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Collusion Made Easy
2004-11-22 13:21
by Mike Carminati

Don't know much about a player's history? Don't know much about his biology, er, injury history? Well, if you're a major-league GM, MLB now is providing you with the Cliffs Notes to ensure that you don't overpay.

So if you're Theo Epstein and you need help from the commissioner's office whenever you make a trade or you're Omar Minaya and you got "promoted" to the Mets for despoiling the Expos minor-league system, then this new aid is for you. Who cares if you are a fifty-year-old man who needs training wheels? You want to keep that cushy job at any cost.

Baseball calls it the Free Agent Advice Form. The "Handy Dandy Free Agent Advice Form" was just too long:

So if Scott Boras is bullying you into a 10-year, $200 M contract, all you have to do is write to Dear Abby, er, Buddy. All you need is to send in the player's name (including middle initials for any Bobby Joneses or Javier Lopi) and the contract length desired. You don't even need a self-addressed stamped envelope if you use your fax.

You get "date him"/"drop him" advice with an estimate of the player's value—"[Player's name] value would appear to be between $___ and $ ____". They have to do the math to determine if the figure they have in mind is between those two on their own, however. Then you get a list of "relevant comparables", however they might be determined, with their contract info. And if all that's not enough for our junior GM to arrive at a decision, you also receive at no extra cost a list of "Other Factors" such as age, injury history, etc. Ron Popeil would be proud. And if you act today, you get the Veg-O-Matic, a $50 value, absolutely free.

Why can't Eddie Wade read? Because daddy Bud does his homework for him.

But why come up with the form now after two offseasons in which accusations have been swirling? That's precisely the reason to come up with this form according to Jayson Stark. The paper trail will now act as a form of CYA (Cover Your Assets) for MLB. The thinking is that since everything will be out in the open—the players union has access to the forms—and fully documented, then MLB's obvious innocence from collusion will be apparent to all.

MLB Corporate wea..,er, labor-relations chief Rob Manfred basically says as much to Stark, "Our position is that nothing untoward has gone on. The union has been concerned about this, so we were prepared to do something to address their concerns." Whether anything toward has transpired was not addressed.

And if that's not enough, the Handy Dandy Form comes with keano whizbang disclaimers:

"Obviously the value of a free agent Player is ultimately determined by market forces, the most fundamental of which are supply of such Players and the demand for those Players. Moreover, the potential value of a free agent Player to one Club may be different from the same Player's value to another Club. Given this, the amount that your Club is willing to pay a free agent may appropriately differ from the value range supplied above…

"Moreover, this advice is strictly advisory and is intended to assist you in formulating contract offers that you deem appropriate. As has always been the case, advice from the Office of the Commissioner cannot interfere with a Club's obligation to act in its own individual interest in a free market. In fact, you are required to act in your individual interest in deciding what contract terms to offer a free agent player."

"Wink wink. Nudge nudge, say no more, say no more." If it's all so obvious, why include it on a one-page form? Because everyone needs a little legalese to indemnify oneself. Beware of forms bearing regular nouns in capital letters. Do You know what i mean? Where else is the word "Moreover" used except in documents drawn up by lawyers.

Of course, there's no collusion since the teams are "not permitted to share this advice" or that they even received advice via the Handy Dandy Form "with another Club"—note the caps: it's legalese. And of course the commissioner's office "will not disclose to any other Club [caps again] the fact that [they] provided this advice." That is, they won't any longer now that Bud's Brewers are being sold.

To quote Hildy and Buffy, "See, it's all perfectly normal."

Stark also refers to a Manfred-penned negotiating memo that MLB circulated to all the teams that prohibits clubs from "discuss[ing] negotiations, contract offers or even 'contemplated' offers with each other" this may include "using the media to circulate information about their contract offers to free agents". It also reiterates that the contract advice is only "upon a specific request from a club" and only on the top-secret advice form, and points out that teams are "not required to seek such advice" nor bound to follow it.

Moreover, it goes on to say that Happy Fun Ball should not be used as a flotation devise.

I see these moves as having three ultimate goals. First and foremost, to protect MLB against any sort of collusion settlement that was seen after the 1986-88 seasons. At least, they're more creative today than in Peter Ueberroth's days.

Second, they want to make sure that regular business, including reining in maverick teams who are doling out Amigo money on free agent contracts, is maintained.

Third, this was a wakeup call to the teams who rubberstamped the advice in the past and offered remarkably similar contracts to similar players. No good confidence game can be run when you have thirty partners who are such boobs.

I, frankly, dismissed the claims by players and agents that collusion was afoot in the past couple off seasons. I thought that the players unwisely signed an extremely lopsided Collective Bargaining Agreement that came with built-in "collusion", a soft salary cap, to which every team has adhered since (except the Yankees). So I disregarded the cries of collusion just like I dismissed the cries of fraud in the past presidential election. Of course, things happened, but you were a party to them. Besides, insurance companies no longer were covering the long-term contracts (over three years) that they had in the past further reducing contract length and thereby, releasing more players more quickly back in the free agent pool increasing supply and reducing demand.

However, methinks Bud dost protest too much this offseason. Going by the "where there's smoke, there's fire" theory, there is something as real at least as the last round of collusion afoot here. Manfred is blowing a whole lot of smoke up too many orifices for there not to be some fire down below. There has been too little salary growth since the last CBA was signed. Apparently, the owners got lazy (not coordinating offers more realistically) and greedy (ticking off too many and suppressing salaries too much). Rob "The Wolf" Manfred now must clean up their mess. Excuse him if he's curt.

The problem is that without an Andre Dawson-like lightning rod for the collusion zeitgeist, the charges may be hard to prove in the courts and in the ever-important court of public opinion, where all players are considered overpaid but no owner's salary is ever evaluated. And now the lawyers are swooping in for plausible deniability. The players may be better served by trying to gear up for the next CBA negotiations, an effort that may be better served with some changes at the top of the union.

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