Gibson, Six Others Are Free for the Taking, So to Speak : An Arbitrator Restores Them as Free Agents
Seven of baseball’s free agents from the winter of 1985-86 became free agents again Friday.
Arbitrator Tom Roberts, who in September ruled that club owners had violated the collective bargaining agreement by acting in concert to restrict free-agent movement, issued Friday’s ruling in partial response to a remedial proposal by the Major League Players Assn.
The ruling grants immediate free agency to outfielder Kirk Gibson and infielder Tom Brookens of the Detroit Tigers, relief pitcher Donnie Moore and catcher Butch Wynegar of the Angels, catcher Carlton Fisk of the Chicago White Sox, pitcher Joe Niekro of the Minnesota Twins and utility player Juan Beniquez of the Toronto Blue Jays.
Will Gibson’s availability tempt the Dodgers, who had earlier discussed trading Pedro Guerrero to the Tigers for him?
Will Moore’s agent be successful in an attempt to interest the New York Yankees?
Will there be any interest in any of the seven?
“If anyone tells you they have a real handle on what’s going to happen, they’re either speculating or colluding again,” Donald Fehr, executive director of the players’ union, said Friday as he outlined the details of Roberts’ decision during a recess in the remedy hearings at an airport area hotel.
--The seven players have until March 1 to sign with any team. If they are not signed by March 1, they can return to their current teams under terms of their existing contracts, or they can remain free agents, thereby voiding those contracts.
--Any team signing one of the seven would not have to compensate the former team with a player or a draft pick.
--The granting of free agency does not exclude the possibility that the seven will also share in any future financial rewards that the arbitrator deems appropriate.
Fehr said the union will continue to seek financial compensation for all 62 free agents of that winter and for the 98 players who filed for arbitration.
Fourteen of those 62 free agents remain under contract. The seven named in Friday’s award signed multi-year contracts that winter and had not had another opportunity at free agency.
The seven others--Don Sutton, David Palmer, Danny Darwin, Jim Dwyer, Harry Spillman, Tommy John and Jamie Quirk--may still receive a similar award, Fehr said, but Roberts wants to hear more testimony.
The remedy hearing will move to New York next week, then is expected to be recessed until mid-summer, delaying the possibility of additional awards.
A respected agent alluded to the long legal process Friday and said of the owners: “If this proves to be the only remedy, they’ve won. They’ve won through attrition alone. What ever happened to taking a belt to the child as soon as he misbehaves?”
Fehr saw it differently. He refused to call it a landmark ruling but said it may serve as a precedent if the union also wins the 1986-87 collusion case.
“There you’re dealing with Tim Raines, Andre Dawson and players of that caliber,” he said.
He also said that Friday’s ruling was a “strong indication that Roberts understands the significance of the violation and will do everything he can to remedy the situation. It’s a strong indication that the appropriate type (financial) relief is forthcoming.”
A message to the owners as well?
“It’s no different than the message they received in September (when they were found guilty of collusion),” Fehr said. “You colluded, you were caught, you better make it right.”
Barry Rona, legal counsel to the owners’ Player Relations Committee, called it “a bad decision,” but refused to say anything more.
Rona had anticipated it, though, having said Thursday that he didn’t expect widespread movement or confusion because of it.
He cited the significant salaries that each of the seven are already guaranteed this year and the possible uncertainty of a market in which only 11 of 76 free agents changed teams this winter.
Will anyone, for example, pay the 43-year-old Niekro or the 39-year-old Fisk more than the respective $800,000 and $700,000 of their current contracts?
How much interest is there in the journeyman Brookens, who can stay with the Tigers at $350,000, or the nomadic Beniquez, who will make either $350,000 or $450,000, depending on an arbitration decision? Beniquez’s agent said Friday that Beniquez has no desire to leave Toronto.
What kind of market can there be for Wynegar, who is guaranteed $733,000 and may not even be able to play because of a foot injury, or Moore, who had back surgery in October, has not yet thrown and can make $850,000 in the final year of his 3-year, $3-million contract with the Angels?
Moore acknowledged Friday that he may be looked on as damaged goods, but he has instructed agent David Pinter to investigate the market. Moore said he still felt resentment at September statements by Executive Vice President Mike Port that suggested he had been malingering rather than the victim of a legitimate rib injury.
A month later, Dr. Robert Watkins removed a bone spur from near Moore’s spinal column and said that it probably had been the cause of a nerve irritation in the rib area, causing the problems Moore had complained about for two years.
“I’m perfectly healthy now, but I know it will be tough proving that until I start throwing (Feb. 1),” Moore said. “I can’t really tell anyone that I’m 100% until I do, but I don’t foresee any problems.”
Pinter said he will first talk with the pitching-suspect Yankees. In fact, he talked with General Manager Lou Piniella Friday and told Piniella he would be willing to take Moore to New York for a physical exam and accept the same $850,000 Moore is guaranteed by the Angels if the Yankees were to allow Moore to become a free agent again after the 1988 season.
“Lou seemed interested and said he would talk to me again before Monday,” Pinter said. “I also plan to talk to Bobby Cox in Atlanta (where Moore was employed before joining the Angels).”
Said Moore: “I have the feeling that I’ll be staying, and that’s fine. It’ll give me a chance to prove something to Port. It’ll give me a chance to do some things that can only work to the Angels’ advantage.”
The exception to all these question marks is Gibson. Now 31 and still an obvious offensive threat, Gibson said Friday that the least this ruling should do for him is influence the Tigers to provide an extension on the 3-year, $4.1-million contract that expires when the 1988 season ends.
Would he leave if offered the chance?
“I’ll follow my emotions,” he said. “Three clubs (the Dodgers, Yankees and Seattle Mariners) were interested in trading for me, so it would be hard to believe they wouldn’t be interested in signing me as a free agent.
“I mean, the owners better get their act together and at least have Cleveland make me an offer or we’ll be back in court.”
The Dodgers and Tigers had agreed in principal to a Guerrero-Gibson trade at the winter baseball meetings but the Dodgers backed out because of the uncertainty of Gibson’s status in the collusion case.
Fred Claire, the Dodgers’ executive vice president, said Friday he was not prepared to comment on Gibson’s availability.
“If the Dodgers were willing to trade for him, I don’t know why they wouldn’t want to sign him as a free agent and trade Guerrero for a couple of young pitchers,” he said.
Arbitrator Roberts refused to comment, on Gibson or anything else.
His ruling, however, made it clear that he will maintain jurisdiction over the seven new free agents and that he intends to keep a careful eye on their negotiations, which assumes either that there will be negotiations or that there had better be.
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