03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

After the Flood

It's been 40 years since Curt Flood started the machinery of free agency and inadvertently sabotaged his baseball career. On Christmas Eve in 1969, the 31-year-old centerfielder sent a fateful letter to the commissioner of the big leagues, Bowie Kuhn. A seven-time Gold Glove Award winner who had played for St. Louis in three World Series, Flood had just been traded to Philadelphia. "After 12 years in the major leagues," he wrote, "I do not feel that I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes."

After refusing to report to Philly, Flood sued baseball for $1 million. He ultimately lost his case -- at trial and on appeal to the Supreme Court--but set in motion the legal battle that would topple the reserve clause, which bound a player for life to a particular team.

I was in 10th grade when "Rembrandt" defied baseball and challenged the unfairness of the system. As a Phillies fan -- Southwest Philly-born, Penn Valley-bred -- I was infuriated by Flood's chutzpah. Only years later did I realize how courageous and selfless he had been. Flood opened the gates to free agency at great personal cost: A lifetime .293 hitter still in his relative prime, he forfeited a lucrative $100,000 contract to sit out the entire 1970 campaign. Traded to Washington at the end of that year, he appeared in only 13 games for the Senators before retiring. Flood went bankrupt, smoked and drank heavily, and was a largely forgotten figure when he died of throat cancer in 1997.

It's now been 20 years since pitcher Mark Langston -- my first marquee client -- played out his contract with the Montreal Expos and filed for free agency, the most cherished right ballplayers enjoy. After years of indentured servitude in the minors, contract renewal and salary arbitration, free agency is the only opportunity players get to have a real say over their future and realize their true market value. (It also allows a ballclub to improve without having to break up its nucleus). Injury, age and team economics keep many players from ever reaching this hard-won status. Typically, they don't qualify before their late 20s, and often later.

Langston was 28 when he became eligible. Having led the American League in strikeouts three times, the southpaw was, in November of 1989, the most sought-after free agent in the game. In those days, no one was quite sure how much the top free agents would fetch on the open market. Arbitrators had ruled that during the off-seasons of 1985, 1986 and 1987, management had colluded to keep players in their places and their salaries in check by declining to sign the free agents on other teams. The owners agreed to pay the players a $280 million settlement.

As it turned out, the bidding for Langston was brisk. After more than two weeks of cross-country romancing by six teams, the suitors were narrowed to the Chicago Cubs, the New York Yankees and the Los Angeles Dodgers and Angels. But the Cubs balked at giving Langston a five-year deal and the Dodgers resisted a no-trade provision, which left the Yankees and Angels. In the end, Langston, a California kid, decided he would be more comfortable in his home state. The $16 million deal that I negotiated --- briefly, very briefly, the highest outlay ever made for a player -- propelled my career as a sports agent. This month 12 of my clients are testing the waters.

In pro basketball, the labor wars of the last decade have effectively eliminated free agency. The NBA system has been devised to keep great players with their teams, regardless of market size. In baseball, on the other hand, free agency has generally worked to the great advantage of the players. Every so often, the market suddenly -- suspiciously -- evaporates, perhaps never as dramatically as last year. Sluggers Bobby Abreu and Adam Dunn, both coming off huge contracts, signed for a great deal less than anyone had anticipated. Manny Ramirez, one of baseball's best hitters, sought a four-year deal for $100 million, but settled for a two-year, $45 million pact from the Dodgers. In the freewheeling world of baseball free agency, it was a startling concession to what the owners called "changing times." But is this phrase really just a euphemism for a new era of collusion?

The owners were quick to blame the shrinking economy. Sure, they say, baseball generated $6.5 billion in gross revenue last year (up from $3.5 billion in 2001) and marquee franchises like the Yankees, for whom free agency has been a way to flex financial muscle, are still flush, filling seats and, despite the recession, making generous offers to free agents. (During the previous off-season, the Yanks committed $432.5 million alone to C.C. Sabathia, Marx Teixeira and A.J. Burnett). But due in small part to decreased capacity in two new New York ballparks and in large part to economic turbulence, total attendance dipped 6.58 percent. Twenty-two of the 30 clubs had fewer fans at home games. The differential was especially pronounced in Toronto, Washington and San Diego, where attendance declined more than 20 percent. In the battered Rust Belt, Cleveland was down 17.6 percent; Cincinnati, 15.1 percent; and Detroit, where the Tigers nearly won a division title, 19.9 percent.

The Downturn, say the owners, caused even the Bronx Bombers to nosedive slightly. Sales of premium seats in the Yanks' new stadium - which filled to only 87.8 of capacity (4.5 percent lower than in 2008) and saw only two regular-season sellouts -- were so sluggish that a Manhattan real estate brokerage was hired to market unsold club seats and luxury boxes. General Motors-- once baseball's biggest corporate sponsor--declined to renew its deal with the team, while bailout-infused Bank of America pulled out of talks for long-term sponsorship, extending its contract for a single year.

No sport is recession resistant, much less recession-proof. And in every sport, smaller-market teams that were scraping along are now in economic retreat. Pro basketball's Memphis Grizzlies and Sacramento Kings are struggling, as are the pro hockey franchises in Phoenix, Nashville, Miami, Atlanta and Tampa. Some owners are so overwhelmed by debt that they say they can no longer afford high player salaries. In April, Tom Hicks, whose company owns baseball's Texas Rangers as well as the National Hockey League's Dallas Stars, defaulted on about $525 million in loans--a move he claimed to have made intentionally to help his negotiations with banks. Other franchises that rely heavily on credit to finance long-term contracts acted much more frugally last off-season; this year, numerous general managers continue to wrestle with payroll restrictions.

No doubt times are tough. On the other hand, the owners have a history of collusive practices. Three years ago, in a settlement over allegations following the 2002 and 2003 seasons, they agreed to pay the players $12 million from so-called "luxury tax" revenue sharing funds. Given past practices, the Major League Players Association has an obligation to scrutinize the behavior of management in the current free agent market. Legitimate financial issues must not be used as a cover to illegally drive down salaries.

As the economy shows signs of improving, I remain optimistic that so too will the bidding for free agents. Now, more than ever, baseball's Rembrandt deserves thanks for opening the Floodgates.