IT’S BACK — MAYBE

By Murray Chass

April 13, 2014

Did someone say collusion? That’s a significant word in baseball history not heard for a while, but the smell of it has penetrated the Major League Baseball air and needs to be addressed.

Without invoking the dreaded word, Tony Clark, executive director of the players’ union, raised the issue of collusion Friday in a statement about unsigned free agents. Rob Manfred, MLB’s chief operating officer, quickly rejected Clark’s suggestion in his own statement.Stephen Drew Kendrys Morales

But as much as I respect Manfred, I have to say his response to Clark’s statement was vividly reminiscent of Barry Rona’s reaction in 1985 any time I wrote an article suggesting that the owners were colluding against free agents to prevent them from changing teams for lucrative salaries.

Rona, the clubs’ chief labor official, would react with an astonished laugh of incredulity and derision, in effect saying, “Are you kidding? You gotta be kidding.”

Two arbitrators and three grievance hearings later, Rona and his employers learned that they were the ones kidding in their outraged denials of having acted in concert against free agents in violation of the collective bargaining agreement the two sides had written only months before the owners engaged in collusion the first time.

After protracted negotiations, the two sides in 1990 agreed on a $280 million settlement that some observers felt was too favorable to the losers.

Fay Vincent, a man of honesty and candor, became commissioner two years after the period of collusion, became the first member of management – and today remains one of only three – to express publicly his belief that the clubs did violate the collective bargaining agreement and also said the owners’ act of conspiracy poisoned their relationship with the players.

Sadly, Vincent’s successor, Bud Selig, was one of those owners and was also head of their labor relations committee, but he has never acknowledged the owners’ guilt. What, us collude? You gotta be kidding.

The latest suggestion of collusion arose last Friday in a statement issued by union leader Clark “regarding recent public remarks by Club officials about Stephen Drew and Kendrys Morales that clearly violate the parties’ collectively bargained agreements.”

“I am angered that numerous anonymous baseball executives have blatantly and intentionally violated our collective bargaining agreement by offering to ESPN comments about the free agent values of Stephen Drew and Kendrys Morales.

“These statements undermine the free agent rights of the players and depress their market value. Today, I have called upon the Commissioner’s Office to investigate immediately and thoroughly the sources of these statements and to take appropriate action to enforce our agreement.”

Two hours later Manfred issued a response, saying:

“Over the years, I have learned that it is a waste of time to pay attention to anonymous quotes which may or may not be genuine. Given that the regular season is well under way, it is hard to imagine that anonymous comments would have any effect whatsoever on the market for any individual player.

“There are many other factors that better explain the current situation faced by a very small number of free agents.”

All 13 free agents who received qualifying offers of $14.1 million from their 2013 teams declined the offers, which were required to guarantee their teams a draft choice as compensation after the first round if they signed elsewhere.

The Atlanta Braves recently rescued Ervin Santana from the small pile of unsigned free agents after suffering a series of injuries to starting pitchers, but shortstop Drew and first baseman Morales have remained jobless.

At the crux of the union’s charges are unattributed comments from club officials that have appeared primarily on ESPN.com, which has become notorious for filling its site with anonymous comments on a variety of articles.

I tried to find out if ESPN has a policy on the use of anonymous quotes, but the communications representative who said she would look into the matter did not call back Saturday night.

Virtually all publications and web sites, including this one, use anonymous quotes; they are often necessary to produce critical news stories. The outlets that act most responsibly limit their use.

ESPN.com uses them much more liberally than most. Often their stories are filled with anonymous quotes with no one at all quoted by name. Based on the way some ESPN reporters flood their reports with no-name quotes, it seems very likely that they have no restriction.

It is a highly questionable journalistic practice and is frowned on by reputable news organizations.

This type of article is what has angered Clark and the union. One such example ran on the web site last week with the heading “Execs put a price on Drew, Morales.”

Buster Olney 225Written by Buster Olney, the site’s lead baseball writer, the piece offers no names of people he quotes but quotes an assortment of people identified as Executive No. 1, from the National League; Another NL official, An American League executive, A second AL official, A third NL official, AL talent evaluator, AL exec and An AL evaluator.

In his years covering the New York Yankees for The New York Times, Olney would not have been able to write such a story.

The union is not debating journalistic practices here. The problem the union has with what these people say, or are purported to say, is the impact their comments might have on other clubs that might be considering signing Drew or Morales.

