December 10, 2013
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Sunday, March 10, 2013
10,000 days ago, baseball entered a new era of management-player relations. It wouldn’t be a particularly long-lived era, and it certainly wouldn’t be a successful one.
10,000 days ago, collusion began.
Collusion. The dictionary defines it as: “A secret agreement between two or more persons for a deceitful or illegal purpose.” Yeah, that sounds about right.
The collusion in this case centered on player salaries. It had been a decade since baseball entered the free agency era, and teams still hadn’t gotten used to that. They certainly hadn’t gotten used to the rising salaries that came with it. So the owners figured that they would stop salaries from rising by crafting a league-wide gentlemen’s agreement not to bid on players from other teams unless that team no longer wanted that player. This approach would keep salaries down.
It’s also flatly illegal. Informal collaborations aren’t supposed to set player salaries; the law of supply and demand is supposed to set salaries. That’s how capitalism is supposed to work. But the owners, who you think would be good capitalists, were more interested in keeping costs down than any theoretical economic implications, or any real-life legal consequences.
Specifically, 10,000 days ago baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth gave a speech to the owners at their annual meeting. With the offseason signing season about to get underway for the 1985-86 winter, Ueberroth told them it was “damn dumb” to lose money in an attempt to win the World Series. He helped forge a consensus that determined teams shouldn’t make moves toward players from other teams.
Ueberroth would later deny that collusion ever took place, saying that it was impossible to get the 26 different team owners of the day to work together. But the facts belie his denial. Unlike all previous seasons before or after the collusion era, players trying to get bigger contracts for themselves found no takers. This happened in the fall of 1985. And again in 1986. And again in 1987.
The most dramatic case was Expos star outfielder Andre Dawson. Convinced that the artificial turf in Montreal was ruining his knees, he sought to get out but found no takers. Nevermind that he was a future Hall of Famer, he had no takers. In desperation, he targeted the Cubs and showed up at their spring training facility. He didn’t have a contract, so he had to stay outside, but the press photographs of a star trying to sign with the club created a PR nightmare for the Cubs. Dawson went even further, offering the club a one-year blank check if they would sign him. Yeah, Dawson left his club, but his experience showed how difficult it was.
His Expos teammate, Tim Raines, also tried to leave but couldn’t find any takers at all. He ended up missing an entire month of a season in his prime due to collusion.
More that the stories, the legal record is pretty damning. The players union took the owners to court over it, and won. Three times they won, despite the owners being innocent until proven guilty. The evidence was too obvious.
The owners weren’t even able to save money. When they lost their cases, they were ordered to pay fines to the players to make up for lost salaries, and several prominent players were allowed to become one-time-only, no-risk free agents and move to new teams with new contracts despite being in the middle of their current contracts—because those contracts were caused by collusion.
Ultimately, the owners avoided the worst of the financial fallout from the collusion cases. Oh, they paid the fines all right, or rather, found someone to pay the fines for them. Once they realized they owned massive millions in penalties, owners opted for another round of expansion. The expansion fees paid by the new owners of the recently created Florida Marlins and Colorado Rockies paid off the collusion fines.
But that’s getting ahead of things. The beginning of the collusion story came 10,000 days ago.
Aside from that, many other baseball events today celebrate their anniversary or “day-versary.” Here they are, with the better ones in bold if you’d rather just skim.
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