September 15, 2003
Peter Ueberroth

It's just as well for Kevin that Peter Ueberroth has dropped out of the California recall election. Gary Huckabay at the Baseball Prospectus wrote on Friday in a behind-the-paid-firewall article that Ueberroth gets an awful lot of credit for doing a basically lousy job as baseball's commissioner.

In particular, Ueberroth advised owners to ignore the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) of 1985 in dealing with free agents in order to help keep salaries down. The end result was that almost no free agents after the 1985 season changed teams, and most of them wound up with one-year deals. A few years later, an arbitrator awarded the players $280 million in compensatory damages for grievances stemming from the owners' collusion, which in turn was an action they took on Ueberroth's advice.

(I'd totally forgotten about this incident, and am kicking myself for not writing about it before now.)

Even better, Ueberroth has never accepted any responsibility for this debacle.

Ueberroth has never accepted responsibility for the worst stain on his career, charges that the baseball owners colluded to restrict the bargaining power of free agents in the 1980s when he was commissioner of baseball.

Though arbitrators ordered the owners to pay the players more than $280 million, Ueberroth has said the owners' actions were reasonable to stop a flood of red ink.

"I don't think there was any actual collusion," he told The Times in 1988. "I think there was cultural change, an embarrassment It was like a sore each one had that they didn't want to expose. But once it was exposed they said this is not a sore, this is a disease. But I think that it will all smooth over."

With a track record like that, he almost makes the tax dodging illegal immigrant Schwarzeneggar look good.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on September 15, 2003 to Baseball | TrackBack

Far be it for me to ever support the owners, but in this case it seems that all they were trying to do is keep costs down. When a team can spend $180 million on salary, the sport is getting out of hand.

On the other hand, I refer to the situations in the NHL and in many European soccer leagues for a comparison. The NHL last year had one team declare bankruptcy (Ottawa), a second owned by the league (Buffalo) and several others in a ton of red ink. This year is the last of their CBA, and unless there is a salary cap, cities such as Pittsburgh and Miami (Florida Panthers) will likely lose their franchises due to an expected long-term lockout (upwards of a year is expected).

In European soccer, there are no salary caps, but there is at least one team that is at least $200 million in debt (FC Barcelona of Spain), many with that are over $100 million in debt, and the majority do not turn a profit unless there is cost regulation or they succeed in European competition. The Bundesliga (Germany) is the only major soccer league in Europe that has such rules which while there is one team in financial trouble, the majority of teams have a small deficit or turn a small profit regardless of what happens. The biggest clubs such as Bayern Munich can turn a profit due to scouting in unusual locations and by having a youth academy, thus getting top players cheap.

The point is that the owners of sports teams are spending out of control and something had to be done to try to stop it. That doesn't make the owners right, but at least it was something.

Posted by: William Hughes on September 15, 2003 9:57 AM

It was something, all right - something stupid and illegal, not exactly the sort of thing you want in a gubernatorial candidate.

Oweners are just now figuring out that the best solution is to make a more objective determination about which players are worth paying a premium for, and which are essentially replaceable. They had that information back in 1985 (four words - "Bill James Baseball Abstract"), but it's taken them nearly 20 years to overcome their resistance to sabermetrics to make use of it. I can't say I'm overflowing with sympathy for them.

Posted by: Charles Kuffner on September 15, 2003 10:12 AM

And with all this in mind, who is going to pay the $$MONEY$$ needed to get Vladimir Guerrero and how much will he sign for? If A-Rod gets $250 million, bet the ranch Vlad gets $200 - 300 million.

Posted by: William Hughes on September 15, 2003 11:19 AM

Huckabay's right about collusion, but he's 100 percent wrong -- and Ueberroth 100 percent right -- about the Mantle and Mays suspensions. Huckabay, like Kuhn, is so dogmatic about gambling that he lost all perspective, even trying to bring Rose into the discussion when it's completely irrelevant. Mantle and Mays weren't involved in sports gambling in any way. Unlike the numerous baseball owners who have owned racehorses over the years.

Posted by: Mac Thomason on September 15, 2003 2:27 PM

Thanks for mentioning this; I brought this up in connection with a piece I'm writing for my blog about the conflicts of interest involved in the whole Vlad Guerrero free-agent vs. owned-by-the-other-29-teams Montreal Expos situation, and it's good to have more info to point at. Ueberroth is also the guy who opened the floodgates to the all-pervasive corporate sponsorship of every baseball event short of spitting and crotchgrabbing, so he has an awful lot to answer for, and I do mean awful.

Posted by: Chris Quinones on September 15, 2003 3:37 PM

As I recall, Mays and Mantle were employed as greeters at casinos. I think it was appropriate to say they couldn't also be employed by a team while they were doing that, and as such I think Ueberroth was wrong to reverse Kuhn's directive. That said, I agree there is a double standard when it comes to racehorses. If you're gonna draw a bright line, it ought to also be a straight line.

Posted by: Charles Kuffner on September 15, 2003 9:50 PM