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Are the owners tightening their belts, or is it collusion?

The Yankees didn't need Jack Morris. George Steinbrenner said so. How could a team with one 10-game winner use the winningest pitcher of the decade? A pitcher so eager to part the free-agent waters that he offered to sign a one-year contract for a salary to be determined afterward in arbitration? Morris asked for too much money, you say? He was looking for $1.85 million for 1987. Steinbrenner had already released Al Holland, Britt Burns and John Montefusco, to whom he paid, collectively, $2.2 million in 1986 for exactly one victory among them.

The Yankees also don't need Rich Gedman. After trying to acquire the Boston catcher for three years, Steinbrenner told Gedman's agent, Jack Sands, "I don't think Rich would be happy in New York backing up Joel Skinner." True enough. Lance Parrish, the other star free-agent catcher, would also be unhappy backing up a guy with 46 career RBIs, so the Yankees don't need Parrish, either.

But Steinbrenner may have a point. He keeps asking how many World Series the Yankees have won since he signed Dave Winfield as a free agent for approximately $20 million in 1980. Steinbrenner and Ted Turner, another former big spender in the free-agent market, had the highest payrolls in baseball last year; only the Indians have gone longer than the Yankees without winning the AL East, and the Braves finished last in the NL West. None of the last eight world champions has been a heavy free-agent investor. The Orioles plunged into free-agent waters in 1985 and are now a last-place team.

Steinbrenner is not alone in deciding he no longer needs free agents. Neither, it seems, does anyone else, and the Major League Baseball Players Association is screaming grievous collusion. It claims that commissioner Peter Ueberroth or Player Relations Committee director Barry Rona (the union isn't sure which) is playing Edgar Bergen to 26 Charlie McCarthys in violation of a provision in the collective bargaining agreement prohibiting clubs from acting in concert with one another.

The owners have come to realize—and, more important, to act on that realization—that salaries in this decade have been escalating at a rate faster (up 287% since 1980) than they did in the first five years of free agency (279% from '76 to '80). They also see that the $6 million each team receives annually from the current national television contract will probably be closer to $2.5 million each beginning in 1989, the first year of their still-to-be-negotiated next TV pact. At long last, the big-bucks spenders among the owners have started to listen to their more fiscally conservative colleagues, who have been asking, "What are we doing to ourselves?"

"The era of the $2 million Ozzie Smith contract has passed," says Boston-based agent Steve Freyer. "The owners are back in control. When Ueberroth opened the books [showing bad fiscal management by most of the teams] in March, 1985, they got embarrassed."

Sure, the owners channel salary information through Rona's office, and this may or may not be interpreted as constituting collusion; but then, the players have funneled all their paycheck info through the players association for years. Sure, the owners agreed among themselves to adopt guidelines in negotiating contracts, another possibly collusive act. They're now trying to keep significant free-agent players with their original teams, which is why in the last two years not one player has received an offer from another team until his former team was no longer interested. The owners have also made a determined effort to limit the lengths of contracts.

The objective is to roll back salaries by 1989. Toward this end, the owners haven't just decided to try to blunt the threat of free agency. They have also begun to hard-line players who can't yet go to arbitration. Roger Clemens, Wally Joyner, Ted Higuera and Jose Canseco will have to take what they are offered this season—or sit out.

It is possible to challenge, as the players, their union and their agents all have, the means the owners have employed to achieve fiscal sanity. "I don't have any problem with market adjustments," agent Alan Hendricks says. "It shouldn't be any different from oil or gold. But do they have to fix prices in such a brazen manner?"

But few would question the end. After all, the owners should have been embarrassed when they opened their books. And does anyone doubt that trying to make—by means of hard-nosed negotiations, shorter contracts or what-have-you—players perform at their highest levels each season is anything but a benefit to baseball and the fans?

Steinbrenner and his fellow owners obviously have Morris exactly where they want him—in Detroit on a one-year deal. He is their message to players and agents alike.