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Jim Murray

Owners Did Nothing, Got Caught

September 29, 1987|Jim Murray

There are two kinds of law in this country, one for the rich, and one for the poor.

Take the poor.

Well, that's the way it seems sometimes. If you're an ax-murderer, or you beat somebody to death with a metal chair, the court might throw the case out because you didn't get to call your grandmother or your fortune teller or cousin in Peoria. If you're President of the United States, you can't even know about a crime, never mind commit one.

Now, consider the cases of the 26 owners of major league baseball. God knows, they're rich.

Well, these guys just got convicted and are going to be fined millions of dollars for doing nothing.

Of course, what they did nothing about was Kirk Gibson, Donnie Moore, Rod Carew and Carlton Fisk.

Those guys were among 62 baseball players who were available on the open market in the winter of 1985.

Nobody made a serious move to sign them.

Now, it is one of the inalienable rights of the ordinary citizen in this country not to have to buy what's on a counter or in a showroom. It's no crime to say "No, thanks" to a product you don't want or is over-priced.

Unless you're a baseball owner. And the product is Kirk Gibson. Then it becomes Murder 1.

Well, actually, the crime is called collusion. Rich folks can't collude.

Collusion is a white-collar crime defined as a secret agreement or cooperation for a fraudulent or deceitful purpose.

There could be no doubt that what was going on in 1985 was collusion. Kirk Gibson at the time was an outfielder who batted .287 with 29 home runs, 97 runs batted in and 30 bases stolen. He had speed, power and charisma. Two years before, they would have had to tie George Steinbrenner in a mountain cabin some place to keep him from offering Long Island for him. This time, he was mysteriously silent.

It's like that old Sherlock Holmes case where he knew the crime was committed because the dogs didn't bark.

So did baseball's arbitrator, Thomas Tuttle Roberts.

The evidence in the case was prima facie , valid on the face of it.

No owner even talked in his sleep. No one got drunk and spilled the beans at any cocktail party, no one wrote his Congressman, no one squealed. There was no smoking gun.

The owners didn't even get a public defender assigned to them. The fact that no one of the key free agents was signed was evidence enough. Next case.

Now, in real law, you need more than a body and a motive and a presumption of guilt. But don't expect the American Civil Liberties Union to take up the baseball owners' case.

The owners thought, so long as no one mouthed off, they could not be found guilty. That's poor man's law. In baseball, it is not enough to avoid evil. You must avoid the appearance of evil. They didn't even get anyone to read them their rights. They didn't have any.

You see, some years ago, baseball wrote into its collective bargaining agreement with the players a proviso for an arbitrator who would sit in final judgment for any player--or owner--grievance. The arbitration was binding.

It was an arbitrator who sounded the death knell for baseball's hoary reserve clause, the last stand of slavery in this century. In 1976, it was an arbitrator who freed Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally and turned the auction block over to the slaves.

In this latest case, the arbitrator was Tom Roberts. Now, T.T. Roberts is a Palos Verdes barrister, a baseball fan, an ex-Navy pilot and a longtime labor arbitrator. He was fired once by the owners--over a drug-testing decision, which he held violated the basic agreement--but was reinstated in the collusion case because he had already begun to hear testimony on it.

Arbitrator Roberts conducted 32 days of hearings, read 5,000 pages of transcripts, examined 288 exhibits. He took 14 days' worth of testimony from players' agents, the witnesses for the prosecution in this matter, the real aggrieved parties of the first part.

His finding was a model of logical simplicity. Baseball was guilty not because its fingerprints were on the knife but precisely because they weren't. The dog hadn't barked.

The fact that only four free agents changed clubs--out of 62--and that they were players who had not been made offers by their own clubs was considered conclusive.

Paragraph H of Article XVIII of the basic agreement between players and owners provides that "the utilization of rights (under free agency) shall be determined solely by each player and each club. Players shall not act in concert with other players and clubs shall not act in concert with other clubs."

This is all very laudable. But the finding smacks a little of the Red Queen's legal process in "Alice In Wonderland," where it was "The verdict first, the trial afterward!"

The evidence was hardly to be held on a par with live tapes of phone conversations, written memoranda or even threats to owners who might break the line. The owners thought they stonewalled it.

Did they collude? Of course, they did. But you wonder if F. Lee Bailey would think so. Edward Bennett Williams? Melvin Belli?

Should the owners get away with it? Of course not. But neither should a lot of other lawbreakers who are walking the streets today, even though their guilt is self-evident.

The moral of the story is clear. Under rich man's law, you may get away with murder. But you'll never get away with not buying Kirk Gibson.

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