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THE FIRST TO BE FREE
Leigh Montville
April 16, 1990
IN 1976, BASEBALL'S FIRST FREE AGENTS LANDED THE BIG, BIG MONEY. LUCKY GUYS. THEY WERE SET FOR LIFE. OR WERE THEY?
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April 16, 1990

The First To Be Free

IN 1976, BASEBALL'S FIRST FREE AGENTS LANDED THE BIG, BIG MONEY. LUCKY GUYS. THEY WERE SET FOR LIFE. OR WERE THEY?

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"The strange part," Garland says, "is it seemed to me I'd had more money in my pocket when I was making $23,000 than I did after I signed the contract. I never seemed to have any money."

His big investment was a 26-acre estate in Hunting Valley, an affluent suburb of Cleveland. The estate had a giant slate-roofed house, a swimming pool, a tennis court and a 12-stall barn. The plan was to rent out the stalls and care for horses, to make money from the estate. No one had bothered to mention that a zoning ordinance prohibited that sort of use. Attorneys got involved. Suits were filed. The case dragged on and was eventually settled out of court. The estate was sold at a loss.

He invested in the oil business. The oil business sagged. He invested in an indoor batting cage. The indoor batting cage became a casualty of his divorce, which was costly and public. His ex-wife, Mary, is a radio personality in Nashville. She talked about him on the air. The money simply disappeared. Garland declared personal bankruptcy two years ago.

"I remember getting the final payment on the contract in '86,' " he says. "It was almost a relief. Like, 'Well, that's over.' "

He says his experiences have helped him to mature, grow up. Given the chance, he says, he would do the same things again. He would sign the same contract. No regrets. The crazy money, it turned out, was not as crazy as it seemed. He really was making $200,000 per year. This season, 1990, the youngest rookies were making half that amount before they threw their first pitch or got their first hit.

"Nowadays, $200,000, you'd be a nothing," Garland says, recovering from the surgery and looking for a job. "God forbid somebody today wins 30 games and becomes a free agent. What would he get? Good luck to him."

Fourteen years. The money being heaped on the newest free agents has doubled, tripled, doubled again. Will Clark's $15 million contract for four years is not much less than all of the free-agent contracts in 1976 added together. Will it be enough money to make him bulletproof to make him—yes!—Set For Life? There are more advisers now to help a ballplayer, better-defined courses to follow. There is so much more money. Is it enough? Is it ever enough? Fourteen years. The early returns have arrived. More will follow. The stories are going to get better and better. Are they not?

The left hand holds the steering wheel. The right hand punches out Jose Canseco's number on the cellular telephone. The 300 ZX sports car with the dealer plates from Reggie Jackson Nissan, in Palo Alto, Calif., is zipping along the passing lane of Route 80 between Berkeley and Palo Alto. Jose is not at home. A taped message plays. Reggie Jackson is disappointed.

"The guy doesn't call me back," he says. "I have a deal going to make him a half-million dollars. You'd think the guy would call me back. I was at his house last week for three days, and still he doesn't call me back. I've called him four times."

Maybe Jose is busy? Maybe he has a lot of people calling to help him make a half million? Maybe Jose is the same way Reggie was in those baseball days—hotter than hot, swimming in deals? Maybe Reggie wouldn't have had time to call during his baseball days?

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