With collusion a hot topic, we look back to the 1980’s

 

As first reported by Tim Brown of Yahoo Sports, the MLBPA is currently looking at locations in Florida and Arizona to conduct a spring training for as many as 100 unsigned MLB free agents. While many players are quick to point fingers at the 30 MLB owners and accuse them of collusion, there has been no evidence of such, nor is there likely to be any in the immediate future. Instead, this offseason has been the perfect storm of teams trying to get under the luxury tax while saving money for next year’s free agent class, and a lack of any superstar free agents, despite the players requesting superstar money.

However, from 1985-1987, there was proven evidence that the owners did collude in order to keep free agent spending down, forcing many players to return to their original teams at below market values. In October 1985, Director of the Player Relations Committee Lee MacPhail urged owners to “exercise more self-discipline,” and “resist the temptation to give in to unreasonable demands of experienced marginal players.” While trying to hammer home the point that owners should not spend big money on free agents, MacPhail added: “We must stop daydreaming that one free agent signing will bring a pennant.”

The following month, Commissioner of Baseball Peter Ueberroth stated that signing free agents to long-term deals was “dumb,” and openly encouraged the owners to avoid making offers to a free agent until his previous team publically stated that they did not intend on offering them a new contract. As a result, the teams controlled free agency, and not a single offer was made to a free agent from a rival team.

In February of 1986, MLBPA Executive Director Donald Fehr filed an injunction against the owners on behalf of the players, claiming that they had violated the collective bargaining agreement by acting in collusion. When MLB’s arbitrator, Thomas Roberts, was assigned the case, he ruled on September 21, 1987, that the owners had in fact acted in collusion to restrict the free agent market, violating the terms of the CBA. As a result, the seven players from the free agent class of 1985 who were still under contract were granted “new look” free agency on January 22nd, 1988, where they could field offers from other teams until March 1, and leave their current contract with no penalties if they found a desirable offer elsewhere. The players included Carlton Fisk, Kirk Gibson, Tom Brookens, Joe Niekro, Juan Beniquez, Butch Wynegar, and Donnie Moore; of the seven, only Kirk Gibson was the only player to change teams, moving from the Detroit Tigers to the Los Angeles Dodgers.

The owners would face two more collusion cases after Roberts’ ruling, one on behalf of the 1986 free agent class, and one on behalf of the 1987 free agent class. The players won both cases, with the owners agreeing to a settlement in 1990 to pay over $280 million in damages spanning the three years of free agency collusion. In October 1989, arbitrator George Nicolau ruled that 1986 free agents Ron Guidry, Bob Boone, Doyle Alexander, Willie Randolph, Brian Downing, and Rich Gedman were granted “new look” free agency. When all was said and done the final payment was made in 1994, the total pay to the players after interest was around $434 million dollars.

Below is a look at some of the players who were the affected by the collusion in each year; while not every player resigned with their respective teams, all of their free agent markets were impacted one way or another by collusion. All statistics are from the season leading into the player’s free agency.

1985

Kirk Gibson, OF: 5.4 WAR, 29 HR, 97 RBI, .287/.364/.518, 96 R, 37 2B, 30 SB, 167 H

Carlton Fisk, C: 3.3 WAR, 37 HR, 107 RBI, .238/.320/.488, 85 R, 23 2B, 17 SB, 129 H

Don Sutton, P: 3.1 WAR, 15-10, 226.0 IP, 3.86 ERA, 1.239 WHIP, 107 K, 1 CG

Bobby Grich, 2B: 2.9 WAR, 13 HR, 53 RBI, .242/.355/.372, 72 R, 17 2B, 3 SB, 116 H

Phil Niekro, P: 1.7 WAR, 16-12, 220.0 IP, 4.09 ERA, 1.468 WHIP, 149 K, 7 CG

Joe Niekro, P: 1.5 WAR, 11-13, 225.1 IP, 3.83 ERA, 1.411 WHIP, 121 K, 4 CG

1986

Tim Raines, OF: 5.5 WAR, 11 HR, 41 RBI, .320/.405/.475, 115 R, 30 2B, 70 SB, 184 H

