As you might have noticed by now, while we wait for ESPN.com to name a new fearless leader, control of the SweetSpot Blog is being passed around from one SSN blogger to another like so much...well, like a head cold or something. (Our turn is coming up pretty soon.)
A couple days, ago, the excellent Bill Baer of the excellent Phillies SSN blog Crashburn Alley had the reins, and he wrote a post about two things he'd do if he were named commissioner for a day. The suggestions: (1) issue a formal apology from MLB to Barry Bonds; (2) mandate that Adam Dunn participate in the Home Run Derby. Both good suggestions, I think, especially the first. You might say the media did it, but Selig and the MLB front office sat by and allowed Bonds to become public enemy no. 1 on the PED issue, when really, it was Selig and his cronies themselves, and the MLBPA leadership, who should have been taking most (or all) of the blame. So generally, it's a very good post (as you'd expect from Bill).
This caught me unawares, however, from the end of point number one, emphasis added:
Jamie Moyer is 48 years old and just had Tommy John surgery. Over the past two seasons, he has posted ERAs of 4.94 and 4.84, yet is eyeing a comeback. You can bet there will be some interested teams waiting for Moyer when he is once again healthy.Wow. Didn't see that one coming. The "baseball is colluding against Bonds!" thing is something that I thought went away along with According to Jim and Frank TV. But I, apparently, was gravely mistaken. It lives -- helped along by one of the smartest bloggers out there, no less.
Whether MLB and the owners care to admit it or not, they colluded against Bonds to keep him from playing baseball after the '07 season. That, not the rampant steroid use during the 1990s and early 2000s, will be what ultimately leaves a black eye on baseball's history.
But collusion is a pretty serious (and specific) charge, and other than the general sense that Bonds has been "made the poster-child for the sport's 'steroid era,'" the post dosen't really give us an idea of what evidence Bill thinks is out there (wasn't the point of the piece, really). So: is there actually any reason to believe it happened? Let's take a positively exhausting look at it, shall we?
I won't overwhelm you with legalspeak here, but: collusion is one of the few areas in which two astoundingly horrible Supreme Court decisions from many decades ago haven't relieved MLB of the need to comply with the requirements of the antitrust laws, because it's expressly forbidden by the collective bargaining agreement (CBA). A portion of Article XV of the CBA reads:
The utilization or non-utilization of rights . . . is an individual matter to be determined solely by each Player and each Club for his or its own benefit. Players shall not act in concert with other Players and Clubs shall not act in concert with other Clubs.So: if two or more teams "act in concert" with each other with respect to any player's contract (or all of them), the offending teams have breached their contract with the MLBPA and are liable to the player(s) for damages.
The key here is that the teams must actually have reached an agreement with each other. It's probably not enough even if the owners or GMs talked with each other about their plans regarding Bonds; if they still came to those plans independently and didn't change their minds based on what the other guys were doing, that's probably not collusion. "Tacit collusion" -- where, say, Omar Minaya sees Billy Beane acting a certain way and decides that he wants to act the same way -- is also OK. To have colluded in a way that violates the rule, they need to have put their heads together and actually, explicitly come up with a plan they'll both follow.
Which isn't to say they'd need to be caught in the act in order for the player or MLBPA to prevail in arbitration on a collusion claim. Collusion can be inferred from circumstantial evidence; if there is no hard evidence of an agreement actually being formed, but the behavior of the teams toward the player can only be explained by assuming the teams colluded, that's enough. What's more, here, we're not trying to win the MLBPA's case, we're just trying to determine whether we think that MLB actually colluded against Bonds, so we don't have to worry about the high burden of proof that would be facing Bonds or the MLBPA in a case like this. So: taking everything into account, based on everything we know now, does it seem more likely than not that Bonds was a victim of collusion?
I don't think it does, and I don't think it's close. Here's why.
