From the Sidelines

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, January 2, 2001

Michael Kiral

The biggest oxymoron in sports – well, other than college football national championship – is free agent.

The one thing that a free agent most definitely is not is free. Nor would any agent allow their client to play for nothing.

Since the advent of free agency 25 years ago, salaries in baseball have skyrocketed just slightly higher than the number of Britney Spears sites on the internet. The average salary in 1975 was $44,676. In 2000, it was $1.9 million.

And baseball is not alone. The NFL, NHL and NBA have all been affected greatly by the advent of free agency in their sports over the last 25 years.

Spending money can help build a winner. The New York Yankees won World Series titles in 1977 and 78 thanks to acquisitions such as Reggie Jackson and Catfish Hunter. Reggie White helped turn the Green Bay Packers into winners in the 1990s. Shaquille ONeal would help lead the Los Angeles Lakers to the NBA title three years after signing with them.

Of course, one can just look locally to see what free agency can do to a team. The Saints cleaned house from last year and brought in such free agents as Norman Hand, Jeff Blake, Joe Horn, Jake Reed and Andrew Glover. Combined with shrewd trades and the talent remaining from last year, the team improved from 3-13 in 1999 to the NFC West title in 2000.

But as the Saints well know, for every Horn or Fred Thomas, there is a Michael Haynes and Eric Allen, two free agent signees that didnt pan out.

Just ask the Washington Redskins, who won the NFC East last year, then went out and spent over $117 million on players such as Deion Sanders, Bruce Smith, Jeff George and Andre Reed. An almost overwhelmingly favorite to go to the Super Bowl, the Redskins crashed to earth with an 8-8 record and saw head coach Norv Turner get fired.

The Orlando Magic signed Grant Hill to a seven-year, $94 million contract in a sign and trade deal with Detroit in August. Hill was going to be counted on to lift the Magic to the next level. Instead, Hill played just four games for the team before undergoing season-ending surgery on his ankle this week. He is now expected to be out six to eight months.

There are no guarantees, even when possible future hall-of-famers are involved. The Cincinnati Reds were one of the surprise teams in 1999, just missing out on a wild card bid. The Reds then went out and signed Ken Griffey Jr. from Seattle during the offseason. Cincinnati again missed out on the playoffs in 2000, finishing 10 games back of St. Louis in the NL Central, as Griffey hit in the low .200s before finishing at .271. The Texas Rangers and Boston Red Sox need to take note with the big-money signings of Alex Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez, respectively.

Darryl Kile, a winner in Houston, moved on to Colorado only to get rocked in the thin air of the Rockies. Kile rebounded with a solid season in 2000 after moving on to St. Louis. Take heed, Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle.

For years, the Baltimore Orioles were a model franchise, achieving one of the highest winning percentages through the late 1960s and into the early 1980s. Now with one of the highest payrolls in the game, the Orioles are annually one of its most disappointing teams.

Free agency can work magic as the Saints have shown this year. But it can also make a teams title hopes disappear. Just ask Daniel Snyder or Peter Angelos.