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Collusion, Or a New Coercion? : Baseball Is Paying Under New Rules

Times Staff Writer

Unbelievable, but true:

--National League batting champion Tim Raines remains unemployed.

--The Boston Red Sox’s salary offers continue to leave Roger Clemens, 1986’s best pitcher, unmoved.

--Rich Gedman and Bob Boone, two of the game’s top catchers, are still among the unsigned.

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Yes, it’s unseasonably cold out there with the 1987 campaign opening Monday amid a deteriorating relationship between players and management over the owners’ financial posture--known in clubhouses and conference rooms as collusion.

With the first pitches about to be thrown, there are some who think it’s time for the owners to reflect on the absence of Raines, Clemens and the others, and admit to some embarrassment.

“I’d be embarrassed, but they aren’t,” said Donald Fehr, executive director of the Major League Players Assn. “And the reason they aren’t is that they have decided that winning a battle with the players over salaries is more important than winning on the field. Winning on the field is secondary these days. The owners apparently feel fans will come out no matter what.”

Embarrassed?

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Attorney Dick Moss, who represents Jack Morris, Andre Dawson and a number of other top players, thinks the owners have gone beyond embarrassment.

“I don’t think shame is an issue,” he said. “I mean, if they’re not ashamed of their flagrant disregard for a collective bargaining agreement that says they must act in their own best interest and not in concert, then I don’t know what would shame them.”

On the other hand:

“What we have is a few players who are dissatisfied with what they have been offered and one player (Clemens) who is in breach of contract because he is refusing to honor the terms of his contract,” Barry Rona, legal counsel to the owners’ Player Relations Committee, said. “I don’t consider that a disturbing number when you look at the overall picture.

“Tim Raines has rejected offers ranging from $1.1 million to $1.6. Roger Clemens is refusing to pitch under a contract guaranteeing him $500,000. I don’t think baseball has anything to be ashamed about.”

Shame? Sham?

It still seems to smack of collusion, though the owners argue that it is only common sense, something most of them had not been displaying but all seemed to turn to at the same hour, a remarkable bit of coincidence.

They claim to have been led to this thinking, as chronicled previously, by:

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--The decision to open the books during the 1985 labor negotiations, which provided shocking evidence of widespread losses.

--The urging of Commissioner Peter Ueberroth, who contends that revenue from the next TV contract will be reduced.

--The Player Relations Committee documents that showed $40 million to $50 million being paid to inactive players according to terms of their multiyear contracts.

Said Moss:

“It seems to me that it’s all a matter of greed. I mean, the thing that you don’t see written much is that last year was the most profitable in baseball history. They set a record for attendance and had record income from TV and concessions. Then almost every club turned around and raised ticket prices.

“The whole climate has changed and the players understand that. They understand that making money is No. 1 on the owners’ agenda, that it’s more important than winning. I mean, a lot of players have learned lessons this spring. The charm of the game is gone for them.”

NOW WHAT HAPPENS TO RAINES, GEDMAN AND THE OTHERS?

Humbled and, to an extent, humiliated, it seems likely now that at least four of the leading free agents--Raines, Gedman, Boone and Ron Guidry--will return to their original teams on May 1, when they are eligible to re-sign.

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Raines, given no opportunity to counter take-it-or-leave-it offers from the San Diego Padres, Houston Astros and Atlanta Braves, has reportedly agreed to return to the Montreal Expos at the same terms he initially rejected: Three years for $4.8 million, with another $200,000 a year thrown in to counter Canadian taxes.

Gedman, romanced by the Astros and Oakland A’s, who reportedly backed out of a mid-March deal because of peer pressure, has known that the Red Sox’s offer of $2.65 million for three years would remain on the table.

The Angels, likewise, are believed to have told Boone, now frustrated by the absence of even one offer, that their one-year, $883,000 proposal will still be there May 1.

Guidry, whose talks with the Baltimore Orioles and Minnesota Twins led nowhere, is expected to rejoin the New York Yankees for the same $825,000 he previously rejected.

The basic aim of collusion is to wipe out the free market and force players to remain with their original teams.

In the first winter of this new solidarity among the owners, 1985-86, the goal was achieved with the Angels’ Donnie Moore and the Detroit Tigers’ Kirk Gibson.

Neither got even one offer before returning to his original team.

It was achieved again in December when Jack Morris was forced to return to Detroit after an unsuccessful attempt to sell his services as a free agent.

Now it seems to have been achieved with Raines, Gedman, Boone and Guidry, all of whom have to be considered lucky. They can go home again, and for the same money.

Apparently not as fortunate are the Atlanta Braves’ Bob Horner and Doyle Alexander, who fall into that same category of free agents who rejected arbitration offers by their original teams, did not sign with those teams by Jan. 8 and now cannot re-sign until May 1.

