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The Cardinals' first free agent: Darrell Porter

With the winter meetings and hot stove season underway, we take a look back at the Cardinals first serious dip into the free agent waters.

The Baseball Page

When Cardinals outfielder Curt Flood refused to accept a trade to the Phillies after the 1969 season, the Reserve Clause was vanquished and free agency was born - or so the legend goes. In reality, Flood set in motion a series of events that took seven years to transform baseball's labor structure, and it wasn't until eleven years after Flood's action that his former team would make its first major foray into the free agent market.

While Flood's lawsuit against the league was revolutionary, he ultimately lost his case. In 1972, the Supreme Court ruled that while they agreed Flood should be allowed to sign with the team of his choosing, baseball's antitrust exemption could only be modified by an act of Congress. But the tide was beginning to turn.

In 1974, an arbitrator ruled Catfish Hunter was a free agent after A's owner Charlie Finley failed to pay an insurance clause in Hunter's contract. Hunter, often called the first modern free agent, was courted by 23 of 24 teams before signing with the Yankees for 5 years, $3.5 million.

The Yankees: First and forever assholes of the free agent market.

But while Hunter's free agency was through something of a loophole, the floodgates really opened following the Seitz Decision in 1975. Arbitrator Peter Seitz ruled that two players who had played the previous season without a contract after their initial contract expired were free agents, not bound to be perpetually "reserved" by their team. Major League Baseball fired Seitz the day after his ruling, because Major League Baseball.

Seitz's ruling was upheld on appeal, and in 1976, the Players Association and owners signed a new deal that outlined the modern free agent system. That offseason was the first real "hot stove," with teams jockeying to sign superstar players who were now on the market. Reggie Jackson signed one of the biggest deals of that first hot stove with (sigh) the Yankees for five years, $2.9 million.

And what did the Cardinals do during that first hot stove? Nothing. Longtime GM Bing Devine didn't sign a single player from the new crop of free agents. In fact, through the end of his tenure following the 1978 season, he never signed a player who had been granted free agency under the new agreement. Whether this was by design or just a quirk of the team's needs and resources, it's hard to say.

When John Claiborne took over as Cardinals GM, he dipped his toe ever so gently into the free agent waters, signing Darold Knowles and Bernie Carbo, two aging role-players, before the 1979 season. But when it came to the big time acquisitions, like a Pete Rose or a Darrell Evans, the Cardinals were not in the mix. Midway through the 1980 season, the Cardinals hired former Royals skipper Whitey Herzog as manager. On August 26, they parted ways with Claiborne and "The White Rat" took on GM responsibilities as well.

Heading into the offseason, Herzog was looking to makeover the club, and unlike his predecessors, he wasn't afraid to shell out some cash to sign a big time talent. He identified just such a talent in a power-hitting catcher, a three-time All-Star, who had played for him in Kansas City. That man was Darrell Porter.

Porter was 29-years-old and had already played eight full seasons in the majors, with Milwaukee and Kansas City. In 1979 he had his best season, posting a ridiculous slashline of .291/.421/.484. That, combined with what was regarded as solid defense, was good for 7.6 fWAR, one of the top ten seasons for a catcher of all-time. So heading into what we would now call his "walk year" of 1980, Porter was poised for a big payday.

But there was a problem.

Porter's drug use - particularly cocaine - had been on the increase for years and reached its apex following that stellar 1979 season. He would later recount that during that offseason, he became so paranoid that Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn knew of his drug use and was going to come after him, that Porter would stay awake all night, watching from his second-floor window to see if Kuhn was approaching, ready to pelt him with billiard balls if he did.

During Spring Training of 1980, former Dodgers pitcher Don Newcombe visited the Royals clubhouse to talk to the players about substance abuse. Realizing he had a problem, Porter checked himself into rehab for six weeks. He did not rejoin the team until late April and posted numbers well below the season before.

So when Darrell Porter was granted free agency on Nov. 24, 1980, he was something of a conundrum for baseball executives. Here was a potent, middle-of-the-order type bat who played a premium defensive position, but here also was a man clearly battling substance abuse. He was also far from the only impact player on the market. That offseason, Dave Winfield would sign a blockbuster ten-year deal with the Yankees for more than $20 million.

On December 7, 1980, a day which could have lived in infamy, the Cardinals signed Darrell Porter to a five-year deal, worth $3.5 million. It was the first major acquisition via free agency the club made in the modern system. It was also the first domino in a chain-reaction which would see GM and Manager Herzog remake the team from the middling ball club of the 1970s into the juggernaut of 1980s "Whiteyball."

The newly-acquired Cardinal got off to a slow start in 1981, before getting injured in May. Then came the strike, which kept Porter and the rest of the players off the field until August 9. Overall, it was another down year for Porter. Coupled with the animosity he received as the replacement to Ted Simmons, the Cardinals first big free agent signing looked like it might be a bust.

Porter rebounded in the '82 season, then earned himself a place forever in Cardinals history during the postseason. In the NLCS, he reached base in 10 of his 14 plate appearances. He stayed hot in the Fall Classic, homering and driving in five. He was named the MVP of both the NLCS and World Series.

Porter was a solid if not spectacular contributor throughout his five years with the Cardinals, posting 12.8 fWAR over the stretch. But he is probably best remembered catching the final pitch of the '82 World Series and running into the arms of Bruce Sutter.