January 5, 1995 | New York Times | By Murray Chass
If Jason Varitek and his agent are correct, the young catcher's name could take a place in baseball history next to those of Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally. Those two former pitchers presented the case that created free agency for major league players. Varitek took a step yesterday that could lead to free agency for drafted amateur players.
Varitek, the Seattle Mariners' first-round selection in last June's amateur draft, signed yesterday with the St. Paul Saints of the Northern League, a league that is not affiliated with major league baseball or the National Association of minor leagues.
Bill Murray, executive director of baseball operations in the commissioner's office, said he was unaware of any drafted player ever signing with an independent team. But Murray also said Varitek, a three-year all-America catcher from Georgia Tech, would continue to be subject to rights the Mariners hold until a week before the next June draft. Furthermore, Murray said, if Varitek does not sign with the Mariners by then, he would go back into the draft.
But Varitek and his agent, Scott Boras, disagree, contending that by signing a professional contract Varitek is no longer subject to the Mariners' rights or the next draft.
In other words, the case is probably headed to an arbitrator or judge.
It was an arbitrator's decision in 1975 that made Messersmith and McNally free agents. It was not clear yesterday if a dispute between Varitek and the major leagues could be heard through baseball's grievance procedure or would have to go to court. Judge or arbitrator, if that person were to rule in Varitek's favor, it would create a way for high school and amateur players to circumvent the draft.
Baseball, in its argument, would rely on the draft rule that says any player who has not signed a contract with a major league club or a minor league team affiliated with a major league club is subject to the draft. But Boras countered that argument.
"In the book, it's called the Rule 4 Amateur Free-Agent Draft," Boras said by telephone from California. "I don't know how they can expand it to include professional players. If they intended this, why did they use the word amateur? Why not just Rule 4 Draft? Nobody but an amateur has ever been drafted in that draft."
Marvin Goldklang, owner of the St. Paul team, said yesterday that he did not sign Varitek with the thought that it could help to undermine the draft. "We've made clear that his draft status has to be worked out between Jason and major league baseball," Goldklang said.
"It's extraordinary," he added, acknowledging the unusual nature of the signing, "but this is our business, giving kids a chance who have been rejected, overlooked or hardballed by the system -- whether you're dealing with released players, college players or a Jason Varitek. Here's a kid who didn't play ball last year because of circumstances."
Varitek was drafted by the Minnesota Twins in the first round of the 1993 draft after his junior year but was unable to reach agreement with the Twins and remained at Georgia Tech. He became the Mariners' first-round pick after batting .426, hitting 17 home runs and driving in 86 runs in 67 games last spring.
Varitek, in a statement, said the Mariners had offered him half of the $850,000 he sought and he decided to pursue a different route.
"I am committed to obtaining my fair market value for reasons unrelated to money," he said. "Talented baseball players should not be penalized by a major league baseball team if they choose to complete their senior year of college."
The Mariners' bargaining position was that as a college senior, Varitek had less bargaining leverage than a junior or a high school player.
Varitek, who last year received the college baseball equivalent of the Heisman Trophy and was labeled by Baseball America as college baseball's greatest catcher ever, will earn $1,200 a month with St. Paul. If he should reach agreement with the Mariners, he would be free to join their organization.
Major league clubs occasionally purchase the contracts of players on independent teams. Mike Lansing, the Montreal Expos' second baseman, played for an independent team Goldklang owned in Miami. Goldklang, who is also a limited partner of the Yankees, said he accepts token payment for players, then divides it 50-50 with the player.
"We're not trafficking in player contracts," he said. "We're giving players a platform to demonstrate their abilities."
In Varitek's case, the owner added, the team also needed a good catcher.