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Imagining the MLB Without Free Agency

What if... Curt Flood had lost?

Kurt Flood Posing in Uniform

Thanks to some prompts by our Twinkie Town (and SBNation) leaders, one of the things I’ve pondered in recent days is how MLB history might have changed without free agency? What if players were still the property of their teams…until traded or released? What if the legal implications of all of that, had never been litigated? This little essay imagines that a few things would’ve changed, and a few words and phrases wouldn’t have entered our vocabularies.

There, of course, would be hundreds of examples of players who wouldn’t have changed teams. Beyond all of those who left via free agency, many more would not have been traded because of impending free agency. Perhaps Reggie Jackson would have been an Oakland A for life. Maybe A-Rod would never have left the Mariners.

Closer to home, maybe Rod Carew and Torii Hunter perhaps wouldn’t have been Angels (though I’m sure they’re nice guys). Frank Viola and Johan Santana wouldn’t have been Mets. But perhaps most importantly for Twins history, Jack Morris wouldn’t have been a Twin, and that would have been a big problem. In fact, without Jack Morris, it’s unlikely that we’d all view the year 1991 as we do 1987. Rather than “worst to first” it more likely would have been “worst to better,” and that doesn’t have much of a ring to it.

To carry this pretend scenario forward, I have to make a couple of fairly dramatic assumptions:

First, the MLB players union (arguably the most powerful union in the land) wouldn’t be that powerful. Obviously. The owners would basically hold all the cards as they did prior to the advent of free agency. That would mean that if I were to mention a name like Scott Boras, one would have to assume he must have played second base for the Cubs at some point, rather than having become a household name as a player-agent. In sum, we wouldn’t have heard of Boras and his fellow agents.

Second, Michael Lewis might not have written “Moneyball” and the utility of Billy Beane (who really was an MLB utility player) might have been more remembered for that, rather than for being the “genius” of Moneyball. After all, if players were forever bound to their teams, it would all be about the draft and scouting, and the A’s would be on the same playing field as the Yankees, and “Moneyball” would probably not have become a familiar term.

Small market teams still wouldn’t have the revenue of the Yankees or Red Sox, and so the inherent unfairness in baseball would still exist. But at a far lesser level, for while the Yankees could spend on more and presumably better scouts, as well as technology and facilities, that would be the only advantage they’d have. Once the A’s developed a star, that star would be theirs forever (or at least until the star became bitter and angry enough to retire).

Third, even with that heightened employer power over the employee, player salaries would still have risen dramatically, as revenues have risen dramatically for the owners. It is unlikely salaries would have risen for players as much as the money being made by the owners, but they would’ve risen.

The assumption that player salaries would’ve risen dramatically (though not as much without free agency clearly), is critical to carrying this pretend scenario forward in today’s market. I’m assuming that even without free agency players would not have to work at other jobs to supplement their incomes in the off-season as they did prior to free agency and in a long-ago world. If that were true, then owners would be even more potentially miserly than we’ve heard stories of them being.

Older Twins fans are probably somewhat aware of old Calvin Griffith stories in which his stars, Rod Carew, Harmon Killebrew, etc…would ask for a raise based on all-star seasons, and Calvin would basically throw them some peanuts, or simply say no. I’m going to assume that given changes in social media, and media generally, that such things simply couldn’t happen, as popular sentiment wouldn’t support owners making millions (and sometimes billions) being miserly with the players who are making that money for them.

After all we tend to admire the players and try to relate to them, far more than we admire the owners. There are far more jerseys in the stands than business suits, and those wearing the suits are mostly just wearing them because they didn’t have time to go home and change clothes after work. They aren’t wearing those suits because they are emulating the front office, although that vision does bring to mind Alex P. Keaton in the old TV show, “Family Ties.” Alex actually might have worn the suit rather than the jersey to a game, but I digress.

Perhaps most importantly, a lack of free agency would’ve made for some interesting, and potentially really negative, player-team relationships. If the players made more money than back in the day when they basically had to grit their teeth and take what management offered, then having more money would mean more freedom even with the servitude that a lack of free agency would mean. More players would demand trades when relationships soured, rather than waiting for their contracts to expire. Imagine Delmon Young or Trevor Bauer with an attitude! On second thought, those are perhaps not the best examples.

How about imagining Brian Dozier with an attitude, imagine if the Twins would have just told him, we think you’ve peaked, so your next contract will be for less, not more…Go Twins! I can imagine, that even someone as seemingly mild-mannered and polite as Brian Dozier, might have been a bit frustrated, once it became clear a serious effort to re-sign him wasn’t going to be forthcoming. (Obviously this often happens in free agency as well, but those players would now be bound and bitter, rather than unbound and moving on).

I suspect Dozier (and others in similar situations) would have professionally gone about their business on the field, but their comments to reporters and their agents’ comments might have been truly interesting. Since, even though not as high as they are now, player salaries would have likely reflected the huge increases in revenue in MLB, and thus would still be very high, at least in terms relative to the rest of us. Given that, many players might retire prematurely when they simply had had enough with their employers.

Often, we see players change teams even when they don’t make more money in their new location, when they feel devalued with their old teams, or, they truly believe that another situation in another city is better for them and their family. Some, obviously, change teams because they want to win, or they want to play more, so reasons abound for leaving. Without free agency, all of that would change.

Another change would be fewer jerseys sold to the general public. Even the most avid Torii Hunter fans could get one Twins Torii Hunter jersey and leave it that. There’d be no need or desire for anyone to buy the jersey of a player more than once, unless perhaps they pulled a Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, or Michael Jordan, and changed their number or something.

It’s strained, for sure, to imagine ourselves in similar situations with MLB players, but imagine how many of you might be tempted (if you had a few million in the bank) to tell your current employer to do anatomically impossible things if you perceived that they “disrespected” you. Some people play Powerball exclusively because they have that one moment in mind. Why would talented athletes be all that different in that regard? “You don’t own me, I’m out.” That’s how I imagine MLB would be different without free agency. More entertaining press conferences perhaps, but a lot more anger and a lot less playing nice.

But, in the end, as promised in the beginning, all of what you’ve just read was merely the untethered thoughts present in my imagination, and untethered to reality they may have truly been. I could be very wrong, I’d be open to your opinions.