THE VERDICT IS IN
On Aug. 31, more than a year and a half after the hearings began, arbitrator George Nicolau finally announced his decision on the status of the 1986 class of free agents, which includes such players as Expo outfielder Tim Raines, Phillie catcher Lance Parrish and Tiger pitcher Jack Morris. Not only did Nicolau find the team owners guilty of collusion (as arbitrator Thomas Roberts had done last September in the class of '85 case), but he also strongly implied in a scathing 81-page opinion that the owners had carried out a clear, intentional plot that violated the labor agreement with the players.
In presenting their defense, the owners contended that Philadelphia's signing of Parrish as a free agent in the 1986-87 off-season proved that they had not conspired to force free agents to return to their former teams. But Nicolau concluded that the Phillies' deal, which netted Parrish less money than Detroit, his old team, had offered him, "may also be viewed as another contemporary demonstration of history's teaching—that compacts between sovereigns can come undone."
Nicolau was angry with what he perceived as management's illegal attempt to rig the marketplace. "In my judgement, the evidence as a whole convincingly establishes that everyone knew there was to be no bidding before January 8 for free agents coveted by their former clubs," he wrote. "It was also known that 'other clubs' were not expected to sign such free agents after January 8." As an example, Nicolau cited the case of Raines, who was told by Expo deputy chairman John McHale that if he didn't re-sign with Montreal before that date, he "couldn't play until May 1" and would be "by himself all spring." If a declared free agent doesn't resign with his former team by Jan. 8, the team cannot negotiate with him again until May 1. McHale's statement, according to Nicolau, indicated that he must have known beforehand that none of the other teams would sign Raines, forcing him to return to the Expos in May.
To buttress his opinion, Nicolau detailed several other instances of collusion:
•The Athletics backed away from signing Red Sox catcher Rich Gedman after a phone call during which a representative of the Player Relations Committee (PRC), the owners' bargaining group, reminded Oakland that, financially, the A's organization was a "little fish."
•Braves general manager Bobby Cox was pressured by higher-ups in his own front office to renege on an offer to Expo pitcher Bryn Smith because they were worried that National League owners would undermine Ted Turner's attempts to restructure his financially ailing Turner Broadcasting System, the Atlanta franchise's parent company.
•American League president Bobby Brown and team owners made calls to Phillies' owner Bill Giles to keep him from signing Parrish.
•The Twins' much-publicized negotiations with Morris in December 1986 were a sham, orchestrated to give the impression that they were seriously interested in him.
•Former Cub president Dallas Green sent an "apologia" to the PRC and the league presidents on March 8, 1987, admitting that he had been caught off guard when he signed outfielder Andre Dawson, formerly of Montreal, to what amounted to a blank contract.
Earlier this year, in what is now called Collusion I, Roberts granted some of the class of 1985 immediate free agency, which allowed erstwhile Detroit outfielder Kirk Gibson to move to the Dodgers. With Nicolau's decision (Collusion II), the Players Association now has the right to request free agency for all 79 players involved in the case, but it will probably only do so for Raines, Parrish, Gedman and the other five players who hadn't signed by the Jan. 8, 1987, deadline. However, the association may wait until after the season to make that request, to improve the players' bargaining positions.
It may be awhile before Roberts and Nicolau decide on the fines and reparations the owners will have to pay for their misconduct. By the time Nicolau finishes with Collusion III, covering the class of 1987, damages for all three years could total between $100 million and $150 million, which would be split among the 26 clubs. That has a lot of owners worried. "If the smaller-market clubs have to ante up three or five million apiece, we'll really be hurt," says the owner of one of those teams.
The message in all this is clear: For years, the owners individually failed to exhibit any self-discipline in the face of a free market, and then, when they tried to work together to control the market, they were overzealous in their attempts to do so. Many owners, of course, maintain that much of the evidence presented to Nicolau was circumstantial and that they were not in cahoots.
What happens next? First, free agency will be back, though contracts will likely be for shorter periods of time than they were in the free-agent heyday of the late 1970s and early '80s. The Cardinals have already made it known that they will be going after Seattle pitcher Mike Moore if the Mariners allow him to become a free agent at the end of the season. However, it's unlikely that Raines will become a free agent because a new three-year extension with Montreal is "98 percent done," according to a club official.
Another consequence of the Nicolau decision may be harder to swallow. When asked his opinion of the verdict, the Tigers' owner, Tom Monaghan, told CNN, "The only way to get unions back in line is with a long strike...and the Detroit Tigers will be the last team to cave in." Both the owners and the players are building war chests for a strike in 1990.
