As a lack of free agency moves has the market slowed to crawl, baseball analysts and fans alike are left to wonder: are we repeating the days of the mid-1980s, when owners and general managers colluded with one another to save a buck?
If you can’t answer that question, maybe you haven’t heard the stories of owners conspiring together in that span. Collusion is as defined, “an agreement between two or more parties, sometimes illegal — but always secretive — to limit open competition by deceiving, misleading, or defrauding others of their legal rights, or to obtain an objective forbidden by law typically by defrauding or gaining an unfair market advantage.”
Owners did this with authority in the mid-80s, stunting player salary growth and keeping free agents limited to their previous teams. They collectively worked to stop any market momentum all in the effort of saving some cash. In that era, free agency moves were extremely scarce, even more of a rarity than we’re seeing now. In 1985, 1986, and 1987, the world of Major League Baseball was drowning in collusion.
It starts with Peter Ueberroth, formerly the Commissioner of Baseball. Ueberroth famously called the owners of MLB’s 26 teams “damned dumb” for being willing to lose millions of dollars just to win the World Series in a 1984 meeting, shortly after Ueberroth was hired. He later said to owners in a separate meeting that it “frankly is not smart” to sign long-term contracts.
Ueberroth’s message was clear, and the owners took notice. Their added attentiveness to their finances negatively affected every baseball component aside from their own wallets, but still, the focus was lowering player salaries at all costs.
In 1985, and on account of the owners working together, only four of 35 free agents were able to sign with new teams, and that was solely because their old teams didn’t want them. Some of MLB’s most valuable players were on the market that season, but none of Phil Niekro, Kirk Gibson, or Tommy John even received offers from other teams.
Things took a turn for the worse in 1986, as again, only four players were able to switch teams through free agency, all of whom took hefty pay cuts. Three-fourths of the 1986 free agent class signed one-year contracts, including Hall of Famers Tim Raines and Jack Morris. That’s inexplicable. Imagine Mike Trout or Jose Altuve signing a one-year contract in free agency. It’s absurd.
MLB revenue increased by 15% in 1986, while the average player salary decreased by about the same percentage. Even while all of the collusion evidence was unraveling, including arbitrator Thomas Roberts ruling that the owners had violated the collective bargaining agreement by colluding and restricting player movement, Ueberroth sided with the owners.
There were three collusion cases filed, all three won by the Major League Baseball Players Association. This resulted in the owners paying over $280 million to the MLBPA for lost salaries. Of course, the poor actions of the owners and Ueberroth didn’t end there, as player concerns over salaries crippled MLB and indirectly caused the 1994-95 labor strike.
As we enjoy a golden age of position players in baseball now, a labor strike or a collusion scandal would hurt in a number of ways. Collusion, though, to the conspiracy theorist in me, is happening right before our eyes. Maybe not as harshly, but the intent is noticeable around us.
Nothing can be as bad for the players as the 1980s collusion efforts of the owners, but this is becoming comparable. Fans and writers patiently waited for the Shohei Ohtani and Giancarlo Stanton dams to break, allowing the market to start flooding. That has not happened one bit.
It’s early-to-mid January and just six of my top-20 free agents have been able to sign with new teams, or re-sign with their old one. The biggest names from the beginning of the free agent cycle like Yu Darvish, J.D. Martinez, Jake Arrieta, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, and Lorenzo Cain are still available. This is after the winter meetings, after the massive Ohtani and Stanton balls dropped, after basically everything a typical free agency has.
But they’re still unsigned. Part of me thinks the owners and general managers are just trying to be patient and not risk their job, another part of me thinks it’s a money thing — after all, the 2018-19 free agent class is slated to be a historic one. The biggest part of me thinks, maybe stupidly, it’s collusion, from the top to the bottom.
Eleven of the top-20 signed before New Year’s Day in 2016-17’s free agency cycle, nine the year before, and 15 the year before that. The only big names being frequently signed are bullpen pieces that don’t really cost a lot in the first place. By agreeing to pay gargantuan fines for surpassing the luxury tax, it feels owners are colluding against the players to lower salaries and conserve cash. There isn’t anything illegal about this, but it gives off an unethical vibe.
Maybe the later stages of January will be filled with the Martinez, Hosmer, and Darvish types getting their fair market value for their services on the field. Maybe baseball fans won’t have to worry anymore about a conspiracy like this. Until then, it’s all up to be considered: collusion is active in Major League Baseball, and it’s a shame.