[Note: I love Barry Bonds, the player, and I think it's a terrible shame that no club signed him in 2008 or 2009. Hell, if I'm running a major league club in 2011, odds are very good that I make a call inquiring about Bonds' interest in a spring tryout, see how he's looking three and a half years later. The fact that I believe all 30 teams probably independently decided not to sign Bonds in no way indicates that I think that all 30 teams made the right decision. Also: it should be clear, but none of this is meant as an attack on Bill Baer (who is fantastic) or anyone else who might disagree.]
How Good Was Bonds in 2008?
In his age-42 season in 2007, Bonds hit .276/.480/.565, an OPS and OPS+ that would've led the league if he'd had a few more plate appearances. That's amazing, especially given his age...but I'm not totally convinced that all of it would've followed him to a new team. Bonds drew a league-leading 43 intentional walks in 2007 -- down from his ludicrous 2002-04 totals, but still absurdly high. And a huge part of that, I think, was that the Giants' offense was atrocious; in '07, the only hitter other than Bonds who (a) got at least 200 PA and (b) put up an OPS+ at or above average was Randy Winn, who just barely cleared the hurdle. Take away all 43 of Bonds' intentional walks, and his OBP drops to a still-great but non-miraculous .422. Not that Bonds would suddenly stop getting intentional walks altogether, but between his age and moving to a team that almost necessarily had better offense, you might expect a significant drop to something much closer to .422 than .480.
From there, factor in a decline in performance that you have to assume comes from age. And it could well have been a huge decline. Only seven other players have ever gotten at least 300 plate appearances at age 42 with an OPS+ above 100; only one of those players (Carl Yastrzemski, who went from 110 to 106) got even 100 plate appearances and topped a 100 OPS+ again the following year. Bonds was much better at 42 than any of the other guys on that list, but he's no closer to being immune to aging. It would be fair to have expected a very good hitter in 2008, but probably not one with anything very close to Bonds' '07 slash line.
And, of course, Bonds had become a liability in the field. In 2007, he had been repeatedly removed in the 7th-9th innings for a defensive replacement. Any team who saw Bonds as its new left fielder would have to be prepared to gain a bunch of runs -- maybe thirty over average -- from his bat, but to give back perhaps ten or twenty of those on defense. Playing Bonds in the field also carried with it a significant injury risk; he'd gone six straight seasons without playing in 150 games, and at his age, was a threat to break down on any slightly-harder-than-routine pop fly.Similarly, his baserunning was no longer anything like a strength.
At the start of 2008, Bonds was certainly still a very good player; three wins above replacement for the season if used right, maybe four. You can't just look at the pretty slash line and the 28 homers in less than 400 at-bats and such, though, and think that that would be the kind of player you'd be getting. Old-school baseball folk love to talk (often hilariously) about certain players being more than their numbers; here, I think there's a good case to be made that at this late point in his career, Bonds was substantially less.
How Much Did He Want to Play, Really?
People who want to cry collusion will point to the statements by Jeff Borris, Bonds' agent, to the effect that Bonds could never draw any interest from any MLB team despite contacting all of them several times, and that he had even sent letters to all 30 teams offering to play for the league minimum, but got no response. What gets lost (among many things) here is that the "league minimum" statements weren't made until mid-summer, halfway through the season. There was no indication in the pre-2008 offseason, when his signing would've made the most sense, that Bonds would be willing to consider anything of the kind. Per the MLBTR Bonds posts from the time, it was widely assumed that he'd be looking for an annual salary in the neighborhood of the $15.5 million he received in 2007. Further, Joe Posnanski cast some doubt on whether there was any substance to those claims in the first place.
