Commentary : Collision on Collusion Continues

Associated Press

Baseball’s annual free agent auction is on. Let the bidding begin.

What are we offered for Jack Morris, a 21-game winner last season armed with more victories over the last six seasons than any other pitcher in baseball?

How much is National League batting champion Tim Raines worth, after hitting .334 and stealing 70 bases? Or his teammate, Andre Dawson, who hit .284 with 20 home runs and 78 runs batted in?

How about third baseman Bob Horner, with 27 home runs and 87 RBI? Or Lance Parrish, the American League’s All-Star catcher, who hit 22 homers and drove in 62?


Who will open the bidding? Someone? Anyone?

Come now, gentlemen, there is top-level talent available here. Surely some team can use these players. Remember, the free agent marketplace has traditionally been an important way to improve your ball club.

Not last year. Not according to the Major League Players Association. Hearings resumed last week on its grievance, claiming management conspired to restrict baseball’s free agent market last winter.

“There’s baseball free agency?” player agent Doug Baldwin said sarcastically. “You’re kidding.”

Baldwin is the agent for Kirk Gibson, who batted .287 with 29 home runs and 97 RBI for Detroit the summer before filing for free agency and found that those numbers turned no heads.

“When you compare what went on from the inception of the system through 1984 and what happened last year, it is absolutely a 180-degree turn,” Baldwin said. “Here was a guy, 28 years old with two seasons approaching 30 homers and 30 stolen bases, a guy everyone agreed was just starting to reach his stride, a guy who would be one of the better bets to perform well for the next five years. And I didn’t get one call from any club except the Tigers. Not one.

“Not even an inquiry about how much it would take to sign him, and would he consider another team. Nothing. It was a totally different experience from any agent who has ever represented a blue-chip free agent. There was no comparison.


“It was a coincidence, right? Sure. It’s so ludicrous. If it didn’t impact Kirk so much, it would be funny.”

When Baldwin’s phone didn’t ring, he started making calls to teams Gibson might have been interested in -- Kansas City, Atlanta, San Diego, St. Louis, both Chicago clubs, Los Angeles and California. They all told Baldwin they couldn’t use his client.

“Ken Harrelson (then general manager of the White Sox) said, ‘We think he’s one of the great players of this era, but we’ve got Harold Baines, Darryl Boston and Carlton Fisk in the outfield. We’ve got no need for Kirk,”’ Baldwin said.

Boston started the season in the minors and batted .266 in 199 at-bats for the White Sox. The Fisk outfield experiment lasted six weeks before he returned behind the plate.

The Cardinals hit 58 home runs this season, 30 more as a team than Gibson managed by himself.

“It used to be that teams would line up to talk to free agents,” Baldwin said. “To say that none of the 22 teams that went home following the 1985 season could use a Kirk Gibson to help build a winner is ridiculous.”


Free agent rules set Jan. 8 as the deadline for a player signing with his former team. The theory is that as long as a player’s former club remains in the market for him, others would be reluctant to bid. So the rules provide that a player who does not reach terms with his old team by that date, may not play for that team before May 1.

The rule put pressure on Gibson because with no offers except Detroit’s, he was faced with the possibility of being frozen out of spring training and the first month of the season. So he signed with the Tigers.

The players’ union screamed collusion. It filed a grievance and in the middle of hearings, management chose to dismiss arbitrator Thomas Roberts, who had ruled in the union’s behalf on another case involving drug-testing clauses in player contracts.

“It was like they were losing the game 5-0 in the sixth inning and decided they wanted to start over,” one agent said.

The union grieved the dismissal of Roberts and won the case. He was restored to the collusion case and resumed hearings at the end of the World Series.

Management, of course, claims there was no collusion last winter and will present its defense beginning Monday when the hearings move to California.


“Individual clubs will state why, in different cases, they did not pursue Kirk Gibson,” said Barry Rona, executive director for the Player Relations Committee. “Some teams have taken themselves out of the market for the long term for their own stategic reasons. Others just were not interested in Kirk Gibson. Others were not interested in the price for Kirk Gibson of $1.3 million per year. They were all legitimate, proper reasons.”

The case has major impact for the glamour players eligible for free agency this winter.

“I am proceeding on the basis that we are going to have a straight poker game,” said Tom Reich, who represents Raines, Parrish and Brian Downing. “I proceed with the hope that late 1986-87 will be less confrontational than the last year has been. It’s lot more productive to have less confrontation. I am optimistic.

“In my opinion, of the star free agents, some will stay with their old clubs and some will go and there is no other way to look at it except on a case- by-case basis. I believe there will be movement.”

Rona answers the conspiracy charge by pointing to free agents who moved last winter. They included pitcher David Palmer, who signed a one-year deal with Atlanta and has filed for free agency again, and utilitymen Dane Iorg and Juan Beniquez.

“There is always an open market,” Rona said. “The fact that there is no bid on a particular player does not indicate that it’s not an open market. There were different reasons why different clubs didn’t pursue Gibson.

“The way I look at it, there are a half dozen clubs actively participating in the free agent market. Whether they are active with a particular player involves two things: Need and price.”


But certainly with talents like Morris, Raines, Dawson, Horner and Parrish available, there should be spirited bidding this winter.

“That’s hard to say,” Rona said. “Suppose a player is offered a large sum by his former club which is interested in retaining him. It takes a number of clubs out of the market. That’s what happened with Kirk Gibson.”

Doug Baldwin will be pleased to learn that the mystery has been solved.