One of the easiest lines to draw between eras of sports history is before and after free agency in each of the U.S.' four major leagues. Before free agency, players were stuck with the team that drafted them or signed them out of high school until they retired, were traded or were released. Free agency — whether it came thanks to a court decision, as it did in Major League Baseball, or an agreement between players and owners, as it did in the National Football League — gave players freedom of movement and teams the chance to remake themselves quickly, as long as they were willing to spend.
In Dallas, free agency permanently changed the sports landscape. Without it, the Rangers might still be a woebegone franchise stuck playing in a minor league park, the Mavericks and Stars would likely never have won championships, and the Cowboys might not have spent the '00s in salary cap hell. As Dirk Nowitzki continues to bask in the praise he's received for taking an 80 percent pay cut to help rebuild the Mavs, let's take a look at 10 contracts that made Dallas sports what they are today.
December 7, 1988: The Rangers sign Nolan Ryan for $2 million, guaranteed.
Before the winter of 1988, the Rangers were a distant third for many DFW sports fans. They lacked the history of the Cowboys or the immediate success of the Mavericks, who'd just made the playoffs for the fifth time in their eight seasons in Dallas. The Rangers, who'd never played in the postseason, were stuck at Arlington Stadium, a retrofitted minor league park with few amenities and scorching metal bleachers in the completely exposed outfield.
On December 7, 1988, Tom Grieve, the general manager at the time, changed the trajectory of the franchise, signing Nolan Ryan to a one-year, $1.6 million contract. Combined with a $200,000 signing bonus and a $200,000 buyout for a second, optional year, the contract guaranteed Ryan $2 million and showed the rest of the league that the Rangers were capable of attracting a major talent in free agency. Although he was 42 before the 1989 season began, Ryan pitched five seasons in Arlington, recording two no-hitters, his 300th win and his 5,000th strikeout with the Rangers. Ryan retired in 1993, the year before the Rangers moved into their current home, Globe Life Park. It couldn't have been built without the interest and crowds Ryan brought to Arlington.
September 9, 1995: The Cowboys get their man and sign Deion Sanders.
In September 1995, the Cowboys were a little desperate, despite having won two of the last three Super Bowls. The 49ers dumped them out of the 1994 playoffs, and many fans blamed Jerry Jones, who'd fired Jimmy Johnson before the 1994 season, for the early exit. In week one of the 1995 season, the Cowboys lost Kevin Smith, their best cornerback, for the season with a torn Achilles tendon. In attempt to make everything better, Jones went out and signed Deion Sanders — who was busy driving up his free-agent price by playing baseball — for $35 million, including a $12 million signing bonus. The Cowboys got the best corner in the league at the expense of the 49ers, for whom Sanders had played in 1994, and Jones got what he always wanted in January when the Cowboys finally won a Super Bowl without Johnson.
July 31, 1997: Against all odds, the Rangers keep Pudge.
The deal was all but done. Texas Rangers General Manager Doug Melvin was ready to trade catcher Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez to the New York Yankees for pitcher Eric Milton and catcher Jorge Posada. The "Sign Pudge" bumper stickers that'd popped up around DFW that summer appeared as if they'd been for naught. Then Rodriguez walked into Tom Schieffer's office on July 31 and told the Rangers' president he didn't want to leave the only club he'd ever played for. That afternoon, Schieffer and Rodriguez worked out a team-friendly, five-year, $42 million contract. While the 1997 season couldn't be saved — the Rangers were already well out of contention at the end of July — Rodriguez went on to lead the Rangers to two consecutive division titles in 1998 and 1999, a year in which he also won the MVP.
July 3, 1998: The Stars find their missing piece.
The 1997-98 season was the Stars' best season in Dallas at the time. Although they won the President's Trophy as the NHL's best regular-season team, they lost to the Detroit Red Wings in six games in the Western Conference Finals. The team was great, but it needed something. In July, Stars General Manager Bob Gainey found it, signing combative right wing Brett Hull to a three-year, $17 million contract. Despite having a chronic groin injury, Hull scored 32 goals during the 1998-99 season. None of those goals, however, was as big as his last goal of the playoffs, which won the Stars the 1999 Stanley Cup in overtime against the Sabres.
December 12, 2000: The Rangers give Alex Rodriguez a quarter-billion dollars.
