Somewhere, Marvin Miller is smiling.
Miller was the father of baseball free agency, a condition that allowed players to decide where they would play. Slowly, and not always easily, free agency spread to the other major sports – football, basketball and hockey. It delivered big name players to new cities but rarely did it have the dramatic impact it recently did in two sports on the same day.
Within hours of each other, John Tavares left the New York Islanders to play for the Toronto Maple Leafs and LeBron James put the Cleveland Cavaliers in his rear view mirror to sign with the Los Angeles Lakers.
Both these moves were predictable. And neither because of the substantial money they involved. Their old teams would have paid handsomely to keep them. But they couldn’t provide other perks.
Certainly the Islanders were prepared to pay Tavares plenty. He was, after all, captain of the team and the face of the franchise, a nine-year veteran who was beloved by the fan base. What the Islanders couldn’t supply was the opportunity to go home again.
Tavares grew up in Ontario and was a fan of the Maple Leafs as a kid when he first laced on skates. He dreamt of playing with the handsome blue and white logo on his chest and could probably rattle off some Maple Leaf history. They were, after all, his boyhood team.
The NHL draft delivered Tavares to Long Island. Free agency freed him to go leave it. Renowned author Thomas Wolfe wrote “You Can’t Go Home Again.’’ John Tavares just proved you could.
Home for LeBron James was Akron, Ohio, in the shadow of Cleveland. When James came into the NBA, it was with the Cavaliers and it was there that he became a star. But when free agency beckoned, James turned his back on his hometown and signed with Miami.
The rancor in Cleveland over that decision was ugly. Jerseys were burned. James was Public Enemy No, 1 in that part of Ohio. He won two NBA championships in Miami, but when his Heat contract ran out, the lure of his home town led him back to Cleveland.
Four straight visits to the NBA Finals and one more championship fulfilled James’ obligation to his home town and so he hit the road again, this time bound for Los Angeles, where he owns property. The glitz and glamour of LA, the legacy of Wilt and Shaq, Kobe and Magic and a contract approaching $40 million a year was too much to ignore. There are post-career media opportunities in the entertainment capital. And the weather in California is better than Ohio.
That brings us back to baseball. Next winter’s free agent class will include Washington Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper. He grew up idolizing Mickey Mantle and the New York Yankees. Sounds like a match, except the Yankees are loaded with outfield talent but are a bit thin at first base.
No problem. Harper has found a first baseman’s glove – probably a gift from his agent, Scott Boras — and is fooling around that position these days.
Marvin Miller would like that.