Caveat preemptor: Barry Bonds was, is, and always will be my favorite player. Though my vision is not so rose-tinted as to give me the ability to deny that he is, as are we all, quite fallible and undoubtedly has several causes for regret following his controversial career, I continue to believe that he has been more foully treated by the press and the baseball establishment than is warranted by his own admittedly foul treatment of others. He was, I grant, on many an occasion, a mean-spirited motherfucker, but he is certainly not alone in that habit among sublimely talented athletes.
Consider my bias acknowledged.
Now, Bill of The Platoon Advantage (as distinguished from Mr. Baer, also Bill) wisely begins his argument against Bonds collusion case by citing the definition of collusion in MLB's collective bargaining agreement. The moneyshot sentence is, "Players shall not act in concert with other players and clubs shall not act in concert with other clubs." Bill accurately observes that a strong legal case would probably require some documentation - a letter, a recorded conversation, maybe an email - in which somebody from a front office or from MLB was expressly telling a competitor not to negotiate with Bonds or his agent. For such a document to exist (especially some three years later) would bely an extraordinary act of incompetence and lack of foresight.
It should be noted, however, that in the previous instance of proven ownership collusion there was no such document, but the cased hinged largely on the deathbed admission of an owner who was in the room when commissioner Peter Ueberroth instructed an assembly of owners to stop offering long-term contracts to free agents. In this day and age it is almost impossible to keep a secret of this sort buried permanently, so, if there was in fact widespread and systematic collusion against Bonds, I think it's safe to predict that somebody's tongue will be loosened at some point down the road, though it will obviously be of little consequence to Bonds and maybe even to the MLBPA when it happens.
Not to resort to pedantry, but let's highlight that tidbit atop the last paragraph: the previous instance of ownership collusion. In the words of Mrs. Broflovski, "What-What-What?!?!" Yes, in the mid-eighties, an ownership contingent who still remembered the tremendous profitability of the indentured servitude which existed prior to free agency decided they'd bring back the glory days by agreeing that each owner would only offer contracts to his own players. They succeeded in this transparent fraud for three full seasons before getting caught and forced to pay a fine of some $280 Million (that's in 1980s dollars, by the by). Commissioner Peter Ueberroth is long gone. And surely none of the men who spearheaded this deeply anti-American scheme which gave The Pastime an additional black eye are still in positions of power. Right? Um...well, besides Ueberroth, two men were generally regarded as the ringleaders. In the AL it was Jerry Reinsdorf. Yes, he's still the owner of the Chicago White Sox. And in the NL it was Bud Selig. Yes, that Bud Selig.
(For more on the '80s collusion situation read Andrew Zimbalist, among others.)
If you can collude against an entire Union for three years and only get caught due to the guilty conscience of a cancerous whistle-blower, how hard would it be to collude against a single controversial player?
Bill frames his argument in terms of six questions to which I'd like to play devil's advocate (perhaps a poor choice of phrase when defending Bonds).
1.) How good was Bonds in 2008?
Bill doesn't have much of a leg to stand on here and he basically admits as much, so I won't dwell too long on the facts. Yes, Bonds was turning 43. Yes, he wasn't much of an outfielder any longer. Sure, his league-leading .480 OBP may have been inflated a touch by the intentional walks earned in part by reputation and in part by a paucity of lineup protection. But the simple fact is Bonds posted a 1045 OPS in 2007 and had a 1025 OPS over his previous three seasons. If Osama Bin Laden posted a four-digit OPS, some AL GM would almost certainly take a chance on him at Designated Hitter, dialysis machine and all.
Was Bonds still the best hitter in all of baseball in 2007? Probably not. Was he still part of that conversation? Most definitely.
2.) How much did he want to play, really?
A part of me, the part of me who watched Bonds religiously for two decades, wants to paint this question as ridiculous. Bonds was (and is?) an obsessive competitor who, though he had broken Hank Aaron's home run record, still had lots of personal milestones to shoot for. He needed 65 hits to get to 3,000. He needed four RBI to get to 2,000. It was not out of the question that he could be the first ever to make a run at 800 HR given a couple more years of good health. But, more importantly, the only thing tarnishing his baseball resume was the fact that he hadn't won a World Series. I think it's safe to say he would've paid an organization for another shot at the postseason, if the CBA allowed for such a thing.