Horner chose the market after turning down a three-year, $4.5-million offer from the Braves. They have said they may still want him but for considerably less--one year at $500,000. Horner hopes that periodic negotiations with the Texas Rangers may still produce a contract, but he has also talked about sitting out the year rather than accepting an embarrassing offer from Atlanta.

Nothing has been heard from Alexander, nor has there been any interest shown in him.

He is not alone. Free agents Dave Kingman, Lonnie Smith, Tony Armas, Tom Seaver and Danny Heep are also unwanted.

Of the 80 players who filed for free agency, 34 are still unsigned, 28 re-signed with their former teams, 3 returned to their former teams through salary arbitration and only 15 moved to other teams.

Most of those who moved had been rejected by their former teams or were motivated by reasons other than financial.

Andre Dawson, having rejected a two-year, $2-million offer from Montreal, had to hand the Chicago Cubs a blank contract to get where he wanted to be. The Cubs filled in a one-year guarantee of $500,000. Lance Parrish rejected Detroit’s $1.2-million offer for 1987 and got only one other--$800,000 from his new employers, the Philadelphia Phillies.

What’s it like out there? Boone summed it up.

“I fully expected to be playing some place else for less money (than he had been offered by the Angels),” he said. “Zero wasn’t exactly the number I had in mind.”

IS THE UNION WEIGHING A STRIKE?

The answer seems to be no, not for now at least.

“A strike would violate the collective bargaining agreement and we don’t violate laws,” union leader Fehr said. “That’s for the owners to do.

“There are other remedies, which we’re going to pursue.”

The union has filed two grievances, one dealing with suspected collusion after the 1985 season and the other with suspected collusion after ’86.

Fehr said he was hopeful that a decision on the first would be reached by late May or early June. Rona, however, said he was confident that arbitrator Tom Roberts would still be hearing testimony in June, which would mean a decision isn’t likely until late summer.

Fehr said that the union is seeking damages for every player adversely affected by collusion, be it through free agency or otherwise, and creation of a structure that would prevent future price fixing, which “is not unusual in restraint-of-trade cases.”

There has been speculation that Roberts will throw out the collective bargaining agreement and order the owners and players to produce another that would guarantee a legitimate free market. It is also believed that the union will eventually seek relief by again challenging baseball’s antitrust immunity in court.

The union contends that the owners are taking their orders from the Player Relations Committee, which is getting them from Ueberroth.

“No one takes orders from 350 Park Ave.,” Rona said, referring to the address at which both he and Ueberroth work.

“The PRC’s job is to provide information and make recommendations, but the clubs are free to do what they want.”

Of the collusion charge, Rona said:

“There’s a mini-financial revolution taking place in which the majority of owners are making an effort to de-escalate the salary increases of the past.

“No one told them to do it. No one had to tell them once they looked at what they were getting for what they were spending.

“Once you start curbing salaries, there’s bound to be a negative reaction by the union and players. I’m neither surprised by it nor hostile toward it. Samuel Gompers (an early U.S. labor leader)once said that the union’s job is to get more, more and more. When salaries were escalating through the roof, there were similar hard feelings among the owners.

“What you’ve got now is a club effort across the board.”

The resulting environment even seemed to affect the salary arbitrators. The clubs won 16 of 26 cases, limiting salary growth through arbitration to 32%, compared to the previous average of 67%.

The union is seeking damages for players who filed for arbitration as well as free agency. The overall evidence may be circumstantial, but there seems to be enough of it.

Said player representative Bob Cohen, a Century City attorney: “Most criminal cases are won on circumstantial evidence. The evidence against the owners seems to be overwhelming.

“The overwhelming feeling seems to be that the owners have simply acted too quickly in attempting to stem 10 years of free spending. They have demeaned some of their best players, legitimized the view that they care more about money than winning and said to the public, ‘Hey, you’re so dumb that you’ll pay more to see Ken Landreaux than Tim Raines, more to see Marc Sullivan than Rich Gedman.’ ”

They have also widened the cleavage between clubs and players and helped unite the players at a time when they seemed divided over drug testing and other issues, lacking the solidarity that had originally brought them free agency and other financial gains.

As Fehr noted: “I didn’t have to educate Wally Joyner. Mike Port did that for me. I didn’t have to educate Joe Carter. Joe Klein did that for me. I didn’t have to educate Vince Coleman. Gussie Busch did that for me.”

The lessons, Fehr said, will be remembered in 1989, when the current basic agreement expires.

“It’s hard to predict the future but if the free market doesn’t resurrect itself on its own or through a combination of grievances and other things, then I think the stage is set for a very large confrontation three years from now,” he said.


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