The cloud over baseball’s new season

HAL QUINN March 2 1987

The cloud over baseball’s new season

HAL QUINN March 2 1987

The cloud over baseball’s new season


National League batting champion Tim Raines and veteran outfielder Andre Dawson are not with the Montreal Expos in West Palm Beach, Fla. Nor is catcher Lance Parrish with the Detroit Tigers, pitcher Ron Guidry with the New York Yankees or third baseman Bob Horner with the Atlanta Braves. Indeed, as the 26 major-league baseball teams open their preseason training camps this week—eight clubs in Arizona, the others in Florida—the focus is not on the players at the camps, but on the ones who are absent. Said Expos third baseman Tim Wallach, thinking of his missing teammates: “This is the first time in my career that I haven’t looked forward to spring training.”

For the Toronto Blue Jays and the New York Yankees, baseball’s annual rites of spring seem more promising. Following last-minute negotiations last week, the Blue Jays signed star outfielders Jesse Barfield and George Bell. Each earned $650,000 (U.S.) in 1986. This year both will become millionaires. And Yankee first baseman Don Mattingly emerged from his arbitration hearing with a 1987 contract worth $1.975 million—the highest salary ever awarded by an arbitrator.

The status of Raines and his fellow free agents remains unclear. None has yet received a better offer than the one they already rejected from their former clubs. The Philadelphia Phillies broke off negotiations with Parrish last week when they were unable to get a guarantee that Parrish would not sue the team and major-league baseball. It is Parrish’s contention, shared by the Major League Players’ Association, that the owners are unlawfully restricting the movement of free agents. Said Tom Reich, agent for Parrish and Raines: “Labor and management are at war like no time before.” Baseball’s winter of discontent and troubled spring are the result of what the team owners call “fiscal responsibility” and the players call “collusion.” In December, 1975, arbitrator Peter Seitz declared that pitchers Dave McNally of the Baltimore Orioles and Andy Messersmith of the Los Angeles Dodgers were free agents, no longer bound to their teams. Until then, baseball’s reserve clause had bound players to teams for their entire careers. Seitz’s historic ruling abolished the reserve clause and freed players with six years experience with the same club—or 10 years in the majors—to sell their ser-

vices to the highest bidder. And they did. The average player’s salary in 1975 was $44,676. Last year it was $412,520.

But in 1985 the owners stopped bidding. Detroit all-star free agent Kirk Gibson did not receive a single offer from another team, and the outfielder reluctantly re-signed with the Tigers. This year the winningest pitcher of the decade, Jack Morris, received no offers better than Detroit’s and resigned with the Tigers.

Raines, Dawson, Parrish, Guidry and Horner chose not to re-sign. Instead, they have tested the market and at week’s end remained unemployed.

The players’ association filed a grievance last year, charging that the owners were acting in collusion, in contravention of their collective bargaining agreement with the owners. A clause in the agreement stipulates, “Players shall not act in concert with other players, and clubs shall not act in concert with other clubs.” The owners deny the charge, saying they were independently trying to restore fiscal sanity. Arbitrator Thomas Roberts is expected to rule on the case in June. If he decides that the owners are guilty of collusion, the case will likely advance to the U.S. federal court and could jeopardize baseball’s exemption from U.S. antitrust laws. At week’s end, the association filed another collusion grievance, including in the action players who chose salary arbitration.

The off-season hostilities were exacerbated by salary arbitration. Until 1987 players with two years’ experience in the majors had been able to take contract disputes to arbitration. Each side submitted a salary figure and the arbitrator chose one. Pitcher Dick Woodson won the first case in 1974. The arbitrator chose his proposal of $30,000 over the Minnesota Twins’ $22,000 offer. Last week’s award to Mattingly demonstrated how rapidly salaries have escalated. Arbitrator Ar-

vid Anderson decided that Mattingly— who won the Gold Glove as the American League’s best first baseman and hit .352 with 31 home runs—will receive $1.975 million, not the $1.7 million offered by the Yankees.

Although Mattingly’s is the highest salary awarded by an arbitrator, he is only the fifth-highest-paid player. He

still trails members of the $2 million club —Philadelphia Phillie Mike Schmidt ($2,127,333), Boston Red Sox Jim Rice ($2,109,195), Kansas City Royal George Brett ($2,105,000) and Baltimore Oriole Eddie Murray ($2,044,757). Just four days before Mattingly’s award, Morris had established a new ceiling when he won his case with Detroit. The right-handed starter will earn $1.85 million.

In Toronto, eleventh-hour agreements narrowly avoided arbitration hearings for Barfield and Bell which would most likely have favored the players. Barfield asked for $1.35 mil-

lion, and Bell $1,325 million. The team’s counteroffers were for $1,125 million and $1 million respectively. From the one-year contracts, right fielder Barfield will earn $1,237,500 and left fielder Bell $1,175,000. Still, team officials voiced disappointment with the agreements—but not because of the money involved. Toronto executive vice-president Pat Gillick said the team had wanted to sign the players to longer-term contracts. Said Gillick: “Toward the latter part of the negotiations we started talking ‘one year.’ But we will keep talking.” Next year Bell will again be eligible for arbitra-

tion and Barfield for free agency.

The two Canadian teams are in a unique—and unenviable—situation. The Jays and Expos earn Canadian dollars and pay players’ salaries in U.S. dollars. Last season, despite paid attendance of almost 2.5 million, the Jays lost $3.5 million (Cdn.). The loss was almost entirely due to the exchange rate between the two currencies. The Expos, with attendance dwindling to just over one million last season, lost approximately $5 million (Cdn.).

Explaining why the Jays did not attempt to sign free-agent stars like Raines or Parrish, Gillick said: “We

just don’t have the dough. We are projecting to lose $3 million again this season, and that’s doing only what we had to do—sign Barfield, Bell and Ernie Whitt.” Catcher Whitt became a free agent but signed a three-year contract with the Jays last month. With bonuses, it could be worth as much as $2.3 million (U.S.). Said Whitt: “I could see problems coming for free agents. I hate to use the word ‘collusion,’ but I think everyone realizes what’s going on. But I also realized that salaries were getting a little out of hand.”

The free-agency dispute has hit the Expos hardest. As training camp opens,

they are without Raines and Dawson and, under the terms of the the collective agreement, cannot negotiate with the players until May 1. By then the team will have played 20 games. Said Expos vice-president Bill Stoneman: “We have not withdrawn the offers we made to them, and we still believe the offers are fair, generous and equitable.” Raines rejected a $4.8-million contract for three years, and Dawson $2 million over two years. Chicago Cubs pitcher Rick Sutcliffe recently offered to pay $100,000 of Dawson’s salary if the Cubs could sign him. Last month, the Cubs told Dawson’s agent that they could

not afford the 32-year-old slugger.

The Expos face the additional problem of higher provincial taxation than Ontario’s Blue Jays. And the combination of federal and Quebec taxes exceeds the federal and state taxes paid by players on the 24 U.S.-based teams. Said Expos president Claude Brochu: “We have begun discussions with the federal government. We believe ball players should be taxed the way visiting entertainers are—at about 15 per cent. Right now, our guys are taxed up to 40 per cent. We have tried to compensate by paying higher salaries than most clubs. But that cannot go on for-

ever. We think the offers to Tim and Andre are quite superior to anything else they will be offered.”

That is bad news for the free agents, and for Expos fans. And with no indication that stars like Raines or Parrish will sign with new clubs before the season opens April 6, the issue appears headed for a U.S. federal courtroom. The dark shadow cast over the sparkling diamonds of Arizona and Florida is likely to chase the boys well into summer.