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Collusion Grievance Is Considered

As the baseball free-agent market prepares to open, the players' union is looking into whether owners kept salaries lower on purpose last year.

October 30, 2003|Ross Newhan | Times Staff Writer

As Vladimir Guerrero, Miguel Tejada, Gary Sheffield, Andy Pettitte and several other high-caliber players prepare to test baseball's free-agent market, the players' union is considering filing a grievance through the industry's legal channels that would charge owners with acting in collusion to fix salaries during last winter's slow signing season.

Don Fehr, the union's executive director, would not comment. Sources close to the situation said Wednesday they did not know whether the union would officially act on its conviction that owners violated the bargaining agreement last winter or would simply use the threat of a grievance as warning against collusive activity this winter.

"It's important that the owners know that their actions of last year won't be swept under the rug," a person close to the union said.

It was before the start of the 2003 season that the union requested ownership documents pertaining to player negotiations during the preceding off-season.

Those documents, in addition to negotiating notes obtained from agents, have convinced the union, sources said, that owners conspired to restrict salary growth by: 1) reporting all offers through what one agent called a "central command" or information bank in the industry's New York office from which clubs could gather data on what other clubs were offering; and 2) employing the 60-40 rule -- which prohibits respective clubs from having debt larger than 40% of assets and which was supposed to be phased in as part of the new bargaining agreement -- as a salary cap of sorts.

The union, of course, has long been wary of collusion since the owners, in a series of grievances during the mid-1980s, were found guilty of violating the bargaining agreement and fined $280 million, which may have been less than they would have spent by continuing their free-spending habits of the pre-collusion years.

One result of those grievances is that ensuing labor agreements have called for treble damages if the owners are found guilty of collusion again.

"It's not an easy thing to prove," one agent acknowledged, "but there was a lot of circumstantial evidence out there last year. The clubs will argue that the signings of guys like Jim Thome [$72 million for six years] and Tom Glavine [$32 million for three years] serve to dispute collusion, but the union's focus is on what happened at the median level."

He referred to widespread, take-it-or-leave-it offers of $1 million for one year, the general neighborhood at which players of the Kenny Lofton, Reggie Sanders and Robert Fick caliber were forced to sign.

"Did the market look different last year?" said Rob Manfred, baseball's executive vice president of labor relations. "It looked different for legitimate reasons. I mean, it should not have been a shock that it looked different."

He cited the new labor agreement that moved industry economics in the direction of the clubs, a slow economy and a tightening of credit markets in general, and "the fact that there were too many clubs too deeply in debt and losing too much money."

"Even so," Manfred said, "there were several big signings like Thome and Glavine and competitive bidding up and down the line. The market was different, but it didn't look anything like the collusion years of the '80s."

Whether the union chooses to use the grievance as merely a threat or goes with it and risks blowing up the industry's comparative peace is uncertain, but one thing is not. It will be hard for the clubs to hold the salary line this winter given the caliber of a potential free-agent class far superior to last year's.

In addition to Guerrero, Tejada, Sheffield, Pettitte and shortstop Kazuo Matsui, the latest Japanese import, there is attractive depth at every position.

Among the familiar names are Greg Maddux, Javy Lopez, Todd Walker, Ivan Rodriguez, Luis Castillo, Brad Ausmus, Shannon Stewart, Eddie Guardado, Arthur Rhodes, Mike Cameron, Sidney Ponson, J.T. Snow, Rich Aurilia, Jose Cruz Jr., Bret Tomko, Rafael Palmeiro, Kevin Millwood, Bartolo Colon, Roberto Alomar, Eric Karros and about 200 more, which is all before clubs begin non-tendering arbitration-eligible players and high-salaried players who aren't eligible for free agency -- an increasingly popular method of restricting salaries.

At a time when many clubs are retrenching under the luxury tax, 60-40 rule and general economy, it's uncertain how many will be big-time players in pursuit of the big-name players.

The union will be watching closely -- if, in fact, it hasn't already begun legal proceedings by then.

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Free-Agency Filings

The players who have filed for free agency as of Wednesday: Eligible players may file through Nov. 9 (x-filed provisionally pending team decision on 2004 option):

AMERICAN LEAGUE

* ANAHEIM (2) -- Eric Owens of; Scott Spiezio 1b.

* BALTIMORE (4) -- Hector Carrasco, rhp; Scott Erickson, rhp; Pat Hentgen, rhp; B.J. Surhoff, dh.

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