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Collusion, Or a New Coercion? : Baseball Is Paying Under New Rules

April 04, 1987|ROSS NEWHAN | Times Staff Writer

Unbelievable, but true:

--National League batting champion Tim Raines remains unemployed.

--The Boston Red Sox's salary offers continue to leave Roger Clemens, 1986's best pitcher, unmoved.

--Rich Gedman and Bob Boone, two of the game's top catchers, are still among the unsigned.

Yes, it's unseasonably cold out there with the 1987 campaign opening Monday amid a deteriorating relationship between players and management over the owners' financial posture--known in clubhouses and conference rooms as collusion.

With the first pitches about to be thrown, there are some who think it's time for the owners to reflect on the absence of Raines, Clemens and the others, and admit to some embarrassment.

"I'd be embarrassed, but they aren't," said Donald Fehr, executive director of the Major League Players Assn. "And the reason they aren't is that they have decided that winning a battle with the players over salaries is more important than winning on the field. Winning on the field is secondary these days. The owners apparently feel fans will come out no matter what."

Embarrassed?

Attorney Dick Moss, who represents Jack Morris, Andre Dawson and a number of other top players, thinks the owners have gone beyond embarrassment.

"I don't think shame is an issue," he said. "I mean, if they're not ashamed of their flagrant disregard for a collective bargaining agreement that says they must act in their own best interest and not in concert, then I don't know what would shame them."

On the other hand:

"What we have is a few players who are dissatisfied with what they have been offered and one player (Clemens) who is in breach of contract because he is refusing to honor the terms of his contract," Barry Rona, legal counsel to the owners' Player Relations Committee, said. "I don't consider that a disturbing number when you look at the overall picture.

"Tim Raines has rejected offers ranging from $1.1 million to $1.6. Roger Clemens is refusing to pitch under a contract guaranteeing him $500,000. I don't think baseball has anything to be ashamed about."

Shame? Sham?

It still seems to smack of collusion, though the owners argue that it is only common sense, something most of them had not been displaying but all seemed to turn to at the same hour, a remarkable bit of coincidence.

They claim to have been led to this thinking, as chronicled previously, by:

--The decision to open the books during the 1985 labor negotiations, which provided shocking evidence of widespread losses.

--The urging of Commissioner Peter Ueberroth, who contends that revenue from the next TV contract will be reduced.

--The Player Relations Committee documents that showed $40 million to $50 million being paid to inactive players according to terms of their multiyear contracts.

Said Moss:

"It seems to me that it's all a matter of greed. I mean, the thing that you don't see written much is that last year was the most profitable in baseball history. They set a record for attendance and had record income from TV and concessions. Then almost every club turned around and raised ticket prices.

"The whole climate has changed and the players understand that. They understand that making money is No. 1 on the owners' agenda, that it's more important than winning. I mean, a lot of players have learned lessons this spring. The charm of the game is gone for them."

NOW WHAT HAPPENS TO RAINES, GEDMAN AND THE OTHERS?

Humbled and, to an extent, humiliated, it seems likely now that at least four of the leading free agents--Raines, Gedman, Boone and Ron Guidry--will return to their original teams on May 1, when they are eligible to re-sign.

Raines, given no opportunity to counter take-it-or-leave-it offers from the San Diego Padres, Houston Astros and Atlanta Braves, has reportedly agreed to return to the Montreal Expos at the same terms he initially rejected: Three years for $4.8 million, with another $200,000 a year thrown in to counter Canadian taxes.

Gedman, romanced by the Astros and Oakland A's, who reportedly backed out of a mid-March deal because of peer pressure, has known that the Red Sox's offer of $2.65 million for three years would remain on the table.

The Angels, likewise, are believed to have told Boone, now frustrated by the absence of even one offer, that their one-year, $883,000 proposal will still be there May 1.

Guidry, whose talks with the Baltimore Orioles and Minnesota Twins led nowhere, is expected to rejoin the New York Yankees for the same $825,000 he previously rejected.

The basic aim of collusion is to wipe out the free market and force players to remain with their original teams.

In the first winter of this new solidarity among the owners, 1985-86, the goal was achieved with the Angels' Donnie Moore and the Detroit Tigers' Kirk Gibson.

Neither got even one offer before returning to his original team.

It was achieved again in December when Jack Morris was forced to return to Detroit after an unsuccessful attempt to sell his services as a free agent.

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