incentives that could bring the yearly total to $2 million, depending on the number of games he plays.
The signing is the biggest in a series of breakthroughs that may represent the end of collusion.
Seventy-six players filed for free agency this winter. Twenty-nine have now signed, nine of them changing teams. That's a far cry from the previous two winters, when Andre Dawson and Lance Parrish were the only premier free agents who found new employers.
This winter, Brett Butler has moved from the Cleveland Indians to the San Francisco Giants, Mike Davis from the Oakland A's to the Dodgers, Glenn Hubbard from the Atlanta Braves to the A's, David Palmer from the Braves to the Philadelphia Phillies, Bob Dernier from the Chicago Cubs to the Phillies, Vance Law from the Montreal Expos to the Cubs, Chili Davis from the Giants to the Angels, Dave Henderson from the Giants to the A's--and now Clark has left the National League champion Cardinals for the hype and histrionics of the Bronx Zoo.
The market may never again be as bountiful as when Steinbrenner was purchasing a Reggie Jackson or Dave Winfield or Goose Gossage every winter, ultimately producing the best team money could buy. At the least, however, the recent signings seem to represent a reasonable response to the recent collusion verdict delivered by arbitrator Tom Roberts regarding the free agents from the winter of 1985-86.
Roberts is now conducting a penalty trial, with the Major League Players Assn. seeking significant remuneration for the affected free agents.
Another arbitrator, George Nicolau, is conducting a hearing into the union's charge that the owners were also guilty of collusion in the winter of 1986-87.
The threat of additional penalties seems to have made an impact. Consider that Steinbrenner, in need of pitching but loyal to the conspiracy, rejected the overtures last winter of free agent Jack Morris, the winningest pitcher of the '80s. That was before Roberts delivered his decision.
Now, already blessed with baseball's best first baseman in Don Mattingly and an offense that averaged 4.8 runs per game, he has invested in another hitter, another first baseman.
Clark and his fellow free agents would be justified in offering thanks to Mr. Roberts.
Several still have a chance to widen the collusion gap.
Eight must sign with their 1987 teams by Friday midnight or they cannot rejoin those teams until May 1. They are Gary Gaetti of the Minnesota Twins, Dave Smith, Larry Anderson and Danny Darwin of the Houston Astros, Charlie Leibrandt of the Kansas City Royals, Atlee Hammaker of the Giants, Bill Gullickson of the Yankees and John Candelaria of the New York Mets.
The Dodgers are vying with the Twins for Gaetti, and the Angels are contesting the Royals for Leibrandt.
Clark, who made $1.3 million last year, was also faced with the Friday deadline. He acknowledged at a New York press conference Wednesday that the Cardinals had offered a two-year package that could have given him about $2.1 million a year. He said, though, that the offer was made too late in their negotiations and that he was tired of the abuse he received in St. Louis.
"All I kept hearing was that I was a one-dimensional player," he said. "I couldn't do this, I couldn't do that, I wasn't a good first baseman. At one point, (General Manager) Dal Maxvill said to me, 'If you don't want to play here, why don't you go to Cleveland?' I mean, this wasn't about money. The Cardinals offered more (than the Yankees). I'd just had enough of it. It was time for a change.
"The doctors have given me a clean bill of health and I'm coming over here to do some hitting. I'm really excited to be in a lineup with guys like Mattingly, Rickey Henderson and Dave Winfield. I hope to be here more than just two years."
Clark, 32, will be in the Yankee lineup either as a designated hitter or right fielder. He missed the last five weeks of the 1987 season and did not appear in either the playoffs or World Series because of an injured ankle, but still hit 35 home runs and drove in 106 runs in 131 games, leading the National League with a .597 slugging percentage.
The Cardinals acquired Clark from San Francisco before the 1985 season and won pennants in two of the ensuing three seasons. Subtracting his 35 home runs, the Cardinals hit 58 last year and seemed particularly anemic in the playoffs and Series, when Clark was sidelined.
The stunned Maxvill said Wednesday that it was unlikely he could replace Clark through a trade and that he expected Jim Lindeman, who had 8 home runs and 28 RBIs in an injury-plagued rookie season, to fill the position.
Maxvill said that Clark was still not able to run well and may have chosen to play in the American League because of the designated-hitter role available there. He also said that Clark probably wanted the visibility of a larger market.
Until Roberts' decision, the free agents of the previous two winters had wanted much and gotten nothing.