Still, there are islands of sanity. As one owner says, "We should be trying to work with the Players Association to enjoy the fact that we are drawing record attendances and baseball has never been in better shape." But greed and the struggle for power—on both sides—may overcome reason.
One of the silliest developments of the season is what has come to be known as the Air Controller Rule. No such rule exists, of course, but several reporters conjured it up last week when outfielder Fred Lynn reported late for his assignment with his new team, the Tigers, and lost his chance to play in the postseason. To be eligible for postseason play, a player acquired on or before Aug. 31 must be in the same city as his new mates by midnight of that date. What being in a city means, however, is open to interpretation.
Last week, because the Tigers and outfielder Fred Lynn haggled too long over the $250,000 buyout to get him to waive the no-trade clause of his Oriole contract, the private jet taking Lynn to Chicago didn't make contact with the O'Hare Airport tower until 12:10 a.m. (Central Daylight Time) on Sept. 1. So Detroit general manager Bill Lajoie reported that Lynn was late, thereby eliminating him from postseason play with the Tigers.
Lajoie was confused about the rule because the commissioner's office and PRC had given him different answers when he called that day to ask how it worked. Similarly, Boston general manager Lou Gorman, who was trying to work out a deal for Braves pitcher Rick Mahler, was told by the commissioner's office that if the trade went through on Aug. 31, Mahler would have to be in Anaheim, where the Red Sox were going to play the Angels the following day, by midnight Eastern Daylight Time.
Lynn, a lefthanded power hitter ideally suited for Tiger Stadium and its short right-field fence, was disappointed at being declared ineligible, saying that it was "like being arrested for spitting on the sidewalk." But Lajoie was philosophical about the situation. "I just felt a rule's a rule," he said. "We'll live by it. At least he can help us win the division."
The player to watch this month in the American League East is Brewers in-fielder Gary Sheffield, who took over at short when Dale Sveum broke his left leg Sept. 3. After hitting 19 homers in half a season at Double A El Paso, Sheffield moved up to Triple A Denver and batted .344 with nine homers and 54 RBIs in 57 games....
Even before the stories broke that Yankee first baseman Don Mattingly might be traded because of his grousing about owner George Steinbrenner, the Cardinals had discussed offering shortstop Ozzie Smith, catcher Tony Pena and pitcher Greg Mathews to New York for Mattingly and a pitcher....
The Tigers may need more than Lynn to win the American League East race. On Saturday, Detroit lost second baseman Lou Whitaker for 10 days to two weeks when he suffered a sprained ligament in his right knee doing splits on the dance floor. The next day the Tigers lost 6-1 to the Brewers and dropped into a tie for first with the Red Sox. Said the Tigers' Morris, "This is a race among turtles."
•The Dodgers shouldn't be too upset about facing the Mets in the playoffs after losing the season series between the two teams 10-1. The Dodgers were 11-1 against the Phillies during the 1983 season, and Philadelphia beat L.A. three out of four in the playoffs to win the National League pennant.
•On Aug. 31 the Rangers' Jeff Kunkel played second, third and short and pitched in a 10-1 loss to the Twins. "He has the mannerisms of a pitcher—he rubs the ball up and fiddles with his hat," said manager Bobby Valentine. Kunkel, whose fastball was clocked at 94 mph during the game, retired the side in order in the one inning he worked.
•Cincinnati ace Danny Jackson is 7-1 with a 1.93 ERA while pitching on three days' rest this season.
•The Zenith Data System's Star of the Future for the week ending Aug. 30 was Triple A Portland Beavers pitcher Dan Schatzeder, who is 33 years old and has pitched for five major league teams since 1977.
•When the Cardinals traded pitcher Bob Forsch to Houston on Aug. 31, he was leading St. Louis with nine victories. He also led the Cards in wins in 1986 with 14 and tied for the lead in '87 with 11.
•Mariners pitchers Mike Moore and Mark Langston have started in consecutive games 22 times this year. Only once have they had back-to-back winning decisions.
•In their first six games against the Angels, in May, the Yankees were 5-1 and outscored California 33-16. In New York's last six meetings with the Angels, in August, the team went 1-5 and was outscored 61-26.
•In the last visits to Oakland by the East Division leaders, the Tigers and the Red Sox, the Athletics, the pacesetters in the West, were 6-0, and their pitchers allowed only four earned runs in 54 innings.