|Friday, January 3
Agents asked to keep records on negotiations
NEW YORK -- The baseball players' association has asked agents to keep detailed records of negotiations involving free agents, a possible prelude to another collusion case against owners.
Several agents have told the union their clients received similar offers from several different teams, three agents said this week on the condition they not be identified.
Union officials asked them to maintain the records of the bids, and the three agents said the union was contemplating a collusion grievance. Baseball's labor contract says teams may not act in concert with regard to free agents.
In the 1980s, owners were found by arbitrators to have conspired against free agents during three offseasons, and management settled those cases in 1990 for $280 million.
The union wouldn't comment on the possibility of a collusion case, and Gene Orza, the associate general counsel of the players' association, said Friday that requesting agents to keep records was not unusual. The agents, however, said the union has emphasized record-keeping more than in recent years.
"Asking agents to keep good notes of negotiating meetings is nothing new,'' said Orza, the union's No. 2 official. "We've been doing it the last 15 years. It's the way we monitor the market. The operation of the free-agency market is always a concern for us.''
While agents point to the relative lack of bidders for high-profile free agents such as Greg Maddux, Jim Thome and Ivan Rodriguez, management officials point to the aggressive bidding for free agents by the Philadelphia Phillies, New York Yankees, New York Mets, Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs.
Management also says the weak economy has caused clubs to retrench and that the lack of top free agents in the primes of their careers has hurt prices.
"Any thought there has been any violation of our newly negotiated collective bargaining agreement is both disappointing and farfetched,'' said Bob DuPuy, baseball's chief operating officer.
"The market is behaving as it always does, reacting to economic stimuli and the quality of the players on the marketplace. There have been numerous free agents who have attracted attention from any number of clubs. I can state unequivocally that there has been nothing done in contravention of the Basic Agreement.''
If owners are found to have violated their labor contract once again, the damages would be much larger than in the 1980s. The average salary in the major leagues increased from $412,000 in 1987 to $2.3 million last year, and since 1990 the labor contract has included a provision that any collusion damages be tripled.
All of the agents spoke on the condition they not be identified, citing their need to negotiate with teams for their remaining free-agent clients.
The agents all recounted similar experiences: Their clients received similar initial offers from several teams and only signed when one of those teams, after many days of negotiations, finally made a higher bid.
This practice is different from the collusion cases of the mid-1980s. The union accused owners of boycotting free agents after the 1985 and 1986 seasons and of sharing their offers to free agents following the 1987 season as part of an "information bank.''
Arbitrator Thomas Roberts ruled for the players in the first case, and arbitrator George Nicolau ruled for them in the second and third cases. Thirty-four players, including Kirk Gibson and Carlton Fisk, were granted another chance to become free agents.
Roberts ordered teams to pay $10.5 million in damages for 1986, and Nicolau ordered $102.5 million in damages for 1987 and 1988. The damage phase beyond that was not finished before the settlement.
Players then argued before arbitrators to determine their individual shares, and Steve Garvey argued all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2001 to try to get a larger piece. All of the money wasn't distributed until last year, and post-settlement interest remains to be allocated.
Peter Ueberroth, commissioner during the collusion era, and Bud Selig, then head of the owners' labor committee, have never acknowledged collusion. The only management official to publicly say owners conspired against free agents was Fay Vincent, who under pressure from owners resigned as commissioner in 1992 and was replaced by Selig, the longtime owner of the Milwaukee Brewers.
In 2000, a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals wrote in the Garvey case that "the owners' mendacity in the 1980s collusive effort to depress the ballplayers' income was in many ways as damaging to baseball as the Black Sox scandal of 1919.''