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Collision Course : Owners, Players Group Continue Battle Over Free Agentry

February 16, 1988|ROSS NEWHAN | Times Staff Writer

Of the 76 baseball players who filed for free agency in November, 34 have re-signed with their former teams and 18 have changed teams, including Bill Gullickson, Bill Madlock and Terry Harper, who have even changed countries. They have committed to play in Japan.

An improvement over the previous two winters, this modest movement has been accompanied by instances of competitive bidding and the awarding of a number of lucrative contracts to free agents and others.

But now, as the 26 teams begin to assemble amid the warmth of their Arizona and Florida training camps, there is a feeling that a cold war still persists.

The relationship between players and owners still seems more collusive than cordial, more chaotic than conciliatory.

Consider:

--The Major League Players Assn., for a third straight winter, filed a grievance charging the owners with having violated the collective bargaining agreement by acting in concert to restrict free-agent movement.

Don Fehr, the union's executive director, said Monday that the owners are still operating a controlled market and seem intent on creating a collision when the bargaining agreement expires in 1989.

Fehr cited the owners' attempt to include a lockout clause in new contracts as a blatant example of that.

--Barry Rona, legal counsel to the owners' Player Relations Committee, countered Monday by saying the union has an insatiable appetite, won't be satisfied until all players are signed to five-year, guaranteed contracts and that the lockout clause is merely an attempt to be ready for any eventuality.

--The bliss of spring training could be shockingly disrupted if arbitrator George Nicolau reaches a decision next month on the union's second collusion grievance, pertaining to players who filed for free agency and arbitration in the winter of 1986-87.

If the recent decision by arbitrator Tom Roberts serves as precedent, it seems likely (so likely that the PRC is already warning clubs to be prepared) that Nicolau will award immediate free agency to a number of top players who encountered difficulty receiving offers that winter, including Tim Raines, Andre Dawson, Lance Parrish, Jack Morris, Doyle Alexander, Rich Gedman, Ron Guidry and Bob Boone.

How will it be, attempting to prepare a club with one or more of those players in camp, knowing they are free to talk to other clubs? Are they to be considered yours or not?

As it is, the camps open with five of the seven players who were granted freedom by Roberts in the first of his remedial decisions pertaining to the free agents from the winter of 1985-86 still available.

Kirk Gibson, of course, moved from the Detroit Tigers to the Dodgers for a 3-year, $4.5-million contract, and Juan Beniquez re-signed with the Toronto Blue Jays.

Chicago White Sox catcher Carlton Fisk, reportedly being romanced by the Kansas City Royals; Detroit Tiger third baseman Tom Brookens; Angel relief pitcher Donnie Moore and catcher Butch Wynegar; and Minnesota Twins pitcher Joe Niekro have until March 1 to decide if they want to remain free agents or return to their former clubs under terms of their existing contracts.

In the meantime, they are required to join those former clubs in spring training, which obviously could create an uncomfortable situation.

Such is the nature of the game in a time of war.

Said Fehr, reflecting on the improved movement of the recent winter:

"It's not insignificant, but it doesn't suggest a free market.

"The effects of the prior situation are still being felt. Salaries are still lower than they should be, contracts are still shorter than they should be and guarantees are more difficult to come by.

"For the most part, what competition there was came only after the former club bowed out or the player said he wasn't interested in returning to the former team.

"Mike Davis moved to the Dodgers only after the (Oakland) A's made it clear they didn't want him.

"Jack Clark moved to the (New York) Yankees only after things had blown apart in St. Louis, prior to which no one else had been interested.

"Jack Morris still couldn't buy an offer. Charlie Leibrandt couldn't buy an offer. Brett Butler moved to the San Francisco Giants only after Cleveland made it clear they weren't interested any more.

"It wasn't totally closed down, there wasn't that virtual freeze out, but it was still a controlled and managed market, the clubs were still acting in concert. It was still necessary to take the appropriate action (in the form of another grievance)."

Rona, of course, saw it from a different perspective.

He first cited the free agents who changed teams.

In addition to Gullickson, Madlock, Harper, Clark, Butler and Davis, the list includes:

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