May 18, 2015
Assessing Barry Bonds' Collusion Case
In 1986 Tim Raines led the National League in batting average and on-base percentage and had 5.6 WARP. He received no free agent offers the following off-season except from his former employer, the Montreal Expos. Eventually Raines re-signed with the Expos, missing all of April but still leading the National League in runs scored in 1987.
In 2007 Barry Bonds led the National League in on-base percentage and walks and had 4.1 WARP. He received no free agent offers the following offseason and never played another game in Major League Baseball.
Raines was one of the prominent players affected by collusion during the mid-‘80s. Last week it was reported that the Major League Baseball Players’ Association was processing a grievance on behalf of Bonds, alleging that the Clubs had colluded against him. To understand the strength of Bonds’ case, it helps to understand what made the case of Raines and the rest of the players who prevailed in the 1980s so strong.
After the 1985 Championship Season, the clubs took an informal vote against offering long-term contracts. Commissioner Peter Ueberroth took up the cause, calling long-term contracts “dumb.” Then, after a few more meetings, Leland MacPhail, the Director of the Player Relations Committee, distributed a list of all players who had filed for free agency.
Arbitrator Thomas T. Roberts, then baseball’s grievance arbitrator, wrote in his decision in "Collusion I":
The distillation of the message of these meetings resulted in every major league club abstaining from the free agency market during that winter until an available free agent was “released” by his former club upon the announcement that the former club was no longer interested in his services. (Roberts, Thomas T. “Grievance No. 86-2” Collusion I)
In 1985’s free agent period, 29 of the 33 free agents went back to their old teams having received no other offers. The four who changed clubs were no longer wanted by their former teams.
In 1986, the collusion was much broader and affected a number of stars. Andre Dawson, Reggie Jackson, Tim Raines, Jack Morris, and Lance Parrish all filed for free agency following the 1986 season. This time, cracks in the owners’ armor were seen.
Andre Dawson, who wanted to leave the AstroTurf of Montreal to play on the grass of Chicago’s Wrigley Field, got no offers besides that of his former club. He was forced to give the Cubs a signed, blank contract, and told them to fill in the salary. After signing Dawson, the Cubs’ president, Dallas Green, sent a letter to the Player Relations Committee explaining his actions. He knew he had violated the gentleman’s agreement, but felt he had no choice.
Lance Parrish’s situation helped establish that a conspiracy had transpired. Bill Giles, owner of the Philadelphia Phillies, expressed publicly that if Parrish were not signed by his former club by January 8th, the Phillies would be interested in Parrish’s services. This led to calls from Jim Campbell of the Tigers, Parrish’s former team, Dr. Bobby Brown, the President of the American League, and Bud Selig and Jerry Reinsdorf of the Player Relations Committee. All of them told Giles that he should not sign Parrish and that he should keep his “fiscal responsibilities” in mind. (Nicolau, George. “Grievance No. 87-3” Collusion II)
Eventually, by signing Parrish against the will of the conspiracy, Giles was one of the leading contributors to the decline of collusion in that form. Collusion could have never occurred for as long as it did if not for the compliance of all owners, club presidents, and general managers. Giles’ straying did not create serious breakage of the agreement, but it provided enough evidence of conspiracy for the grievance process to take hold and stop the owners’ violation of the Collective Bargaining Agreement.
There were distinct effects of collusion on baseball salaries. The average salary of free agents from 1986 to 1987 declined 16 percent, and almost three-fourths of free agents received only one-year contracts. According to the Major League Baseball accountants, 1986 proved to be the first profitable season in eight years. Attendance records were set every season from 1984-87, and licensing revenues grew by more than 150 percent; in 1987 alone, revenues grew 15 percent—while salaries overall declined by 2 percent.
1987 marked a new strategy of collusion to reduce the effects of free agency on baseball salaries. Instead of not signing free agents at all, the clubs decided that it would be best to set up an information bank declaring to each other what free agent offers to players were, in order to keep offers “fiscally responsible.” Once again, this ownership strategy was to reduce the effect of the free market on free agency in baseball. Without the owners’ previous actions, it could be theorized, this form of collusion might not have been considered a violation of the CBA. The form itself was different, but because the effects were similar, the arbitrator once again found the owners in violation.
George Nicolau, who served as baseball’s grievance arbitrator after the owners fired Thomas Roberts following the first collusion decision, ruled that the:
information bank converted the free agency process into a secret buyers’ auction, to which the sellers of services -the players- had not agreed and the existence of which they were not aware… and… it is evident that many clubs used the bank to report offers to free agents and to track just how far they would have to go with particular players. (Nicolau, George. “Grievance 88-1” Collusion III)
With past as prologue, where does that leave Barry Bonds and his grievance?
First, there is the question of why a grievance related to the 2007-2008 off-season is being heard in 2015. The parties’ collective bargaining agreement requires that grievances filed against multiple clubs, and those on behalf of players not under contract, be filed within 30 days of the violation or 30 days after the violation became known. That means that the grievance would have had to have been filed during the 2007-2008 offseason or shortly thereafter for it to be timely. If it was not, the clubs will attack the case on procedural grounds, and it is most likely that the arbitrator will never rule on the merits of the grievance.
Jason Wojciechowski reminded me that the case was likely timely filed and mutually held in abeyance awaiting the resolution of Bonds’ criminal indictment. Now that he has been acquitted of all charges, the union likely took the case out of abeyance and began processing it again. If that’s true regarding the procedural history, Arbitrator Frederic Horowitz will have to rule on the merits.
With regard to free agency, the CBA provides, “Players shall not act in concert with other Players and Clubs shall not act in concert with other Clubs.” The story goes that Marvin Miller required that the language be parallel after the owners insisted on its inclusion recalling Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale jointly holding out for better contracts during spring training. The contract provides treble damages among other remedies for violations.
Unlike the circumstances of 1985-1987, there is no smoking gun in the Bonds case. Nobody has come forward to expose a conspiracy. There are no rumors of a meeting in which the Commissioner told club officials not to sign Bonds. No club official has made statements to the press about wanting to sign Bonds but being prohibited or restricted in some way.
Bonds was a player with a lot of baggage. He had been suspected of steroid use for some time. He was investigated by the Department of Justice. He was indicted on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice. While he was still a very good hitter, perhaps still a great hitter, he was older and declining. Fans outside of San Francisco did not like him. Unless there is a former general manager who is willing to provide testimony of a conspiracy, it is much more likely that each team made an independent decision that signing Bonds was worth less in public relations than the benefits he provided on the field.
It’s not just that the union couldn’t bring this case forward until the criminal case was resolved; it’s that no club wanted to sign Bonds with the criminal case pending.
Barry Bonds was a very high value player at the end of his career. He could have contributed to many teams in 2008. However, I don’t believe that there is sufficient evidence, at least not public evidence, that there was a concerted effort to blackball him. I would be very surprised to see him prevail in this case.
Eugene Freedman is Special Counsel to the President of a national labor union.