With the owners having regained control of baseball's free-agent and money markets, the Major League Players Assn. registered a rare victory Monday, though seemingly only a moral one.
Arbitrator George Nicolau, in response to a union grievance, ruled that those clubs that had failed to offer arbitration to their own free agents by Dec. 19 or had failed to re-sign their own free agents by Jan. 8 and are now prevented from re-signing them until May 1, may not continue negotiations with those players until then.
The owners' Player Relations Committee had said that the collective bargaining agreement only prevented the clubs from re-signing their former players until May 1 and did not restrict continued negotiations.
The union argued otherwise in the hope that a favorable ruling, eliminating negotiations with former clubs until a month after the season starts, would stimulate bids by other clubs and help crack the collusion that seems to exist among the owners in regard to the signing of free agents--the most noted of those being the eight who failed to re-sign with their former clubs by Jan. 8.
They are Angel catcher Bob Boone, Montreal Expo outfielders Tim Raines and Andre Dawson, Detroit Tiger catcher Lance Parrish, Boston Red Sox catcher Rich Gedman, Atlanta Brave first baseman Bob Horner and pitcher Doyle Alexander, and New York Yankee pitcher Ron Guidry.
None of the eight has received an offer larger than he rejected from his former club before Jan. 8, a situation that is not expected to change simply because the former clubs are now prevented from making other offers until May 1.
There is nothing in Monday's ruling, in other words, that would lead to the belief that the owners' solidarity will be replaced by a bidding war. Still, Donald Fehr, the union's executive director, alluded to the quality players still available as he responded to the decision by saying: "Now we'll see what happens. Now we'll see how many clubs want to win."
At the same time, Fehr acknowledged that the more significant decision will be made in May or June when arbitrator Tom Roberts rules on the union grievance that charges the owners with collusion.
Of Monday's ruling, Barry Rona, legal counsel to the Player Relations Committee, said he disagreed with the arbitrator's interpretation but that the "players lose more than the clubs do in that it removes the option of a player talking with his former club if he wants to."
In addition, Rona said, it wasn't a practical decision since "any player who has interest in going back to a former club can probably still find a way to let that be known."
The suspicion has been that, of the eight free agents governed by Monday's ruling, only Boone, Gedman and Alexander might eventually return to their former clubs May 1. The fact that they are not supposed to continue negotiations until then should not be a deterrent--if that's the direction that are ultimately forced to take.
Boone, for example, has already said that he was told by the Angels that their one-year offer of $883,000, made on the eve of the Jan. 8 deadline, will remain on the table should he decide to return May 1.
Boone has received no other offers, which is characteristic of the current climate:
--Raines, who turned down a three-year, $4.8-million offer from Montreal before Jan. 8, has reportedly received only a two-year, $2.2-million offer from the San Diego Padres.
--Parrish, who rejected a two-year, $2.4-million offer from Detroit, in which only the first year was guaranteed, has reportedly received only a one-year, $1-million offer from the Philadelphia Phillies.
--Gedman, who turned down a three-year, $2.65-million offer from Boston, has reportedly received only a two-year, $1.3--million offer from the Houston Astros.
--Horner, who turned down a three-year, $4.5-million offer from Atlanta, has reportedly received only a one-year, $700,000 offer from San Diego.
--Alexander, Dawson and Guidry, like Boone, have yet to receive even one offer from another team.
Is it all part of the conspiracy pattern?
"The union is so paranoid about the collusion concept it has created in its own mind that it refuses to recognize reality," Rona said. "The union is still going around saying that the players aren't receiving offers when, in fact, there have been offers."
The scattered offers have not changed the view of attorney Tom Reich, who represents Raines and Parrish. Reached at a New York hotel Monday, Reich said that collusion remains "so flagrant that it's sickening."
He added, however, that neither of his renowned clients will "sit out the season to embellish a legal position. They will both play this year, but they will not play for their previous teams. That you can count on."