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It doesn’t matter if owners say the magic word of “collusion”

Trying to pinpoint precise language is actually an obfuscation of the real conflict.

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2018 BBWAA Awards Dinner

In the landmark labor history of baseball, The Lords of the Realm, author John Helyar recounted that at one of the commissioner’s meetings with owners around 1984, they were posed with a hypothetical:

“[T]he commissioner described a scenario in which he would sit each owner down in front of a red button and a black button. If they pushed the red button, they’d win the World Series but lose $10 million. If they pushed the black button, they’d make $4 million and finish in the middle of the pack. ‘The problem is,’ [Commissioner Peter] Ueberroth scolded, ‘most of you would push the red one.’ The fiscally minded commissioner was berating the owners for wanting to win the World Series.”

That essentially presaged three concrete events that lead to the 1994 strike:

  • Collusion I, in which teams reduced roster sizes by a man and famously, George Steinbrenner retracted an offer to Carlton Fisk after being told to back off by White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf.
  • Collusion II, where free agent salaries dropped 16%, and all deals longer than three years had to go through Ueberroth.
  • Collusion III, where the famous “information bank” came into play in 1988, forcing over $60 million in damages to paid out for capped free agent deals.

This is, despite evidence to the contrary, directly connected to the era in which we live in now. Current commissioner Rob Manfred, for example, began working for the collective bargaining team in 1987, a year before Collusion III and in the midst of the overall collusion scandal. He worked the 1994 strike negotiations, and worked on behalf of owners to secure a hard salary cap.

The owners, too, are still around. Four ownership groups were around for all of the collusion scandals, and about a third of owners were around for ‘94 negotiations where they explicitly pushed for the salary cap among other cost saving measures. Reinsdorf, as an obvious example, has already been caught red-handed in colluding.

To pretend that the trends of today are completely disconnected from the free agent market today, that it would be inconceivable for this to reoccur, is simply preposterous considering we are dealing with some of the very same actors... which leads us to yesterday.

During a call with the media, Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos stated the following:

“Every day you get more information. And we’ve had time to connect with 27 of the clubs -- obviously the Astros and (Nationals) being in the World Series, they were tied up -- but we had a chance to get a sense of what the other clubs are going to look to do in free agency, who might be available in trades.”

In a press release from the Player’s Association, Tony Clark fired back with:

“The statements made by Braves GM Alex Anthopoulos call into the question the integrity of the entire free-agent system. The clear description of Club coordination is egregious, and we have launched an immediate investigation looking into the matter.”

Anthopoulos’ response to the formal investigation was that “at no time during any of these calls was there discussion of individual free agents or the Braves’ intentions with respect to the free agent market” and that he “misspoke” regarding explicitly asking teams about their free agent plans.

In terms of plausibility, I think it’s possible that this is all above board. Teams inquire about their general plans all the time, even if sometimes they’re more implicit. Yet it’s not out of the realm of the possibility that he asked other teams who could be available, and that information gives a clue as to what they’re doing in free agency.

Then the Twitter talk came. Many (like myself) who believe there is a history of the owners doing this behavior felt there was little charitable way to interpret this, while others took the stance that there was no sense in taking one comment as a referendum on collusion; remember, the three instances I referred to related to explicit efforts by owners and the commissioner to cap earnings and contract years.

I think there’s an easier, third path to go down, one that can both take at face value this incident and also put it in a larger context: it doesn’t matter what he said at all, but what actions these institutions take very much do. Very vague, I know, but let me explain. Anthopoulos could have said really anything of ambiguity related to scoping out teams’ free agent ideas, and it shows a great deal that Clark, who was lambasted as the brainchild of the last disastrous CBA, stood firm and called him out, even if it wasn’t the most generous interpretation.

The fact is, the union isn’t supposed to be doing generous interpretations of the owners; they have entire legal teams to determine their course of action, nor did many of these owners have an issue with uncharitably interpreting free agency during Real Collusion, or uncharitably interpreting service time during the Kris Bryant (or other) affair. So, it says something about the brewing storm that Clark would, after famously trading free agent draft pick compensation for more nice seats on the team bus, make a stink about such a comment.

The other reason it doesn’t matter in practice is because, frankly, the owners are doing a bang-up job of achieving the same result of Real Collusion without the information bank or explicit coordination. From 2004 until the last CBA was signed, the average salary of a player has increased in every single season. Since then, the average salary has decreased in every subsequent year, while revenues in just those last three years have jumped by nearly a billion dollars.

Mid-level free agents have basically been cut out of the process of large deals, early-career extensions have vacuumed up any surplus value that would have gone to stars in their 20s, and minor leaguers are still being paid pennies helped by direct “collusion” with Congress. And with the altar of analytics being the religion front offices worship at, there was a flattening of player value that works almost the same as an information bank, which resulted in instances like this last offseason:

Whether this is explicit coordination or just teams calculating value basically the same, it doesn’t particularly matter. What really matters is that owners and players make up different interest groups, and they are irresolvably in conflict over the share of revenue—period—and currently owners are winning that battle due to both written rule and the construction of their collective front office strategy.

It mirrors, in a way, the political discourse around “quid pro quo.” There’s an innate desire by largely professional class people to believe that when some magic, bad word is said, the judicial levers of our institutions will suddenly swoop in and issue corrective action, but that just isn’t the case; the early 21st century has largely been defined by these institutions failing, everyone in power walking away unscathed, and anyone below them having to ultimately pick up the pieces.

Once again, the only illuminating thing about this whole affair is the swift union response, which will be the only way in which gains are made again—by finally using the power of direct action to extract concessions from a monoposony where we can see the results of poor opposition directly in front us.