Major-league clubs are involved in a “conspiracy” to hold down the salaries of free agents, according to the Major League Baseball Players Association.
Mark Belanger, the union’s special assistant, charged in a telephone interview yesterday that “clubs working in concert with each other” is a main reason that 36 of 56 players who filed for free agency in November remain unsigned. “We’re very concerned about this whole issue and we want it fixed,” Belanger said. “We’re alarmed that there are so many free agents who aren’t being signed.” Belanger said the players’ association has “proof” that club executives have banded together during the off-season in an effort not to sign aging or average free agents, thereby keeping payrolls down. “The clubs are calling each other about offers to free agents,” he said. “We have some proof of that. One club will phone another club and say: ‘We’re only offering Johnny So-and-So $300,000 a year.’
And the other club will say: ‘Okay, then we won’t offer more than that.’ We don’t believe it’s proper for clubs to exchange information like that. The players are suffering a great deal because of that.” A clause in the collective-bargaining agreement that expired on Dec. 31 stipulated that clubs are forbidden from “working in concert” with each other in contract matters, but Cleveland Indian president Peter Bavasi denied the existence of a conspiracy involving free-agent signings. “I can understand why the players’ association would think there’s a conspiracy,” Bavasi said. “There are 26 teams and only a few are making money. That means most of us are looking for ways to save money. You do that by increasing revenues or cutting costs. That’s not a conspiracy. It’s just that the same solutions are available to all clubs.” While high-profile free agents were snapped up at exorbitant prices – Rick Sutcliffe, Fred Lynn and Bruce Sutter are examples – most of the free agents are in limbo, and some have filed complaints with the union.
Seven players chosen by more than four clubs in November currently remain unsigned: outfielders Ruppert Jones and Sixto Lezcano, infielder Rob Wilfong, catcher Steve Nicosia, designated hitter Oscar Gamble and pitchers Bob Castillo and Tim Stoddard. The seven have the option of entering a supplemental re-entry draft later this month to determine whether any other clubs are interested in their services.
Nicosia, whom the Toronto Blue Jays chose originally, plans to enter the draft. The only other one of the seven chosen by Toronto was Stoddard, but look for him to sign with another club – probably the Chicago Cubs – this week.
The other free agents still available are pitchers Jerry Augustine, Jack Curtis, Rollie Fingers, Rich Gale, Mike LaCoss, Randy Lerch, Rudy May, Tug McGraw, Bob Owchinko, Rick Reuschel and Craig Swan; infielders Bill Almon, Dan Meyer, Tony Perez, Mark Wagner, Pat Putnam, Chris Speier and Champ Summers; outfielders Ben Ayala, Al Bumbry, Steve Henderson, Gene Richards, Derrell Thomas and Jim Wohlford; designated hitters Greg Luzinski and Ken Singleton; and catchers Gary Allenson, Milt May and John Stearns.
Belanger said the association is working to ensure that calls among clubs concerning free agents will be explicitly outlawed under the new major-league collective- bargaining contract.
Belanger also said the association is attempting to eliminate compensation for clubs who have lost free agents to other clubs. “We’re trying to remove as many of the restrictions as possible,” he said. “We have to make the changes now. We can’t afford to have our players suffering instead of prospering on the free-agent market.”