Recession or Collusion? MLB Agents are Out For Money

Brian Tuohy@@thefixisintuohyCorrespondent IJuly 14, 2009

LAS VEGAS - DECEMBER 08:  Sports agent Scott Boras introduces four-time Cy Young Award winning pitcher Greg Maddux at a news conference to announce Maddux' retirement from Major League Baseball at the league's Winter Meetings at the Bellagio December 8, 2008 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

It is no surprise that agents for some of the top names in baseball are making the rounds during the All-Star break, seeking more money for their players. After all, that's the job. But what is a bit shocking is the current method they are attempting to use to squeeze this cash out of Major League Baseball.

Some of baseball's biggest player agents are attempting to force new MLB Players' Union head Michael Weiner into suing baseball owners in a claim of collusion against the players.

The agents' collective beef resides in the belief that current MLB owners were lying when they claimed the current economic recession forced their hand in offering less money to the available free agents after the 2008 season.

Uber-agent Scott Boras was quoted in an AP article stating, "I think the clubs uniformly felt they were taking the momentum of a national event—that being the economy—and suggesting that that was going to have an impact on their revenues. I think they were attempting to leverage that into a belief structure that the value of players has gone down because there's a perception that baseball will suffer because of the economy."

Boras added, "After experiencing the biggest blow of the economy in the fall of 2008, we know that baseball has stood its ground and still has an extraordinary revenue base."

To some degree, Boras was correct. Baseball is nowhere near dead. Yet an AP analysis discovered that teams cut spending on free agents and other roster moves, saving an estimated $47 million between opening day of 2008 through opening day of 2009.

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For their part, the MLB has stated that everything has been on the level; that teams were and continue to be concerned about their economic futures.

The question remains for fans: who do you believe?

The recent history of baseball dictates that the fan should side with the players.  Why? Consider the original case of collusion against the players in the mid 1980s.

In 1985, 1986, and 1987, the players sued the MLB with claims of collusion. In all three cases, the players won their cases and were ultimately rewarded $280 million for their troubles.

Many fans have either forgotten or never heard what actually caused the players' lawsuit against the MLB. The facts are as simple as they are startling.

In 1985, new commissioner Peter Ueberroth gathered the owners and told them that if they wanted to continue to make a profit, they needed to stop spending wildly on free agents. In that meeting, Ueberroth convinced all of the owners to agree not to bid on another team's free agent player (unless his current team no longer wished to have that player on the roster).

This is a key moment in modern sports history. Every owner agreed that potentially improving their team in the hopes to winning more games by signing free agents was less important that making money.

Winning did not matter. Money did.

When the MLB owners followed through with this plan not just in one off-season, but a second, the players smelled a rat. Sure enough, the owners were busted.  But they did not stop.

After losing the first collusion case and with the second one looming, the owners continued to collude against the players. 

Instead of outright ignoring free agents, the owners instead created an "information bank." This "bank" collected all of the on-the-table offers for a particular free agent so any team could see where the offers stood. In effect, all bidding was done openly, meaning a team knew instantly what they would have to offer to get that player on their roster. Needless to say, few offers followed after a first was made—if it was made at all.

When the MLB lost the second and subsequent third collusion cases, the face of the game instantly changed. Suddenly, the free agent market boomed as some owners were willing to throw their cash around to get the best their money could buy.

Amazingly, the idea of owners colluding against the players did not die. In 2006, the players and owners reached a little known agreement to settle what was considered a fourth collusion case that supposedly affected the free agent market in both 2002 and 2003.

Now that dirty word may be brought up again. Soon-to-be new Players' Union head Weiner stated that an investigation is "on going." Part of the fear leading to this lies in the fact that few players with expiring contracts in 2009 have had any offers placed on the table.

Seth Levinson, another agent leading this new collusion charged, stated to the AP, "There are too many things that need to be explained. In my experience, there are no coincidences in a monopoly."

Are the owners actually colluding, or are they making fiscal sense for once?

The NBA recently announced that their salary cap may actually downsize in 2010.  Some within the inner circle of the NFL think a player lockout is all but a certainty in 2011.

Yet with these stories getting publicity, baseball agents—not the players or the union—want to go after owners for squeezing their money a little tighter for once?  Who's running this show?

If baseball wants to survive the current economic situation—one potentially as bleak as the Great Depression which neither the NFL or the NBA really had to survive—everyone within the game is going to have to tighten their belts.

Maybe the days of a $5 million middle relief pitcher with a 2-5 record and a 4.68 ERA is in the past. And maybe for once, the owners aren't the bad guys.


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