Then, once Spring Training and the regular season started, you might forgive baseball's front offices for being a little reticent to go out and hire a guy entering his mid-forties who, as far as they knew, hadn't played competitive baseball for nearly a year. If Bonds had wanted to play as badly as he and his agent claimed, you might expect to see him signing on with any of the independent league teams who would love to have had him in their lineup for a few weeks, to prove he hadn't lost anything, or at least to hold some sort of public workout. Bonds didn't do any of those things. He (through Borris) explicitly rejected the independent league idea, stating that Bonds felt that his 2007 season spoke for itself. And it did, but unfortunately, it didn't say anything about what a 43 year old was likely to do after many months off following that 2007 season. Once the season had started, even the prorated league minimum might have been too much to pay for a guy who may not be anywhere close to being in shape to help the team right away, especially given those off-the-field concerns. Which reminds me...
Was There Anything to All Those Off-the-Field Concerns?
I'm not one who believes much in character or chemistry or "intangibles" in baseball. Some of the best players and best teams in baseball history have also been some of its most annoying and acrimonious. Bonds was no more surly or eccentric in 2007 than he had been previously, and the Giants had seen fit to hold onto the guy, warts and all, for fifteen years. And as Jim Caple noted, he was hardly the only superstar from that time to demand special treatment.
Also, I don't believe that 30 teams, or any one of them, rejected Bonds based on a moral judgment about the use of steroids. By now, most or all teams have had a player suspended for use of a banned substance (which, as I'm sure you know, is more than can be said about Bonds), and I don't know of any who have released that player outright, unless he was such a marginal player that it was just a matter of time anyway. Surliness and moral questions certainly didn't help Bonds get a job, but I doubt they were a driving factor.
On the other hand, the indictment was a good deal more than all that. In November 2007, Bonds was indicted by a federal grand jury on perjury and obstruction charges. For most of the 2007-08 offseason, it was assumed that his trial would take place sometime during the 2008 season. And this was more than missing a few days to attend trial, more than the risk (which, frankly, was always very minimal) that he might be facing something like five years in prison. There's preparation before the trial, endless interviews with lawyers, and that sort of thing. There's the obvious distraction that could cause in the clubhouse, and entire armies of journalists trying to invade the clubhouse to talk about everything but the game on the field.
Compare that to Mr. Baer's example of Jamie Moyer. First, I'm skeptical as to what the interest in him really will be a year from now, but to the extent someone wants to take a flier on him, the non-baseball things that come along with that are all, without exception, great, beautiful, shiny-clean things. He's known as a nice guy and a good teammate, he's never been suspected of doing anything illegal (or even remotely interesting), as far as I know, and he's probably done more for the communities he's played in than any other modern player. Plus, you're talking about a fifty year old dude with a twenty mile an hour fastball playing big league baseball. Moyer comes as close to "having intangibles on his side" as any player in baseball history. You might have decided that Bonds would help a little but wasn't worth the distraction and risk, and you might just as reasonably decide that Moyer will help less but is worth it because of the attendant off-the-field considerations. So...yeah, I think there are valid concerns.
So Who Should Have Wanted Him?
Assuming MLB teams were not colluding against Bonds, and taking all of the above into account, what teams would have made good fits for Bonds? And since those teams didn't sign him, can we infer that some sort of agreement must have been in place?
I was all set to look at the depth charts and 2007 team records and dig into this myself, but it turns out that people who were writing at the time were right there to do it for me, so I'll take their word for it.
Writing in March 2008 for Hardball Times, Jeff Sackmann tried to come up with a list of teams that should sign Barry Bonds. It's a bit funny to look back on, now -- for instance, he considered Cleveland and Detroit the prohibitive favorites in the AL Central, while failing to include the Twins and suggesting that the White Sox were only very generously labeled contenders (those two teams, of course, eventually ended the 162-game schedule in a tie well atop the division). But it was a good assessment of where teams probably thought they were at the time, and of who looked like they might have been able to use Bonds.
