This article was written by Jeff Borris, a MLBPA-certified player agent for over 30 years who has represented hundreds of players. He is currently General Counsel at Ballengee Group.
The number of quality free agents available on the 2017-18 open market, not only late into the off-season but all the way up to spring training, Opening Day and beyond, defies explanation – or does it? Anyone that believes this glut of available talent was simple coincidence and not part of a larger comprehensive scheme should consider Major League Baseball’s sordid history.
In 1922, the Supreme Court ruled in Federal Baseball Club v. National League that the Sherman Antitrust Act did not apply to Major League Baseball. No other sport or business in America enjoyed such an exemption. In a country where we expect equal treatment for all under the law, MLB owners enjoyed a unique preferential status. The Supreme Court’s holding laid a foundation for many years of abuses by MLB’s ownership, primarily against labor.
Let’s fast forward to 1985-89. Before his unceremonious dismissal by baseball’s owners, labor arbitrator Tom Roberts found that MLB owners had engaged in a conspiracy to suppress the salaries of major league free agents and restrict their ability to sign with other clubs. As a result, owners paid $280 million in damages for their collusive behavior. During the same time period, I personally represented 13 players for whom I filed collusion claims, most notably, Hall of Famers George Brett and Rickey Henderson.
Now, let’s examine the 2002-2003 free agent markets. Once again, due to questionable activity by clubs, the MLBPA made collusion allegations. Subsequently, as part of the 2006 Collective Bargaining Agreement, the owners agreed to a lump sum payment of $12 million to settle unfiled claims of collusive activity from those two seasons.
Now, let’s analyze the atrocity that occurred to Barry Bonds after the 2007 season. A season where he broke the most hallowed record in all of sports, surpassing Hank Aaron to become the all-time home run king. What occurred during the 2007-08 off-season makes my blood boil. It was easily the most gross injustice I have ever seen against an individual player. Bonds’ performance in 2007 was nothing short of spectacular. He was an All-Star, led Major League Baseball with an absurd .480 OBP, boasted an OPS of 1.045, and led all of baseball in home run to at-bat ratio. Additionally, Bonds was still the most feared hitter in the game, as evidenced by leading both leagues in walks and intentional walks. Bonds’ performance in 2007 was off-the-charts by any objective measure. However, after the conclusion of the season, I could not get him a job with any club. Barry had been labeled the poster boy for the steroid era. The game was turning the corner on that period and wanted to wash its hands clean. In what can only be described as a collusive effort, every club refused to hire Bonds, effectively blacklisting him. Baseball’s coordinated blacklisting of Bonds was bizarre. I was not able to find him a job, even playing for a league minimum $390K.
I offered to have Barry donate his league minimum salary to purchase tickets for underprivileged children. Still no takers. The previous season, Barry had been an All-Star making $20 million. Suddenly, no team wanted him for free. Did I have evidence of a “smoking gun,” a signed memo from Commissioner Selig prohibiting all clubs from signing Bonds? Of course not. The Commissioner’s Office is too smart for that. Nonetheless, the MLBPA had no other alternative than to file a grievance based entirely on circumstantial evidence. Bonds lost his case.
That brings us to present day. Given the historical tendencies of baseball’s ownership, on its face it becomes obvious that the 2017-18 free agency signing period was riddled with concerted behavior. Premium free agents remaining available all the way up to Opening Day is not credible by any stretch of the imagination.
A final interesting scenario, indicative of how Baseball no longer operates, is worth mentioning. I represented Mike Piazza when he became a free agent after the 1998 season. Steve Phillips, the GM of the Mets at the time, flew to my office in Beverly Hills on the first day of free agency to meet with me and my partners. He told us he was not leaving the office until he had a deal in hand. He did not want other clubs to have the chance to bid on Piazza’s services. Those days are long gone.
As we enter the 2018-19 free agent signing period, there is no smoking gun, no directive from Commissioner Manfred instructing clubs to limit their competition for free agents or to delay signings until late in the off-season when players panic creating a buyer’s market. One hundred years of trial and error has taught the owners how to avoid getting caught. What history has also taught those watching is that the owners are arrogant, smug with power and unafraid to trample on players’ rights at every opportunity. I hope I am proved wrong, but I am not optimistic that this free agent period will operate any differently than the last. There is no doubt that collusion existed and persists and is not a thing of the past.