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 (10½) 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."
When the Reagan Administration cut off U.S. aid to Nicaragua in April, it put itself very much in the company of former WBC super featherweight champion Alexis Arguello. Arguello, a Nicaraguan, expressed his disapproval of his country's regime by fleeing soon after Sandinista rebels overthrew President Anastasio Somoza in 1979. Now Arguello has less incentive than ever to return to his native land, because the Nicaraguan government recently became the only Western Hemisphere country besides Cuba to abolish professional boxing. That sport had ranked with baseball (Baltimore Oriole Pitcher Dennis Martinez is also a Nicaraguan) in popularity among the nation's sports fans, with pro bouts long attracting rabid crowds in Managua.
The law banning pro boxing provides for jail sentences and fines for promoters and fighters who violate it, and two of the country's leading promoters recently followed Arguello into exile. Juan Navarro, sports editor of La Prensa, a Managua newspaper that has been critical of the Sandinista government, says of the new edict, "It was a negative decision because the families of boxers have been left without means of support. Instead of banning boxing, they should have tried to humanize the sport and given it a better set of rules to protect the fighters physically and economically."
One loophole in the new law, for now anyway, is that Nicaraguan boxers are not expressly forbidden to fight professionally outside the country. Thus, light flyweight Rudy Crawford met WBC champion Hilario Zapata of Panama in a title bout on April 24 in San Francisco. Crawford lost a 15-round decision but reportedly was allowed to retain his $15,000 purse after returning home. Whether or not this loophole is eventually closed, the ruling junta obviously considers professional boxing hopelessly corrupt and, as one source put it, "a capitalist venture that exploits the boxer." The government has made it known that it intends to channel more money into amateur sports, including boxing, to make them more readily available to the masses.
THE PGA CHOMPIONSHIP
Concerned that golf isn't attracting enough younger fans, the PGA Tour has come up with a promotional brainstorm. A line of bubble-gum cards is about to go on sale featuring golf's top 60 money leaders for 1980, five of whom will also appear on another group of cards honoring such statistical leaders as Lee Trevino, who had the lowest strokes-per-round average, and Dan Pohl, tops in average driving distance. Produced by Donruss, the cards will sell for 250 for a pack of seven, gum included. PGA Tour Commissioner Deane Beman hopes that youngsters soon will be trading a Gibby for a Fuzzy the same way they might swap a Reggie for a Yaz. Beman also hopes the cards will turn kids on to the pleasures of golf, at which point they'll learn a melancholy lesson: Never crack your bubble gum during the hushed silence of somebody's backswing.
Under a bill passed by the Idaho legislature and signed by Governor John Evans, taxpayers in that state will have the option next year of contributing up to $5 to the U.S. Olympic Committee by means of a checkoff box on their state-income-tax returns. The contribution is in addition to taxes; this distinguishes the checkoff from those on federal and certain state income-tax forms that citizens can use to earmark part of their taxes for political campaign funding. If a citizen has a tax refund coming, he can specify that up to $5 of it be directed to the USOC. If he owes taxes, he can add up to $5 to his payment. The bill's sponsor, State Senator Mike Mitchell, says that the measure is intended to help the U.S. field its strongest possible team at the 1984 Olympics. Though the scheme is expected to bring the USOC a relatively modest $40,000 a year from Idahoans, Mitchell hopes it will serve as a precedent to spur other states to adopt similar measures. "If one of those big ones pass it, we're talking about big bucks," Mitchell says.
Well intentioned though it certainly is, the Idaho law may be the kind of precedent lawmakers should think twice about. The problem is that fund raisers for many other worthy causes would dearly love to receive similar tax-return-checkoff privileges, which would involve little overhead for themselves and be relatively painless to contributors, many of whom may figure that as long as they're already paying so much in taxes, a few extra dollars for charity won't hurt. Oregon already has adopted a checkoff on its state income-tax form that citizens can use to contribute up to $5 to the State Department of Fish and Wildlife for non-game wildlife habitat protection. There has been a push in Congress to put checkoff boxes on federal tax returns to benefit the National Endowment for the Arts. In Idaho the legislature defeated amendments to Mitchell's bill benefiting the USOC that would have granted the same privileges to both the Special Olympics and public television.
As a fund-raising approach, use of tax-form checkoffs has the advantage of being voluntary. But David Keating, director of legislative policy for the National Taxpayers Union, warns, "Where would you draw the line once this gets under way? There are many good and qualified charities. But how much can you clutter up the tax form? It will just unravel into one big mess." Keating concludes: "If Idaho legislators want to raise funds for the Olympic Committee, there are other ways, such as speeches and banquets and fund raisers. You can get the people involved without giving the USOC a line on the tax form."
THEY SAID IT
•Harry Caray, Chicago White Sox broadcaster, making an on-air reference to the city's mayor, who recently took an apartment in a crime-ridden housing project to bolster residents' morale: "If the Cubs lose two more games, Jane Byrne will move into Wrigley Field."
•Walter Payton, explaining why he won't watch Monday Night Football: "It makes as much sense as a secretary going home and spending her nights typing."
•Tim Foley, retired Miami Dolphin defensive back, asked which memories he cherishes most from his NFL career: "Waking up from all of my operations."
•Alvan Adams, Phoenix Suns' 6'9" center, asked if he considered himself too small to be playing that position in the NBA: "I'm as tall as I can be."