Sackmann came up with four teams -- Atlanta, Cleveland, Tigers and the Mariners -- who could have used Bonds' help (to the tune of close to a three-win gain each). But Cleveland doesn't make moves like that these days, was committed to playing Travis Hafner at DH, and had several good young corner outfield options in Shin-Soo Choo, Franklin Gutierrez and Ben Francisco. Bonds would've made some sense for the Braves, but they didn't appear to be serious contenders anyway (and they finished with 90 losses, twenty games behind the Phillies), and as the closest thing there is to a baseball home for Hank Aaron, there was a stronger-than-usual anti-Bonds sentiment among the Braves fanbase. The Tigers, with Gary Sheffield already in the fold, would have had to put Bonds in left at spacious Comerica Park. We can see why they might shy away from that, and why they might pause just a bit before putting Bonds on the same team as Sheffield. Finally, the Mariners, despite Sackmann's apparent expectations, didn't really profile as true competitors. They'd won 88 while managing to be outscored the year before, and were not one player (be it Bonds or Erik Bedard) away from repeating that kind of record.
Two other teams (per my perusal through the MLBTR archives) were rather strongly rumored to be interested in Bonds before the season. The Mets could certainly have used a left fielder, but it's entirely possible that Omar Minaya and co. didn't believe that Bonds really was a left-fielder anymore, or not one good enough to pay $10-$15 million to and then give a third of his playing time to Endy Chavez anyway. The Rays were rumored, but (a) probably didn't honestly expect to contend in 2008 (Sackmann wasn't buying it either), and (b) already had an abundance of corner outfield and DH types, and don't have the kind of organization that can put up with a great deal of redundancy. A third was the A's, but they were coming off an 86-loss season and had just traded away Dan Haren, their best pitcher and probably their best overall player; you can see how they might not be looking to add a veteran DH. (They did add Frank Thomas just a few weeks into the season, but he'd played brilliantly for them just two seasons earlier, so there was probably some sentimentality at work there.)
In reality, of course, all of these teams (and then some) could have used Bonds' on-the-field contributions, and it's hard to believe that at least one of them would not have benefited from making him a small offer. At the same time, though, each team clearly did have a non-collusive reason, or several reasons, for not doing so. You might hate their reasons, but they were those teams' reasons, individually.
I've already touched on why I think teams should not have been expected to reach out to Bonds during the season itself; guys entering their mid-forties take time to get back into playing shape, and there was no telling in June or July '07 when (or if) Bonds was going to be able to whip himself back into shape and help the team down the stretch.
There were a handful of calls during the season for one writer or another's favorite team to suck it up and sign Bonds, but many of these were for teams who were not in the race and to whom Bonds would be something of a sideshow (see e.g. JoePoz for the Royals, Richard Justice for the Astros), and with no suggestion either team was actually interested (actually, with confirmation that neither was). One of a few destinations that would have made sense mid-season was the Yankees; Hideki Matsui was out for much of the year with an injury, and corner outfielders Johnny Damon and Bobby Abreu, both age 34, certainly would have needed a break now and then. But the Yankees had no interest (as far as I can tell, I can't say why, but I assume it's some combination of the various factors listed above.
It's surprising -- but not terribly suspicious or mysterious -- that not a single team signed Bonds in the 2008 pre-season. That having happened, though, it makes perfect sense that once the season had started, teams weren't terribly keen on putting a rusty 43 year old into their outfield. The same principle holds for the 2009 season, of course, when Bonds was even further from everyday play. You have to wonder again why he didn't just sign with the Newark Bears or something while he was waiting, if he wanted back in that badly.
Why Hasn't a Grievance Been Filed?
At the beginning of the 2008 season, with Bonds still perplexingly unsigned, the story was that the union was investigating possible collusion charges. Nothing came of that, as far as we can tell; people kept whispering (and posting articles) about it, but nobody had any evidence, and the players' union wasn't saying much. The last we heard, officially, about the collusion "case" against MLB was on or around October 17, 2008, when the MLBPA announced (rather routinely, actually) that they'd be looking into the matter. (See, e.g., this astoundingly poor piece by Murray Chass).
