Faced with the prospect of Roberts conducting a series of arbitration cases to determine how much the free agents of 1985-86 should have received, Rona said: "I don't see how the players can demonstrate they were damaged. Kirk Gibson, who was the premier free agent of that winter, received $4 million for three years (from his original team, the Detroit Tigers). Donnie Moore received $3 million for three years (from his original team, the Angels). How much more were they going to receive?"
Significantly more, according to their respective agents.
David Pinter, who represents Moore, said that Moore received a "beautiful contract" from the Angels but that it is not unreasonable to think he should have received half of what Bruce Sutter had previously received from the Atlanta Braves, which was $11 million for six years.
"Put the Dave Henderson homer and Donnie's injuries of this year out of your mind," Pinter said. "Donnie had just saved 31 games, a club record. At any other time he would have gotten a five-year deal for between $5.5 and $6.5 million, but he didn't even get one other offer. Why shouldn't he still be compensated in some way, though I certainly don't hold the Angels liable."
Gibson was coming off a season in which he drove in 97 runs and hit 29 homers. Agent Doug Baldwin said other legitimate superstars, outfielders such as Rickey Henderson, were signing for $1.5 million to $1.7 million a year. Gibson received $1.3. Baldwin said compensation is in order.
"We were stonewalled in every aspect," Baldwin said. "Not one team asked, 'How many years?' or, 'Would he like to play here?' All I got was, 'Don't call us, we'll call you.' It was arrogance. It was the most egregious slap in the face. They simply decided, 'We're not going to play by the rules we had agreed to play by.' It was all right there in the collective bargaining agreement they had already signed. Where was there integrity?"
Of that winter's 62 free agents, only two switched teams. Juan Beniquez went from the Angels to the Baltimore Orioles, and Dane Iorg went from the Kansas City Royals to the San Diego Padres. Carlton Fisk and Phil Niekro, like Gibson and Moore, were forced back to their original teams. No player in the last two winters has been offered more than a three-year contract.
Was it coincidence or a freeze out?
The union claims that the clubs have received their orders from the PRC, which has received them from Ueberroth. The commissioner claims that you can't get 26 owners to agree on anything, and testified on that point during the grievance hearing.
Ueberroth was unavailable for comment Monday, but his spokesman, Rich Levin, released a statement from Rona, who works at the same address on Park Avenue in Manhattan, to the effect that the clubs will continue to recognize their financial responsibility and that Roberts found nothing wrong with the communications that the PRC sends to the clubs, often pointing out the negative impact of multiyear contracts or the money wasted on free agents now out of the game.
Rona, consistently citing an increase in the average salary from $52,200 in 1976 to $412,520 in 1986, has frequently said that the owners arrived at their current philosophy through common sense rather than conspiracy, that the pivotal event occurred when Ueberroth ordered the owners to open their books during the last collective bargaining negotiations and they were embarrassed to discover how much money they were losing.
"There is nothing in the bargaining agreement that says they \o7 have \f7 to bid on free agents," he said Monday.
Roberts weighed 288 exhibits and 5,682 pages of transcript before making his decision. The process took nearly 18 months because at one point the owners fired Roberts in apparent unhappiness over another decision in which he said that the clubs could not unilaterally put drug testing clauses in multiyear contracts. The union protested, and arbitrator Richard Bloch ordered Roberts reinstated.
Roberts' decision Monday seems to include no clear-cut evidence of conspiracy but in several instances cited clubs cooling on the possible signing of a free agent--Gibson by Kansas City, for example--in the immediate wake of an owners' meeting or concurrent with an owners' meeting.
Said San Diego based player agent Tony Attanassio, talking about the 26 clubs: "Whether they all bid or not isn't the issue. Whether they all hand out million- dollar contracts isn't the issue. No one can force them to do that. The qualified players simply have to have the chance to move. That's the issue. Let's hope the owners now show the integrity they're always talking about."
Agent Reich put it another way, saying the issue wasn't just Gibson or Moore but all the free agents who ended up in the minor leagues or out of baseball, period. He predicted that the market will improve but remain difficult. He said that the owners have to realize that the potential for punitive penalties from the two collusion cases is staggering.
"Anyone who downgrades the significance of a conspiracy decision doesn't understand what's involved," he said, adding, however, that it's no time for the players to crow.