THE FREE-AGENCY FACTOR
As these words were written, baseball was hurtling toward a May 29 strike deadline in the long-running player-owner dispute over how much compensation, if any, one club should give another for signing a free agent. Whatever happens, let the record show that the weeks leading up to the deadline did precious little to clarify the effects free agency has had on baseball. Has it upset the game's competitive balance? Commissioner Bowie Kuhn and some owners said yes. But other owners, the players and management's chief negotiator, Ray Grebey, said no. Might it drive some teams into bankruptcy? The owners sometimes implied as much. But there were occasions when those same owners suggested otherwise, as when, with the clock ticking toward the strike deadline, the Major League Players Association filed an unfair-labor-practices complaint against them in hopes of compelling them to open their books. The owners replied, in effect, that they really hadn't meant it all those times they had pleaded financial hardship. They weren't going broke because of free agency after all. Therefore, they were under no obligation to open their books.
Just what the effects of free agency really are is also of interest in other pro sports, which until now have imposed stiffer compensation restrictions on the movement of free agents than those existing in baseball. But that may be changing. The NBA has abandoned compensation in favor of "right of first refusal"; simply put, this means a club can retain a free agent by matching the best money offer he receives from another club. Last week Kansas City King Guard Otis Bird-song received a five-year, $800,000-a-year-plus offer from the Cleveland Cavaliers, a deal the Kings must match within 15 days if they want to keep him.
The NHL Board of Governors meets in Las Vegas next week with its Players Association, which wants to drop compensation in favor of unrestricted free agency but may be willing to settle for an NBA-style right-of-first-refusal arrangement. And at the NFL Players Association convention in late June in Chicago, an insurgent group led by agents and star players will urge the NFLPA to push for abandonment of compensation in favor of free agency. That move is resisted by Executive Director Ed Garvey, who prefers a formula by which players would receive fixed salaries based on length of service and pegged to increases in the NFL's gross revenues.
There could be fireworks in every sport over these efforts to modify free-agent procedures. The NBA's new right-of-first-refusal system may well become snagged on the thorny question of exactly what constitutes a matching offer. How do, say, $1 million in cash, a condo and a Rolls in L.A. compare with $1.25 million in deferred payments, a Bentley and a rent-free apartment in New York? Besides trying to assign dollar values to the various perks a free agent might be offered, how do you deal with the possibility, considerations of money aside, that a player might simply prefer the beach to Broadway? In other sports there are other problems. Would unrestricted free agency in the NHL enable Sonny Werblin to use some of that Gulf & Western money to buy a Stanley Cup for his long-frustrated New York Rangers? Might such a prospect be enough to steel other NHL owners against the Players Association's demands for unrestricted free agency—even to the point of accepting a strike? Finally, moving to the NFL, is there any earthly reason to think pro football's bosses would accept either unrestricted free agency or Ed Garvey's fixed-salary proposition? Sad to say, the acrimony that had driven baseball to the brink of a strike as this week began was by no means an isolated case.
A women's international bowling tournament was held recently in Perry Hall, Md. and Jim Miller, who covered the event for the Baltimore Evening Sun, was struck by the names of two members of the team from the Philippines, Kitchie Benedicto and Bong Coo. Notes Miller, "If Kitchie marries Bong's brother, her. name will be Kitchie Coo."
FOUL PLAY AFOOT
Three years ago notice was taken in this space of some ill luck that befell three thieves as they burglarized an apartment in New London, Conn. (March 20, 1978). The burglars hadn't realized that the man living upstairs was Ambrose Burfoot, onetime winner of the Boston Marathon. Burfoot chased and caught one of the culprits and turned him over to police, who later apprehended the accomplices. Burfoot said, "I considered it a personal affront that they thought they could escape from my house on foot."
If that unwitting invasion of a runner's turf was an affront, consider the gauntlet knowingly laid down by a man who, according to police in Eugene, Ore., walked into a Nike shoe store, put on a pair of running shoes in his size (10�) and fled the premises, with a salesman, Kevin Myers, and the store manager, Kelly Jensen, in hot pursuit. Down streets and through alleys the chase proceeded, covering a distance Jensen later reckoned to be three-quarters of a mile—or, if you prefer, 1,320 yards. Finally Myers and Jensen captured the fellow they were chasing. Identified as Gregory Alan Ylvisaker, he pleaded guilty last week in Lane County Circuit Court to third-degree robbery. Police quoted him as saying, "I thought I could outrun them."
That was a miscalculation. Myers is an accomplished road runner, and Jensen has logged a 2:18:03 marathon; he also competed in the 1980 U.S. Olympic steeplechase trials. Jensen said he and other store employees had chased shoplifters on other occasions and had never failed to get their man. Sounding a Burfootian note of indignation, he added, "We don't catch 'em in the first 100 yards, but after that we get 'em."