The commissioner’s office would argue that the quoted comments are points generally known and thought by all clubs, but that is not necessarily true. There is a reason why 29 teams have no interest in a player but the 30th team signs him.

If the officials Olney quotes actually exist, they would never make their comments to him if he was going to use their names. Through the anonymity and shield of ESPN.com, they are doing what they couldn’t do by speaking for attribution.

If they were identified, I feel certain Manfred or his representatives would be on the telephone instantly telling them to shut up and keep their opinions to themselves.

Consider some of the views expressed anonymously in response to two questions Olney said he asked them:

  1. If your team had a need for Drew or Morales, what would you offer him?
  2. Would the fact that they haven’t had a spring training and would need time to get game-ready factor into your offer?

Right off the bat, Olney is inviting them to violate the “acting in concert” rule. Clubs are not supposed to let other clubs know what they would offer or are offering. To be sure, it’s not Olney’s concern if club officials violate the rules, but by inviting them to break the rules anonymously, they are more likely than not willing to do it.

This development reminds me of the episode a few years ago when a young, inexperienced New York Times reporter, Michael Schmidt, was intent on getting names that were on what was supposed to be a confidential list of players who failed 2003 drug tests.

He secured a few names by inducing members of law firms involved in a lawsuit to violate the judge’s order sealing the data. Labor lawyers said Schmidt committed a criminal act; Bill Keller, the Times’ executive editor, said the reporter was “practicing journalism.”

In the current case, “Executive No. 1, from the National League” told Olney he would offer Morales between $6 million and $8 million, Drew $7 million to $8 million. “At this point, why would you give them more?”

Maybe that represented the feeling of all 30 clubs, but maybe, too, there was one team in need of a shortstop that might have offered a little more but changed its mind after seeing comments like that one as well as the executive’s view that teams would be concerned about the players’ emotional state “because of how the negotiations have played out.”

Manfred’s view of anonymous quotes is justifiable because their use, especially to the level of ESPN’s use, creates skepticism. I’m not suggesting that Olney made up any of those quotes, but I know of reporters who have done that.

Should this matter reach the grievance stage, the commissioner’s office would certainly emphasize the anonymity of the comments. That argument would most likely have some effect, but if the union has enough of those types of comments, it could create discomfort in the commissioner’s office.

I can still see and hear Rona’s reaction to those silly stories I wrote about collusion, 1980s variety.

MORE ANONYMITY

In the same week union officials became angry over anonymous comments by baseball executives about free agents Stephen Drew and Kendrys Morales, one of the reporters who wrote one of those articles wrote an even more curious piece based on comments from an unnamed executive.

Buster Olney of ESPN.com wrote an entire piece based on a radical proposal made by a “high-ranking executive,” but he didn’t identify the executive. His proposal: Change the length of games from nine innings to seven innings.

The change, Olney quoted Mr. Anonymous as saying, would solve many problems within the game, including length and shortage of decent pitching.

There might have been more ideas, but I couldn’t read the rest of the story because I’m not an ESPN insider.

This anonymous-quote thing is not a new development at ESPN.com. A few years ago, Jayson Stark wrote a survey piece in which he quoted 16 general managers, 15 without names.

FUNNY BASEBALLS, JAPANESE STYLE

When funny things began happening to baseballs in Major League Baseball, the commissioner, weary of having Congress beating him up, investigated the players.

When funny things began happening to baseballs in Nippon Professional Baseball, the commissioner investigated the balls. When Commissioner Ryozo Kato learned that the balls had been made livelier without his knowledge, he resigned last October to take responsibility.

But that wasn’t the end of it, the Associated Press reported last week. Kato’s successor, Katsuhiko Kumazaki leaned that the current baseballs were livelier than they should be and said, “I want to apologize for causing a commotion.”

Japanese officials have asked the ball manufacturer, Mizuno, why the balls are livelier, and they said they would test the balls again.

SECOND SON DIES TOO YOUNG

Nothing worse than this can happen to anyone connected to baseball, or for that matter connected to life. A second son of major league umpire John Hirschbeck and his wife Denise died last week of the same rare brain disease that killed his brother in 1993.

Michael Hirschbeck, 27, died last Tuesday of adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD), a disease that affects the nervous system. His brother, John, died of the disease when he was 8 years old.

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