Following the 1985, 1986 and 1987 seasons, the owners colluded against the players in order to short-circuit the competitive bidding process for free agents. Arbitrators ruled that the owners violated the collective bargaining agreement not one, not two, but three times, and as result, they ended up agreeing to pay the players some $280 million and many were instantly made free agents again. If you believe former commissioner Fay Vincent, the 1990s expansion was designed to raise money to pay the fines.
You'd think, then, that the owners wouldn't do that again. Many agents, however, think otherwise:
As Michael Weiner prepares to take over from Donald Fehr as head of the players' association, several agents are pushing the union to file a collusion grievance against teams over their behavior during the free-agent market last winter.
"There's a general level of suspicion in the air," said Jeff Borris, an agent whose clients include Barry Bonds, Brian Fuentes and Jason Isringhausen . . . Halfway through the season, agents also are worried about collusion because no major players eligible for free agency have agreed to contract extensions.
"There are too many things that need to be explained," said Seth Levinson, who represented nearly a dozen free agents following the 2008 season. "In my experience, there are no coincidences in a monopoly."
It would be easy to rail against the owners for going back to their old tricks again, but such an accusation -- if one ever formally comes -- had better be mindful of the state of the economy, which is bad, and the state of smart baseball thinking, which has gone sharply away from the idea of building through veteran free agents. Simply put, there are many factors which explain the state of the free agent market that don't require the existence of a conspiracy.
At the same time, it could be too easy to take such reasoning too far. Why? Because collusion in baseball is not just a thing of the 1980s. From the article:
As part of the latest collective bargaining agreement in 2006, players and owners settled potential claims that management may have conspired against free agents following the 2002 and 2003 seasons. The settlement, made with no admission of guilt, called for a lump-sum $12 million payment from money already earmarked for players to settle unfiled claims of collusive activity along with other pending grievances.
Hard to say what happened in 2002 and 2003, but it's worth noting that owners tend to not want to simply part with $12 million for no reason. Well, at least no reason that doesn't involve the Royals and Jose Guillen. Whatever the case, it's possible something untoward was going on back then, and because of it, it's not prudent to simply dismiss these latest allegations as agent-looniness or player greed, as many will be inclined to do given the state of the economy.