Baseball players seek collusion grievance against owners

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, January 29, 2003

NEW YORK -- Baseball players have taken the first step toward a possible collusion grievance against owners.

Michael Weiner, a lawyer for the players' association, filed a request last Thursday for management documents about negotiations with free agents during this offseason.

The request was confirmed to The Associated Press on Tuesday by a pair of baseball officials who spoke on the condition they not be identified. Players asked for ''documents that would reflect interclub communications and communications between the commissioner's office and clubs about free-agent negotiations,'' one of the officials told the AP.

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Several agents told the union in November and December that their clients received similar offers from several different teams, three agents said earlier this month on the condition they not be identified.

Union officials asked them to maintain the records of the bids, and the agents said the union was contemplating a grievance. Baseball's labor contract says teams may not act in concert with regard to free agents.

Owners were found by arbitrators to have conspired against free agents following the 1985, 1986 and 1987 seasons, and management settled those cases in 1990 for $280 million.

Under baseball's labor contract, grievances must be filed within 45 days of the alleged violation. By filing the document request last week, a grievance would cover events starting in early December.

Union head Donald Fehr declined comment. Rob Manfred, management's top labor lawyer, confirmed receipt of the document request and denied the collusion allegations.

''Our view is that any suggestion that there was any improper activity in this marker was ludicrous,'' Manfred said Tuesday. ''The market was characterized by extensive competitive bidding for top free agents.

''Moreover, there are important external factors that one would have expected to have an impact on the market, including baseball's economics, the economy generally and the new agreement.''

Manfred said owners would respond to the document request ''in due course.''

Baseball's new labor contract, agreed to last summer, increases revenue sharing in 2003 and places a luxury tax on high-payroll teams, factors that have combined to decrease spending by some clubs.

Agents have pointed to the relative lack of bidders for high-profile free agents such as Greg Maddux, Jim Thome and Ivan Rodriguez, but management cited aggressive bidding for free agents by the Philadelphia Phillies, New York Yankees, New York Mets, Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs.

Any collusion case would be heard by baseball's independent arbitrator, currently Shyam Das. If owners are found to have violated the anti-collusion provision, damages could be substantially higher than they were in the 1980s.

The average salary in the major leagues increased from $412,000 in 1987 to $2.3 million last year, and since 1990 the labor contract has included a provision that any collusion damages be tripled.