That was 28 months ago. If there had been a legit beef here -- even if the case were a total loser, but there was a statement to be made -- I have to believe the MLBPA would have done something about it by now. This was too big of a story for too long to simply vanish like that. If owners or GMs are talking to each other, other people are eventually bound to hear. Rumors are leaked, emails are uncovered, that sort of thing. Even if the MLBPA didn't think it could win its case, you can expect it would go forward with anything it had to call attention to Bonds' case and give themselves some leverage. But that's assuming they had anything. The utter lack of any known activity here after the routine check-up of October 17 strikes me as some evidence -- pretty strong evidence, I'd argue -- that there's just nothing at all to go on here.
Would Collusion Have Made Any Sense to Anybody?
The idea behind collusion is that multiple competing entities get together and agree not to do something that, while doing it might help any one of them individually, would be bad for them collectively. In 1987, the clubs colluded to depress player salaries by not offering reasonable contracts to top-flight free agents across the board, even though some of those clubs individually could clearly have benefited by paying a fair price to a Jack Morris or Tim Raines. In almost every instance, that's the basic framework of how collusion works.
This situation, though, seems quite a bit different to me. The collective good is not lowering costs; other free agents were still getting paid, and while the market was certainly down anyway, Bonds wouldn't have had anything to do with that. Rather, the alleged "good" here was keeping one player, Barry Bonds, out of baseball.
And colluding to bring that about seems possible, but almost absurdly unlikely. As one of the teams, what's your motivation? If it's just that you're convinced that Bonds is a cancer who destroys teams, you probably would actually rather see him on a rival than out of baseball, wouldn't you?
One is left with the assumption (if you're in the collusion camp) that the owners and/or general managers believed that Bonds, as sort of the de facto symbol of the Selig Era, was a black mark on the game that simply had to be scrubbed out. If all 30 teams are convinced of that, then I suppose you might expect them to collude against him on that basis. Here's the thing, though: it only takes one chiseler. One Andrew Friedman or Billy Beane to decide that no, he doesn't believe that, and that he's going to sign Bonds anyway, the cartel be damned. If that single GM doesn't believe the central premise upon which the collusive agreement is based, there's absolutely no motivation for him to join in the agreement. Likewise, because the other teams have no way of keeping that one team in check, there's no motivation for them to collude in the first place; if the 30 teams agree, they'll simply act accordingly without actually colluding about it (tacit collusion, remember?), and if one of them doesn't, then there was nothing to be done for that at any rate.
The only scenario under which this does make some sense to me, then, is one in which it's not really the thirty teams driving the illicit behavior, but rather some central authority -- we'll call him Spud Cheelig, just because -- who exercises some power over the teams in order to coerce back into line those that might otherwise not obey. Which certainly wouldn't be unprecedented (though never, that we know of, has it been done on so grand and sinister a scale), but in that case, I'm not sure that what you're talking about is really collusion (but don't quote me on that); it's much more like an abuse of the commissioner's powers than an instance of the clubs themselves "acting in concert." I just don't think the clubs stood to gain anything by explicitly colluding in this case.
I believe that a number of MLB teams who could have used Barry Bonds in 2008 considered and rejected him for all kinds of reasons, almost all of them stupid, and short-sighted or overblown or both. And I believe that it's totally OK for fans of those teams, or of baseball generally, to be mad about that.
What I don't believe is that there is a substantial likelihood that there was ever any oral, written or even strongly implied agreement between all thirty teams -- or any two of them, even -- covering any of this. The teams all behaved more or less the same way toward Bonds, but that behavior was totally consistent with the teams making thirty independent decisions not to sign him. In fact, to me, that's the only plausible explanation; there was just no reason for the teams to come together and create any kind of real agreement not to sign him. It makes no sense.
I get the feeling that when people nowadays say "MLB teams colluded against Bonds," though, what they really mean is "MLB teams were stupid against Bonds." And, well, you've got me there.