At the end of last season, MLB and the Players’ Association announced changes to the free agent and salary arbitration calendar. Correct that. The MLBPA made an announcement. MLB was silent on the changes, but that didn’t prevent the union from issuing a press release touting their accomplishments. After stating the agreement between the parties was “confidential,” the MLBPA proceeded to breach that confidentiality by listing several changes designed to address its concerns with the conduct of the clubs in the free agent market during the previous two off seasons.
Included among the “substantive changes” was this: “Restrictions on the abilities of the Clubs, players and agents to conduct their free agent negotiations through use of the media.” Presumably, the MLBPA was concerned that clubs could circumvent the collusion rules by talking to one another through the press.
No details have been forthcoming, but the restrictions, whatever they are, are ludicrous, not to mention unenforceable, at least against the players and agents. MLB has long had the ability to silence club employees and has done so on a number of occasions, most frequently during labor negotiations or when negative comments have been made against umpires. But did anyone really think the union was going to muzzle the seemingly ubiquitous Scott Boras? Especially when the super agent’s success in driving up player salaries is due in large measure to his outrageous public pronouncements regarding the abilities of his clients and the interest in them shown by “numerous clubs.”
The Baseball Winter Meetings are on tap for Orlando next week and what would a Winter Meeting be without Boras - surrounded by his employees-cum-entourage and fawning media types - pontificating in the hotel lobby? But we didn’t have to wait that long for the restrictions to be rendered meaningless. Shortly after the free agent market opened for business, there was Boras being interviewed on MLB Network Radio’s Inside Pitch extolling the virtues of virtually every one of his free agent clients, including Adrian Beltre – “I would have to say that in all my years of doing this, I’ve never had so much interest in one player” - and Jayson Werth, whom he compared to Dwight Evans, a not-so-subtle pitch to the Red Sox brass.
Nor was Boras the only agent who commented publicly about his clients. Casey Close, usually among the more reserved player agents, said he was “baffled” at the hard-line negotiating stance taken by the Yankees with his free agent client, Derek Jeter, whom he compared to Babe Ruth in the pantheon of Yankee icons.
We shouldn’t have expected any less from the agents. Nor should the sport want it any other way. Although many in management will never forgive Marvin Miller for his role in sending the reserve clause to its rightful death, the result of which was free agency for the players, the sport has benefited immensely from that decision. It has created interest in – and media exposure for - baseball during a time when the other three Major League team sports are in season.
Free agency also gives the fans hope that their team might sign a player or players that will make the team competitive. We aren’t just talking theory here. Where would the Giants have finished this year without the free agent signings of Edgar Renteria and Aubrey Huff?
It isn’t just the agents who are ignoring the gag order. General Managers declined to comment on free agents during their November meetings, perhaps because MLB officials, including Commissioner Bud Selig, were present. Every employee knows it’s best to adhere to the boss’ orders, especially in the boss’ presence. But the silence was fleeting. Shortly after the GM’s fled Orlando, Yankees GM Brian Cashman, joined by owners Hank and Hal Steinbrenner along with team pit bull Randy Levine, began trashing Jeter in the press. As the unseemly public negotiations deteriorated, Cashman told the world Jeter was free to test the market to see if he could better the team’s reported 3-year, $45 million offer.
Whether the restrictions were sought by the clubs in order to prevent agents from playing one team against another, or the union was attempting to keep clubs from putting a damper on offers to the players, it’s obvious both sides failed to achieve their goals.
Jordan Kobritz is a staff member of the Business of Sports Network. He is a former attorney, CPA, and Minor League Baseball team owner. He is an Assistant Professor of Sport Management at Eastern New Mexico University and teaches the Business of Sports at the University of Wyoming. He looks forward to your comments and can be contracted, here.
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