Late Thursday evening, MLB Players Association (MLBPA) Executive Director Donald Fehr issued the following statement in which the MLBPA announced its plan to investigate comments attributed to MLB personnel with regards to the pending free agent market:
Over the past few days, press reports coming out of the General Managers' meetings relating to the sharing of information between clubs as to their plans regarding players potentially raise serious questions concerning the fairness and integrity of the free agent market. Such questions are amplified by reports stating that the Commissioner is attempting to influence the market for at least one player.
"Any such activity with respect to free agents is clearly improper," said Fehr. "We expect to look into the situation, and are prepared to take the appropriate action to respond to any collusive behavior, and to make sure that the rights of free agent players under the Basic Agreement are fully protected."
And when Fehr says, “attempting to influence the market for at least one player” he ain't talkin’ about Matt Herges.
Lest there be any doubt, that "one player" is Alex Rodriguez, the player most likely to garner this year’s MVP, and Scott Boras’ prime client. Yes, that Scott Boras. The one that inflamed most in MLB when he upstaged the World Series by announcing Rodriguez had opted out of his 10 year, $252 million contract with the Yankees.
Upon hearing of Fehr’s statement, MLB fired back.
"I am at a loss to understand Mr. Fehr's inflammatory allegations," said Rob Manfred, MLB’s executive vice president of labor relations. "In response to an inquiry, the MLBPA was informed early today that there has been no exchange of information among the clubs about players -- free agent or otherwise.”
Why, the audacity of the MLBPA to think such a thing! I mean, it’s not as if there hasn’t been collusion between the owners in the past to keep player salaries down during Peter Ueberroth’s tenure as commissioner; something that has left deep wounds within the MLBPA leadership, and therefore anything that smells of collusion is like hitting a raw nerve. Commissioner Selig has repeatedly said there was no such thing occurring in the '80s, but as one former high placed executive that was at the owners meetings at the time said to me, “Anyone that tells you that we didn’t collude is full of shit or in denial. But mostly, they’re full of shit.”
And it’s not as if there hasn’t been pushes to the edge of collusion, or down right claims of it recently. As part of the latest labor agreement, without an admission of guilt, owners agreed to pay $12 million to settle potential claims that management might have conspired against free agents after the 2002 and 2003 seasons. Proceeds for the settlement came from the approximately $25 million in unspent funds collected from the luxury tax from 2003 to 2006, money that previously had been designated for player benefits.
Want more? During last year’s Owners Meetings in Toronto, it was reported that Selig gave the owners a tongue lashing over some of the contracts that were doled out. David Glass of the Royals was a particular target for giving Gil Meche a 5 year, $55 million contract.
And most recently, the MLBPA was seeking information from MLB headquarters as part of an internal investigation into whether clubs were threatened to keep signing bonuses at or below league requested recommendations for signing bonuses for this year’s draft picks. The recommendations were part of an unofficial slotting system for bonuses that are outside of the CBA and might be construed on some levels as collusion.
And from this history, Manfred is “at a loss to understand Mr. Fehr's inflammatory allegations”?
This isn’t to say that the GMs were openly colluding this past week, but it sure sets up a situation where it could happen. You don’t have to say, “Let’s talk about what you would offer Alex Rodriguez.” But, how easy would it be for the GMs to openly discuss how to address any high-powered agents that could be bluffing their way into contracts far above the market value? Unless the GM brethren suddenly dropped out of the stupid tree, all would know that Boras was the topic.
Lastly, this isn’t to say that having the GMs meet and discuss certain aspects of business isn’t healthy. It’s simply a matter of looking back through this column and seeing that those that are currently leading the MLBPA will never forget the sting of Collusion I, II, and III in the ‘80s. And, when you see management pushing the envelop on matters that may not pass the sniff test when it comes to collusion, well, is it any wonder that Fehr and the PA are sending out a warning to management to watch their Ps and Qs?
And this story doesn't even touch on news from former Senator George Mitchell's investigation's plays in the collusion game. No more than 11 players from this year's free-agent class were asked to speak with Mitchell as part of his investigation into performance-enhancing drugs in baseball, Michael Weiner, the union's general counsel, told agents this week.
Yeah, it's not like that news won't bring a chorus from GMs on how it will be risky investing in players that could possibly be suspended.
As one colleague of mine said, "We're prime to head into collusion hearings before an arbitration panel."
Nothing like management poking the sleeping bear. The PA has been, for the most part, a far more passive player in matters over the last several years. Nothing like giving the players a rallying cry.
For more on the collusion rulings, see my essay from Rob Neyer’s Big Book of Baseball Blunders entitled, Collusion I, II, and III (A Hard Lesson Learned).
Maury Brown is the founder and president of the Business of Sports Network, which includes The Biz of Baseball, The Biz of Football and The Biz of Basketball (The Biz of Hockey will be launching shortly). He is also an author for Baseball Prospectus, Basketball Prospectus and is an available writer for other media outlets.
He looks forward to your comments via email and can be contacted here.