I’ve been a baseball fan as long as I can remember. Went to my first game in 1973. So, I was a kid when the whole Baseball Revolution happened: I was nine when Catfish Hunter signed with the New York Yankees, ten-going-on-eleven when Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally became the first true “free agents” and the newspapers were going crazy about the “death of the Reserve Clause.” I didn’t know what that meant. As time went on and I came to learn about the mechanics of the standard baseball contract from the beginning of time – actually 1879 — to 1974, I could see the unfairness of it and became quite aware of who Curt Flood was. As I grew older, I could see the value of what Players Union Leader Marvin Miller accomplished, with the help of the likes of Flood, Messersmith and Hunter and I cheered when all his work was finally recognized by the Hall of Fame, albeit posthumously.
The Reserve Clause effectively bound a player to a certain team for the length of his career. At the time of its inception, yes, the Reserve Clause was a hedge against teams raiding each other for the best players, but also provided a measure of security for the players themselves. Originally, it was called the “Five Man Rule,” which meant only the five most desirable players on each team could be put “on Reserve.” In the early days, it was an honor to have a Reserve Clause in your contract. But of course, as time went on, the owners found that they were still losing money when the other non-five-man players jumped teams, so the Reserve Clause became baseball industry standard. So, by the mid-1970s, it was dead and buried and I never thought it could be revived – until the players wanted it to be.
Fast-forward to late-March 2021. Francisco Lindor, the Mets’ newly acquired shortstop – the best one in the game right now – has an expiring contract at the conclusion of 2021 and is in the midst of negotiating an extension. The Mets offer a ten-year, $315 million dollar deal, but the Lindor camp wanted a 12-year, $385 million accord. If you do the math, the average annual value shakes out to roughly the same either way, about $32 million and change per year. Eventually, they met in the middle, with Lindor agreeing to a ten-year, $341 million dollar extension – effectively locking him up in Queens until his age-39 season. This is not an outlier. The Lindor signing came on the heels of the San Diego Padres locking in their own stud shortstop, Fernando Tatis, Jr. – just 22 years old — to a 14-year (!!!!) $340 million deal, the longest in MLB history. Mets’ star outfielder Michael Conforto, a 28-year-old, also has an expiring contract this year, and while he wouldn’t command the length or the numbers of the Lindor or Tatis agreements, he is still looking for the security of remaining with one team well into his 30s. It makes a long-time baseball watcher shake his ol’ grey head. Suddenly, we are back in the day of the “Five Man Rule” – the players who are deemed “worth it” have their careers sewn up with one club, barring any special clauses like opt-outs and such. Bear in mind, most of these megadeals also include some form of no-trade clause or another. It makes you wonder what Miller, Flood and the rest were fighting for. Flood’s lawsuit against MLB cited the lack of freedom of player movement, of not being able to play where he wanted in his refusal to report to the Philadelphia Phillies after a trade from the St. Louis Cardinals following the 1969 season. Now it seems that no one wants to go anywhere. Yes, the figures tossed around are astronomical – this is money I will never see if I live a thousand lifetimes – and the players have a far more equal footing with the magnates who own the franchises, but it makes one wonder if the new lengths of these contracts, this new “Reserve Clause,” is good for the long-term health of the game. Don’t get me wrong: I’m as happy as the next Met fan that Lindor and Conforto are likely to still be here when I turn 66.
I just wonder if this will start a 95-year cycle all over again.