Part 21 of our series on Important Moments in Team Building. See introduction, and up-to-date list.
Tim Raines may not have been the best player in NL in 1986, but he was certainly among the top five. He led the NL in batting and OBP, stole 70 bases, and had his fourth consecutive top 12 finish in the MVP balloting. After the season he became a free agent, and at only 27 years old, he should have been near the top of every team’s list. Instead, he and agent Tom Reich heard practically nothing.
The previous offseason the free agent market had been suspiciously slow. After receiving no free agent offers, Kirk Gibson, Carlton Fisk, Donnie Moore and others had accepted much less money than they had hoped for and reluctantly returned to their old teams. There was some hope among the players and their agents that the slow offseason was simply an aberration and that the stronger 1986 class, including Raines, Jack Morris, Andre Dawson, Lance Parrish, and Bob Horner, would loosen the owners’ purse strings. It did not.
The Expos offered a three-year $4.8 million contract, a raise of about $100,000 per year. Reich initially pushed for a three-year contract at $2 million per year; once he realized the market was stagnant he lowered his asking price to $1.8 mil per year. And then he was forced to continue lowering it. Houston, Seattle, and Atlanta showed some nominal interest, but none made a meaningful offer. Only San Diego displayed any real interest, but at less than the Expos were offering.
On January 8, Raines had a big decision to make. If he didn’t re-sign with the Expos by this date, he couldn’t sign with them until May 1. He would have to trust that the system wasn’t completely rigged, and that he would be able to come to terms with another team. Raines and seven other free agents—Andre Dawson, Rich Gedman, Ron Guidry, Bob Horner, Lance Parrish, Doyle Alexander, and Bob Boone—elected not to take this chance, to take a chance with the other 25 clubs.
Once again only San Diego showed any real interest in Raines, but they would go no higher than a two-year contract at $1.1 million per year, well below the Expos. According to Raines, the Padres declined his desperation proposal of one year at $1.3 million plus incentives. On May 1, having lost his gamble, he went back to the Expos for roughly what they offered originally: $5 million total for three years.
In the end, of the eight free agents that went past the deadline, only two switched major league teams (Horner went to Japan); the others returned to their original teams at well below market prices. Dawson offered the Cubs a blank contract and told them to fill in whatever they wanted. They filled it in for $500,000 plus $200,000 in incentives, well below what a veteran of Dawson’s ability and stature would typically be paid. Parrish left the Tigers for the Phillies at roughly the same pay he had earned in 1986. Even with no raise, the Phillies were reportedly subjected to calls from Detroit’s GM Jim Campbell, AL President Bobby Brown and owners Bud Selig and Jerry Reinsdorf to consider what they were doing.
In fact, the owners were acting in violation of their collective bargaining agreement with the players, which stated: “Players shall not act in concert with other Players and Clubs shall not act in concert with other Clubs.” Baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth, the mastermind behind this illegal conspiracy, had struck a chord with the owners in late 1985 when, as John Helyar wrote, he told them: “You, singular, are responsible for your own downfall, and you are so dumb that you are paying all kinds of money to players that aren’t playing so you’re losing money and don’t have money to play players that are playing, please don’t throw stones at anybody. It’s your fault, Mr. So and So, don’t rant and rave. Nobody is forcing you to do anything. It is your own stupidity.” He followed this up a week later at the general managers meeting, advising the attendees that if they want to sign a free agent, he wanted them to justify the deal economically.
Under this new banner of “fiscal responsibility”, the owners began working collectively to make sure salaries stayed in line. As Raines’s ordeal highlighted, in this they were successful. One study leaked to the Associated Press looked at players with six or more years of service who signed new contracts. Salaries increased 74% before the 1981 season, 50% for 1982, and 43% for 1983, 9% for 1984, and 7% for 1985. Once collusion kicked in, however, salaries for this subset began to plummet. In 1986 salaries dropped 18% and the next year 22%.
From a team building perspective, the biggest problem was strong deference given to a player’s current team. If a team made it known that they wanted to re-sign a player, this was code to the other teams to lay off. Even if the new salary was not a material increase from his previous salary—as in the cases of Parrish and Raines—teams generally shied away from free agents still wanted by their current club. If it had just been about the money, Cubs GM Dallas Green would not have been so defensive about signing Dawson in one of the greatest bargains in baseball history.
The players, their agents, and the union quickly recognized what the owners were secretly up to, and the union filed a grievance for the 1985 free agent class, later followed by grievances on behalf of the 1986, and 1987 classes. After hours of testimony, 31 interviews, and thousands of pages of transcripts, in September 1987 the arbitrator ruled in favor of the players in the 1985 free agent class. Roughly a year later, an arbitrator similarly decided in favor of the players for the 1986 class. Finally, in October 1990, while waiting for the verdict on the 1987 class the owners and players agreed to a $280 million damages settlement for all three cases. Additionally, several players who had gone through the process in these years were given a fresh opportunity at free agency.
With the advent of free agency to the game in 1976, the reserve clause no long applied to players with six years experience. But for these three years—1985 through 1987—the owners essentially acted to restore the reserve clause for these players. GMs were restrained from working to improve their clubs and, as a result, pennant races were artificially constrained and influenced. The lack of player movement during this three-year window underlined how much team building had changed with the coming of free agency.