Soccer money-men have yet to reach first base

 

When the wise men of FIFA and UEFA convene today to haggle over the future of the football transfer market, they will do well to ponder the latest free-agency extravagances in major league baseball. Alex Rodriguez, after all, has just signed a 10-year deal for £175 million sterling, enough to support more than 6,000 American households and turn even Tiger Woods a paler shade of green.

It was 25 years ago to the month that an arbitrator put a merciful end to the feudal reserve clause and ushered in free agency. Now the Texas Rangers, perennial under-achievers of the American League and sold three years ago by a group which included George W Bush, have persuaded Rodriguez to leave the Seattle Mariners for what is believed to be the most handsome contract in sport.

For the shortstop it represents a 500 per centrise; he earned $4.25million last season. Granted, his new average salary of $25.2 million lags behind the $29.5 million commanded by the LA Lakers basketball centre Shaquille O'Neal but it exceeds by the small matter of 48 per cent the previous Major League Baseball high of $17 million recently stumped up by the Toronto Bluejays to retain the services of their first base Carlos Delgado.

Sandy Alderson, an executive vice-president at the baseball commissioner's office, declared the Rodriguez deal "stupefying", and inevitably the man they call ARod has already been dubbed A-lot.

The most astonishing aspect of all this is that the deal doubles the previous fattest contract, the six-year, $126 million package Kevin Garnett signed with the National Basketball Association's Minnesota Timberwolves in 1997. Only marginally less remarkable is that baseball's previous wage ceiling, the eight-year, $121 million carrot offered by the Colorado Rockies to New York Mets pitcher Mike Hampton, was set only last Saturday.

If any baseball player could be said to be worth such a fortune, it is surely Rodriguez. Until the 1990s, according to tradition, shortstops were artists with the glove and artisans at the plate. Together with Derek Jeter of the New York Yankees and Boston's Nomar Garciaparra, the lanky Rodriguez, (25), has changed all that by dint of his beefy and consistent hitting.

All the same, the warning bells are clanging. In 1980, Nolan Ryan won baseball's first $1 million salary; in 1994, Jose Canseco won the first $5 million annual deal. Two years later, once the players' strike was over, Albert Belle doubled the ante, and in 1998 Kevin Brown raised the bar to $15 million. Last season's average wage was $1.8 million.

More significantly, the so-called "labour contract" expires next October, and there are fears that the club owners' determination to implement substantial wage restraints will culminate in the ninth downing of tools since 1972.

John Boles, the Florida Marlins manager, admits he is "petrified". Bud Selig, the MLB commissioner, testified before a senate subcommittee last month and promised change in order to correct the payroll disparity, seen as the source of what is widely perceived as an increasing lack of competitive balance.

That said, Texas began the 2000 campaign with the game's ninth highest wage bill, $70.8 million, yet finished bottom of the AL West. Only three of the top 10 payers, indeed, reached the play-offs. On the other hand, the fact that Mr A-lot will be making 40 per cent more each year than the Minnesota Twins paid their entire roster may strike some as a tad unhealthy.