Jack Morris, P: 5.1 WAR 21-8, 267.0 IP, 3.27 ERA, 1.165 WHIP, 223 K, 15 CG, 6 SHO

Brian Downing, OF: 4.3 WAR, 20 HR, 95 RBI, .267/.389/.452, 90 R, 27 2B, 4 SB, 137 H

Willie Randolph, 2B: 4.1 WAR, 5 HR, 50 RBI, .276/.393/.346, 76 R, 15 2B, 15 SB, 136 H

Rick Gedman, C: 3.3 WAR, 16 HR, 65 RBI, .258/.315/.424, 49 R, 29 2B, 1 SB, 119 H

Lance Parrish, C: 3.1 WAR, 22 HR, 62 RBI, .257/.340/.483, 53 R, 6 2B, 0 SB, 84 H

Andre Dawson, OF: 2.3 WAR, 20 HR, 78 RBI, .284/.338/.478, 65 R, 32 2B, 18 SB, 141 H

Doyle Alexander, P: 1.2 WAR, 11-10, 228.1 IP, 4.14 ERA, 1.279 WHIP, 139 K, 5 CG

Ron Guidry, P: 0.8 WAR, 9-12, 192.1 IP, 3.98 ERA, 1.248 WHIP, 140 K, 5 CG

1987

Charlie Leibrandt, P: 6.0 WAR, 16-11, 240.1 IP, 3.41 ERA, 1.286 WHIP, 151 K, 8 CG, 3 SHO

Paul Molitor, 6.0 WAR, 16 HR, 75 RBI, .353/.438/.566, 114 R, 41 2B, 45 SB, 164 H

Jack Clark, 1B: 5.4 WAR, 35 HR, 106 RBI, .286/.458/.597, 93 R, 23 2B, 1 SB, 120 H

Jack Morris, P: 5.1 WAR, 18-11, 226.0 IP, 3.38 ERA, 1.203 WHIP, 208 K, 13 CG

Brett Butler, OF: 4.9 WAR, 9 HR, 41 RBI, .295/.399/.425, 91 R, 25 2B, 33 SB, 154

Dennis Martinez, P: 3.8 WAR, 11-4, 144.2 IP, 3.30 ERA, 1.196 WHIP, 84 K, 2 CG, 1 SHO

Frank Tanana, P: 3.0 WAR, 15-10, 218.2 IP, 3.91 ERA, 1.244 WHIP, 146 K, 5 CG, 3 SHO

Gary Gaetti: 2.3 WAR, 31 HR, 109 RBI, .247/.303/.485, 95 R, 36 2B, 10 SB, 150 H

Mike Witt, P: 2.3 WAR, 16-14, 247.0 IP, 4.01 ERA, 1.360 WHIP, 192 K, 10 CG

Chili Davis, OF: 1.6 WAR, 24 HR, 76 RBI, .250/.344/.442, 80 R, 22 2B, 16 SB, 125 H

Dave Righetti, RP: 1.1 WAR, 8-6, 31 SV, 95.0 IP, 3.51 ERA, 1.463 WHIP, 77 K

While some of the players above were solid players heading into free agency, the list also includes Hall of Famers in Jack Morris, Andre Dawson, Phil Niekro, Paul Molitor, Carlton Fisk, and Tim Raines, as well as players coming off of incredible all-around seasons, such as Brett Butler, Charlie Leibrandt, and Jack Clark. All-told, Commissioner Fay Vincent summed up the era of collusion best, saying the following to the owners; “The single biggest reality you guys have to face up to is collusion. You stole $280 million from the players, and the players are unified to a man around that issue, because you got caught and many of you are still involved.”

 

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