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Collusion? No collusion! Maybe?!?

Are owners cheating to lower player pay?

Peter Ueberroth
The miked man once convinced owners to make more money, in a not-quite-legal way.
Photo by Steve Green/Getty Images

Greetings, friends! I’m at my private resort in Turks & Caicos. Hear Minnesota might have a little cold spell this week. Sucks to be you! Careful when shoveling, don’t pull a Carl Pavano.

Our main story tonight concerns collusion. What is it? Is it happening in baseball? Should you care? To which the short answers are: illegal, maybe, and probably. For the slightly longer answers, read away. (It’s only 900-odd words. You’ll live.)

What is collusion, anyways?

In theory, at any rate, capitalism is supposed to work as follows. You, the bright young engineer who’s always dreamed of flight, just graduated. Boeing offers you $100K a year to work on a new jetliner. Elon Musk offers you $200K a year to work on an orbiting orgy hotel. You pick which job to take. Consumers decide which is the better idea. Progress marches on!

But maybe instead, Elon Musk calls Boeing and says, “hey, I heard you’re interested in this kid. What are you gonna offer? I’ll agree not to offer more. We don’t want to get in a salary bidding war for engineers, we’ll make less profit!” So they both agree to offer you $10/hour. Since that won’t pay your student loan bills, you design murderous robot hamsters and wipe out humanity. Less progress, alas.

As a nation, we decided this was an uncool practice, so we passed laws banning it. But there are certain exceptions (like the “non compete” clause, which I won’t go into here, except to say NEVER SIGN ONE).

Sports leagues have some exceptions. For years, baseball was allowed to do this. Then came Curt Flood and Marvin Miller, after which baseball was not allowed to do this. In the 1980s, they were caught doing it, and got a nice little legal smackdown.

Is baseball colluding?

For the second straight year, MLB’s free agent market is awfully slow. Superscribe Craig Calcaterra is suspicious, and says players are, too.

It’s hard to say. Corporate executives, as a rule, tend to fear new ideas and copy what’s successful. Baseball, which has its own insular little world, even more so. Pre-Moneyball, every team resisted advanced statistics. Post-Moneyball, minimizing payroll while maximizing on-field production became the New Thing, so now everybody’s doing it.

Twins VP Derek Falvey came from the Cleveland organization. Cleveland is cutting payroll because they think they’re good enough to win the division anyways. The Twins are reluctant to increase payroll because they suspect Cleveland will probably win the division anyways. (The link is from a Cleveland sports site amusingly called “Factory Of Sadness.”)

As usual, Neil DeMause has one of the most perceptive takes on this subject. One standard Fangraphs measurement had players being paid about $10 million per WAR. Some years back, an econ student crunched the numbers, and discovered that teams only earned an average $1.5 million per extra win. If a team spends less, they might lose a few ticket dollars, but they have all kinds of other revenue. (That student? The Rays hired him.)

So, it’s entirely possible baseball is colluding. But there are other semi-logical reasons for why nobody wants to spend money.

Should you care?

Well, yes, because collusion is illegal – but it’s not your job. You probably aren’t an arbitration judge or MLB player. (If you are an MLB player, hi there, Mr. Berrios!)

A bigger worry is losing fan interest. Attendance is down overall. This is not good. And part of this is an increasing number of teams which aren’t only un-good, but have no plan besides “wait for draft picks” to get better. Players take a long time to develop. Remember being assured Buxton and Sano were going to start a Twins dynasty? Still assured?

Most fans aren’t so patient. Following baseball is a hobby; a very time-consuming, sometimes expensive hobby at that. People take up hobbies for a reward, whether it be delighting others, improving at a skill, whatever. Sans reward, they’ll move on. If you took piano lessons for three years and got worse at it, you’d probably switch to cake-baking.

Whether MLB teams are colluding or not, having nobody increase salary means bad teams will take a long time to get better. Which drives fans away to other amusements. And makes it harder to draw new fans in. How many of you became Twins fans because of their World Series runs, or the 2000s? Ain’t no little kid out there going “I wanna grow up to be Scott Diamond.” (His kids do, I would hope.)

What can be done about it?

Not a whole lot. Collusion is hard to prove. The players could strike, but that’s highly unlikely. (An entertaining movie about why strikes are difficult to pull off is Sorry To Bother You, although it has many naughty words.)

As for what to do when the current collective bargaining agreement expires (not until after 2021!), non-cheating ex-player Dale Murphy has some interesting ideas, which seem within possibility. Myself, I’d like to see teams taxed by how much profit they make over payroll, with all proceeds going to improve minor-league salaries. I also want to be captain of the Enterprise, guess which happens first.

To leave on a fun note. I’ve linked to a bunch of Calcaterra articles here. Did you know he also writes a personal blog? The man’s a writing fiend! (He’s an ex-lawyer, and lawyers often love to write.) For your grim entertainment, here’s a post he did about how his great-grandma axed his great-grandpa to death. Yep, axed.

Here comes my manservant Kiki, so until next time... enjoy that snow!