The contract the Rangers gave Alex Rodriguez, at the time the shortstop signed it, was more than twice as big as the largest contract in baseball history to that point. To get the 25-year-old shortstop to Arlington, Rangers owner Tom Hicks coughed up $252 million, $2 million more than he'd paid for the entire team and its stadium three years before.
Despite playing at an MVP level during the three seasons he spent in North Texas before being traded to the Yankees, Rodriguez was not what the Rangers needed. The team, thanks in large part to its hamstrung payroll, had a flawed roster and finished in last place in 2001, 2002 and 2003.
March 23, 2006: Jerry does Jerry things, again.
During the 2006 offseason, Jerry Jones did one of the dumber things an NFL general manager can do. That spring, Jones decided to spend big in free agency on kicker Mike Vanderjagt, despite the Cowboys' previous and subsequent ability to find good kickers on the cheap. While Vanderjagt was the NFL's all-time leader in field goal percentage when he joined the Cowboys, he also sported several red flags, including a propensity for missing kicks in big situations and a bigger propensity for pissing off teammates. Peyton Manning, Vanderjagt's teammate on the Colts, once called him an "idiot kicker" during an interview at the Pro Bowl after Vanderjagt publicly questioned Manning's leadership.
During his time with the Cowboys, Vanderjagt was nothing short of awful, missing five kicks in 10 games while making only two field goals of more 35 yards. Bill Parcells, the coach at the time, released Vanderjagt from his three-year, $4.5 million contract on November 27, 2006, replacing him with Martin Grammatica.
January 6, 2011: The Rangers sign Hall of Famer Adrian Beltre.
Coming off a World Series appearance in 2010, the Rangers were spurned by pitcher Cliff Lee, their primary target in free agency. Left with a depleted market, the team took a chance on Adrian Beltre, signing the 32-year-old third baseman to a six-year, $96 million contract. Beltre's been a bargain. During his time in Arlington, Beltre has cemented himself as one of the best two-way third basemen of all time and one of the five greatest Rangers ever. Sometime this year, Beltre will collect his 3,000th hit. If he can play just a couple of more years, he's got an outside shot at 500 home runs, too. Beltre, in his 20th big league season, just keeps hitting.
July 30, 2014: The Cowboys show they've changed their ways.
Three summers ago, the Cowboys handed left tackle Tyron Smith an eight-year, $97.6 million contract extension, including more than $22 million in guaranteed money. Despite appearances, the Smith contract is proof that the Cowboys have learned their lesson with regard to spending too much on contracts that will never recoup their value. The team re-signed Smith at the height of his value at a discount. Smith, just 23 when he signed his extension, got financial security. The Cowboys got a discount on one of the league's best players in one of its most important positions. Thanks to Smith, who is now 26, Dak Prescott's blind side will be well protected for years to come.
July 4, 2015: The Mavericks think they sign DeAndre Jordan.
Two Independence Days ago, the Mavs thought they'd finally broken their free agency curse, landing one of the NBA's best centers, DeAndre Jordan. Jordan committed to the Mavericks, and the city celebrated the former Texas A&M star's impending arrival, speculating as to the team's ability to compete with the best of the NBA's Western Conference. All the team and its fans had to do was wait for the NBA's postseason dead period to end for the deal to become official. Or so everyone thought.
During the dead period, the Clippers, Jordan's team, went to work and persuaded him to stay in Los Angeles, signing him to a new contract one minute after the dead period ended on July 8. Jordan's decision left the Mavericks in a lurch, forcing them into a rebuilding project they weren't ready to start. This offseason, it seems the Mavs might finally recover; they're set to sign Nerlens Noel, finally picking up the big-time center they missed out on when Jordan dissed them.
July 6, 2017: Dirk gives the Mavs a discount.
The only reason the Mavericks can afford to re-sign Nerlens Noel is the discount they're getting from Dirk Nowitzki, the franchise's greatest player. Despite making $25 million in 2016-17, Nowitzki agreed to a two-year, $10 million contract Thursday, giving the Mavs the payroll flexibility they need to continue the rebuilding process that began in earnest with DeAndre Jordan's decision to dump the Dallas for the Clippers. Nowitzki was the cornerstone of the Mavericks 2010-11 championship team, and now he's helping build the foundation of the team's next title.
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