In a strongly worded statement that seems to represent a significant and embarrassing rebuke of Commissioner Peter Ueberroth and the 26 baseball owners, arbitrator Tom Roberts ruled Monday that the owners violated the collective bargaining agreement by conspiring to restrict free-agent movement during the winter of 1985-86.
Acting in response to a grievance filed by the Major League Players Assn. on Feb. 2, 1986, Roberts wrote that the owners conspired to "destroy" free agency after the 1985 season, violating Article XVIII, Section H, of the bargaining agreement, which holds that players cannot act in concert with other players and that clubs cannot act in concert with other clubs.
Roberts, in a 16-page decision, wrote that the owners' approach to free agency in 1985 was "not consistent with the existence of a free market" and that Kirk Gibson, Donnie Moore and the 60 other free agents of that winter "surely had a value at some price and yet no offers were advanced." The word no was underlined.
What does it mean?
Detroit Tigers pitcher Jack Morris said that a labor-law violation means that the owners are "crooks" and the only question now is "what do we do with the crooks?"
Don Fehr, the union's executive director, suggested: "Make them pay."
Fehr called the decision a "significant and unmistakable victory." He said that he hopes it would influence the owners to restore a legitimate system of free agency.
He also said that he will ask Roberts, who will preside over a penalty phase, to create new free agency opportunities for the free agents of 1985-86 or to establish a scale of financial compensation based on what they would have received in a true free market--all in addition to seeking possible punitive damages, particularly for players who lost their livelihood because of the absence of a free market, such as Rod Carew.
Fehr said that he hopes Roberts will establish penalties for future violations but that the union will be prepared for a "major confrontation" when the current collective bargaining agreement expires in 1989 if the owners don't restore the free-agent system. That confrontation could take the form of additional litigation or what player agent Tom Reich said Monday would be a "wipe-out strike."
Fehr said: "The arbitrator supported our contention that the clubs entered into a common scheme, the effect of which was to destroy free agency. They corked the market. We will now ask him to make sure that it never happens again."
Barry Rona, legal counsel to the owners' Player Relations Committee, said he obviously disagrees with Roberts' decision but that the clubs want to comply and will comply.
Rona added, however: "I'm baffled and confused as to how to advise them. I can't order a club to engage in free agency, just as I can't and have never ordered them to remain out of it. I know there are clubs that remain concerned about the future and will not change their current policy of financial restraint. The important consideration is that they have always acted independently."
Among the players who will be eligible for free agency this winter are Dale Murphy, Mike Schmidt, Jack Clark, Jesse Barfield, Cal Ripken, Gary Gaetti, Chili Davis, Nolan Ryan, Mike Scott, Jack Morris, Dave Righetti, Mike Witt, Bruce Hurst, Dave Smith and Jesse Orosco. Will they encounter a free market?
The Angels Monday were among several clubs saying they will continue to build from within and through trade, putting a low priority on free agentry, but that picture should be clearer once the owners assess the penalties Roberts deems appropriate for the 1985-86 violations. By that time the owners may be under fire on a second front as well.
Monday's decision, according to Fehr, at least, established a clear-cut precedent on the conspiracy issue, establishing the likelihood of a union victory in the grievance hearing pertaining to the free agents of 1986-87.
"If the owners couldn't explain Gibson and Moore, how are they going to explain Tim Raines?" Fehr asked.
Raines, the offensive catalyst of the Montreal Expos and one of baseball's best players, was unsigned as a free agent last winter and finally returned to the Expos on May 1, the same date that free agents Bob Boone, Rich Gedman, Ron Guidry and Doyle Alexander returned to their original teams, having received no other offers.
Among the best of last winter's free agents, only Lance Parrish and Andre Dawson switched teams, both for less than they were offered by their previous clubs.
The union's second grievance is being heard by arbitrator George Nicolau. A decision is expected in November.
Major financial penalties could force the owners to restore a legitimate market, though Rona said he sees no basis for those penalties.