The Name is Still Bonds, Barry Bonds

By Murray Chass

October 15, 2008

(Updated October 16)

Whenever the name Barry Bonds comes up these days, it is followed by the phrase, “who is scheduled to go on trial next March.” Bonds’ name will appear on a court docket before it appears on a lineup card again – if it ever appears on a lineup card again.

“I am convinced that Major League Baseball will never let him put on a uniform ever again,” said Bonds’ agent, Jeff Borris.

Bonds did not play this year. The last time he played was on Sept. 26, 2007, when he failed to get a hit in three times at bat against the San Diego Padres. Try as he did, Borris was unable to find Bonds a job for 2008. Did he think his client was a victim of collusion, Borris was asked on the telephone Tuesday.

“There’s not a doubt in my mind,” he replied emphatically.

Baseball officials deny Borris’ allegation.

“I am absolutely certain that there was no improper activity in the free-agent market following the 2007 season generally and I’m convinced that there was no improper activity with respect to Mr. Bonds,” Rob Manfred, management’s chief labor executive, said. “Each individual club made its own decision and I’m not privy to what reasons they had for not being interested in Mr. Bonds.”

The union has a different view, though it uncharacteristically has no immediate plans to file a grievance.

“Our investigation yielded evidence of a Basic Agreement violation regarding Barry Bonds and his post 2007 free agency,” Michael Weiner, the union’s general counsel, said in an e-mail response. ”The union and the Commissioner’s Office have reached an agreement regarding the timing of the filing of any potential grievance.  Any other comment at this time is not appropriate.”

When it believes it has a case, the union doesn’t usually delay filing a grievance. Considering its history with collusion and the fact that Bonds is a high-profile player, it would seem more likely that the union would act as quickly as possible.

In this instance, though, the union is waiting, a baseball official said, for Bonds to get beyond the trial he faces on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice stemming from his grand jury testimony in the Balco case.

Borris declined to comment on a grievance, saying he would leave comment to union lawyers.

Collusion is outlawed in the collective bargaining agreement, whose Article XX Paragraph E says, “Players shall not act in concert with other players and clubs shall not act in concert with other clubs.” Not that the illegality of collusion stopped the clubs from conspiring against free agents in the mid-1980s.

During that period, whenever I wrote about free agency and mentioned the word collusion or whenever I asked about collusion, the owners’ chief labor lawyer would laugh. He laughed every time, as if I had to be joking, right? The owners collude against free agents? What a silly idea.

Barry Rona, that labor lawyer, did not have the last laugh. Two arbitrators heard three collusion cases filed by the Players Association and ruled for the union all three times. The clubs were guilty, but they never admitted their guilt. Yet they benefited from their illegal acts that violated the collective bargaining agreement.

They benefited because the $280 million they agreed to pay the damaged players was not as much as they would have had to pay them if they hadn’t conspired to prevent the free agents from changing teams.

That’s what collusion was all about. Block the players from switching teams, eliminate competition for them, force them to stay with their own teams and salaries would plummet. Well, at least they would cease escalating.

Not that I needed to see evidence of collusion to believe the clubs were engaged in it – the smell after the 1985 season was enough – but I, among other reporters, witnessed it in person in December 1986.

Jack Morris, the Detroit Tigers’ outstanding pitcher, was a free agent, and was just what George Steinbrenner wanted. The Yankees owner would have loved to sign him to a huge contract and put him at the head of the Yankees’ starting rotation. Morris and his lawyer, Richard Moss, visited Steinbrenner in Tampa, Fla., where he lived and ran his ship building business.

They met for several hours at the Bay Harbor Inn, Steinbrenner’s hotel. Reporters, who had come primarily from New York to cover the meeting, weren’t privy to what Steinbrenner, Morris and Moss talked about, but we were put in a room from which we could see events as they unfolded.

But nothing developed. Morris and Moss walked out of the room without a contract in hand. They didn’t even leave with an offer. It was a stunning development.

At other times, when the owners were playing the game straight, Steinbrenner would never have allowed Morris to leave the room and the hotel without having him sign a contract first. Seeing Morris leave unsigned might have been considered circumstantial evidence, but the circumstances were good enough to demonstrate collusion first-hand.

No such scenario developed with Bonds last winter. No owner was willing to meet with him and Borris; no one made an offer. No one accepted the agent’s proposal that Bonds would play for the major league minimum of $390,000.

Borris declined to talk about proposals he made and teams’ reactions to them, but he suggested that money wasn’t an issue for any club or for the player, who last year earned $19.3 million. 

“No team shied away because of monetary reasons,” Borris said.

Why would baseball conspire to keep Bonds out of baseball? He is not a nice person, often treating people, even his friends, rudely and harshly. There were stories long ago that he treated his late father, Bobby, himself a former major leaguer, badly.

But Bonds is the focus of baseball’s steroids era. Even though he has never tested positive in the time of testing for performance-enhancing drugs, Bonds is widely believed to have benefited from them in his shattering of the single-season and career home run records.

Aside from denying the allegation of collusion, baseball officials are very careful in speaking about Bonds. They don’t want to talk about the reasons teams might not have been interested in signing Bonds, but several have been mentioned: his impending trial, the baggage that would accompany him, the distraction he would be to a team, his clubhouse relationship with his teammates, his age – he was 44 last July – and his declining defensive ability.

Borris scoffed at the idea that Bond would be a distraction who would hurt his team, as well as some of the other suggestions.

“Wasn’t the home run record a distraction?” he asked, refering to the 2001 season. “In this country you’re innocent until proven guilty. The last time he played he was an All-Star. Did his skills decline from being an All-Star to not being worthy of a job by all 30 major league clubs?

“As far as distraction is concerned, Major League Baseball is the entertainment business. I don’t think Barry is a distraction. He is an attraction wherever he goes. Whether you love him or hate him, you will pay to see him play so doesn’t it make good business sense for any team to give him a job but for collusion?”

Besides denying the collusion charge, Manfred, the baseball labor lawyer, denied that Major League Baseball would have any involvement in Bonds’ future as a player. “Major League Baseball has no meaningful role in whether he will put on a uniform again. The 30 clubs make their own decisions,” he said.

Borris, in response to a question, said he had not contacted teams about next season. Asked if Bonds’ career could be over, the agent paused for a few moments and then said, “Last night I watched the Bob Costas special with Aaron and Mays and Mays said he thought Barry has two or three good years left. I will defer to Willie’s opinion.”

Comments? Please send email to comments@murraychass.com.