CAN ANYBODY HELP ME? THE AUTHOR WANTS TO UNDERSTAND PRO SPORTS WITHOUT GOING BACK FOR AN M.B.A. SILLY BOY

August 18, 1996

I have become lost somewhere in the great shadow of the salary
cap. I have tripped over the waiver wire. I am a mumbler as I
check out the tripe and pinch the muskmelons in the back stalls
of the free-agent market. Wayne Gretzky is a New York Ranger.

"Huh?" I ask with slack-jawed shock.

The familiar has become unfamiliar. The easy has become
difficult. The terrain I have traveled for most of my life--yeah,
that's right, sports guy here--has changed in front of my eyes.
Everything has become so complicated. Shaquille O'Neal is a Los
Angeles Laker.

"How so?" I ask with bug-eyed wonder.

I don't have answers anymore. I used to think I knew everything.
I could argue about the machinations of professional sports
with Jack Nicholson; George Will; Fred the First-Time Caller
from Bayside, Queens; or the Pope. Anyone. Everyone. I could
forecast what would happen tomorrow as well as I could describe
what happened today. Now I can't even explain what happened
yesterday. Neil O'Donnell is a New York Jet.

"Get out," I say with incredulity.

The rules of the games have become as dense as the fine print in
my medical-insurance policy. Am I covered if I have this wart
removed from my hand? Will the Orlando Magic be able to suit up
five players for the opening tap? I don't know. Let me check
with a lawyer who might be able to interpret what is taking
place. The important statistics used to be height and weight,
scoring and batting averages, yards gained and yards lost. No
more. The numbers that count now are length of contract and
dollars available and ... I don't know what. Stuff. There is all
this stuff.

Someone is a restricted free agent, and someone else is
unrestricted; someone has six years of service, so he
immediately is a free agent, and someone else will be able to go
to arbitration; and then, of course, there's the option year.
Either side can exercise that option year. Or neither. Or both.

I can't keep track of any of that. I can't keep the rules of
player movement in one sport separate from the rules of player
movement in another sport. I can't remember who's making how
much money for how many years. I can't remember who has an
"escape clause" and who doesn't. I can't understand the phrase
"renounced the rights to." The Cleveland Cavaliers renounced the
rights to Dan Majerle last Thursday. Why? Can't he play anymore?
There has to be a good, money-rule reason. I simply don't know
what it is.

Following sports used to be like watching a pretty good card
game. You would watch for a season and see what each team had.
You would know that the Indiana Pacers, say, could use a good
power forward, or the Kansas City Royals could use a lefthanded
reliever. At the end of the season you would watch a team draw
from the deck or make a deal to better its hand. That was part
of the charm, seeing how the moves worked. Now? It seems that at
the end of every season everybody throws his cards into the air.
Fifty-two pickup. Everybody grabs an entirely new hand and goes
from there.

The past doesn't matter. The Magic, for instance, seemed to be
in a pretty good situation, improving step-by-step toward a
championship. What little extra did they need to take the next
step? Now they need everything. Shaq is in L.A. Was there any
reason even to watch the Magic these past few years? Apparently
not. They are back at the beginning of the board.

I don't understand. I know that "dumping salary" is very
important, but I do not know how much has to be dumped by any
given team at any given time. (Where does that dumped salary go,
anyway? I could use just a little of it.) I don't know who is
trying to win a championship and who is not, though at the end
of the baseball season it becomes pretty obvious. I have no idea
what the Miami Heat and/or Juwan Howard were/was doing. I don't
understand "front-loaded" or "back-loaded" contracts or bonuses.
When do bonuses count under the salary cap? When do they not? I
don't understand "tender sheets" or "right of first refusal."

Cecil Fielder is a New York Yankee. Ruben Sierra is a Detroit
Tiger. O.K. Jeremy Roenick? I'm not sure. Claude Lemieux won a
Stanley Cup one year in New Jersey and the next in Colorado. How
could that happen? Gretzky was with the St. Louis Blues
yesterday and the Rangers today, and I am not sure what will
happen tomorrow. Will the Rangers renounce the rights to him?
Will they dump his salary? I don't know. Herschel Walker is back
with the Dallas Cowboys.

"Huh?" I ask with utter discombobulation.

Here's the scary part: I'm paid to do this, paid to follow
sports and write about them. What about the people who follow
sports for fun? Someday, not long from now, professional sports
might find that they have complicated themselves right out of
business. The audience will be fast asleep, just from trying to
read the fine print.

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: EVANGELOS VIGLIS [Drawing of sports fan spinning his head to keep his eye on athletes]

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)