When the owners finally realized that they needed some sort of safeguard against themselves, they attempted to shove free-agent compensation down the players' throats in 1981. (A team that lost a free agent would be compensated by a player or players from the signing team's roster.) The players rebelled and the standoff resulted in a deadly 50-day labor strike, the first ever of its kind in sports. Both sides finally compromised, but the ensuing changes never stopped salaries from escalating, and the owners ultimately colluded after the 1986 season and refused to offer any free agents contracts. This led to a spring-training lockout by the owners and a lawsuit from the players -- and so on and so on. Last year's strike started because the owners instituted team salary caps and revenue sharing, which the players vehemently protested (and rightly so, because they inhibited a free-market value that had already been established in court.) The result? Another stoppage. No games in August and September. No World Series. A shortened season this year. And no end to the problems in sight.
Disturbing the balance
Free agency also transformed the fragile balance of the game because -- after 1975 -- owners couldn't afford to keep a top-notch team intact for more than a few years. Oakland won three World Series in a row, from 1972 through 1974, but during the next two seasons, owner Charlie Finley stripped his team down to the bone. All of Finley's star veterans (like Jackson and Vida Blue) were either traded or allowed to leave Oakland by free agency. The same thing happened in Cincinnati (Rose, Perez, and Morgan all left) and in Boston (by 1981, Fisk, Burleson, and Lynn had departed). A new dynamic took hold. Teams either tried to win immediately by signing every veteran in sight, or they rebuilt with their minor-league system. Small-market teams began trading their most expensive stars during the season, trying to obtain some value for them before free agency left them with nothing. And the game shifted, giving way to a dichotomy between the large-market teams (Los Angeles, New York, etc.) and the small-market teams (Pittsburgh, Montreal, etc.).
The owners were terrified of this scenario, as Roger Angell wrote in the New Yorker in 1972. "From the beginning, [the owners] had defended the reserve clause . . . by claiming that its removal would invite hundreds of ballplayers, including most of the great stars, to sell themselves each year to the highest bidder, thus assuring an automatic championship to the team with the highest payroll, and also making it certain that no club could hope to maintain the year-to-year personnel and identifying character that preserve fan loyalty."
Say what you will about baseball owners, but they were right. A good Montreal Expos team from the mid-'80s disappeared by the end of the decade, as guys like Andre Dawson and Tim Raines fled to greener pastures. A great Pittsburgh team from the early '90s finished in first place for three years in a row, then fell apart after the team failed to re-sign stars Bobby Bonilla, Barry Bonds, and Doug Drabek. The '95 Montreal Expos dismantled its team before it won anything, trading All Stars John Wetteland and outfielder Marquis Grissom for prospects and losing free agent Larry Walker to Colorado in spring training (they're rumored to be making more changes after this season).