But Bill does make some interesting points. The statements made be Jeff Borris, Bonds' agent, were perhaps hyperbolic (a sports agent exaggerates, what is the world coming to). Maybe Joe Posnanski is correct. Maybe Borris did not write a letter to Kansas City GM, Dayton Moore, specifically offering Bonds services for the league minimum. The question then is, did Dayton Moore, upon hearing that offer in the press, consider calling Borris and taking him up on it? Why not? The hoopla would've been good for the Royals. Just the people coming to boo and throw syringes and hold up asterisk signs could've doubled K.C.'s attendance.
But I jest.
Where Bill runs a little astray is when he says that after 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 know, hadn't played baseball for nearly a year." Seriously? For the league minimum, you don't think anybody had a cause, maybe even a responsibility, to kick the tires on a seven-time MVP whose last homer was less than a year old? These are the same front offices who didn't hesitate to bring back midseason versions of Roger Clemens and Pedro Martinez, who jumped on the opportunity to employ a 40-year-old Jim Edmonds following an layoff of nearly two years, who continue to find reasons to pay Mark Prior, who hasn't pitched at the major-league level in five years, who brought Rickey Henderson back for the independent leagues at age 44. I do not forgive their reticence, Bill, nor to I believe that thirty men, at least half of whom are either 1.) very bright or 2.) very risk-averse, and a few of whom may be both, actually made such a decision without intervention.
3.) Was there anything to all those off-the-field concerns?
Were there ever to be a real collusion investigation, this is where Bud Selig and his league of blundering gentlemen would hang their hats (Seriously, do all the incompetent rich guys end up owning baseball teams? I'm looking at you Fred Wilpon...and Tom Hicks...and Frank McCourt...). There is, of course, genuine reason to be skeptical of a player with a federal indictment hanging over his head. And, at the time, it wasn't entirely obvious that the indictment was drummed-up by overzealous publicity-hungry thrillseekers from the DEA and DA's office who wouldn't hesitate to throw millions of taxpayer dollars at an unwinnable case. Go, go gadget government. But that's another story.
Still, it was pretty clear that even if the case were absolutely rock-solid, it wasn't going to go to court during the '08 season. You didn't have to be a legal expert to see this, though I'm sure that every franchise does have a few legal experts in their rolodex, just in case they want that type of confirmation.
I don't have time to list all the players who've faced prosecution, sometime even on violent felony charges, at some time or another during their playing careers. I'm going to assume that even the most casual sports fan can bring three examples to mind in under a minute's reflection. Do you think if K-Rod had been a free agent this offseason, nobody would've made him a cheap addition to the back of their bullpen? Has anybody fired Milton Bradley yet? Seriously, anybody? In the wake of the Moneyball revolution, there wasn't a single GM who saw a promising risk-to-reward ratio in adding Barry Bonds for the same price as, say, Alex Cora?
One of the circumstantial pieces of evidence that was so troubling during the 2008 offseason was that in an era where anonymously-sourced rumors get floated more or less constantly (Haven't you heard, Carmelo Anthony's going to the Lakers.), there were curiously few speculative reports about teams even talking to Bonds agent. Borris, who is, granted, a somewhat unreliable source, confirmed after the fact that what few discussions he did have about Bonds were always begun by him. That's just weird.
4.) Who should have wanted him?
Short answer, of course, is EVERYBODY. Remember that four-digit OPS. Yeah? 193 players got 450+ plate appearances in 2007. Nine of them had a 1000+ OPS and only two of them, A-Rod and Big Papi, had a higher OPS than Bonds. If you don't want a hitter like that on your team, you obviously don't belong in a baseball front office. Bill points out that many teams already had players slotted into left field and/or DH and, sure, if you were one of those teams, like the Red Sox, for instance, who had studs at both positions, you could be forgiven for passing on Barry, but have you noticed how many teams employ multiple DH types these days? How many players are in the Rangers LF/DH rotation right now? How about the Orioles? Twins? Frankly, most GMs would seem to be of the opinion, when you have a shot at a premium hitter, you take it and figure out how the pieces fit together later.
5.) Why hasn't a grievance been filed?
Bill believes that because the MLBPA has not recently released any statement regarding the collusion allegations, which they last claimed to be investigating in the winter of 2008, they must not have found anything. Of course, Bill's own point, about the difficulty of legally proving collusion, is one explanation for the delay. It could easily take more than two and a half years for usable evidence to surface. As mentioned above, it took longer than that the last time this happened, and one would expect that Selig & Co. might have learned something from getting caught.
There are other factors here as well. In case you haven't noticed, the MLBPA has had some other things on its plate recently. There's that whole Scarlet S thing and then there's a regime change and there's some fishy stuff going on down in South America and the league is trying to get leverage to change the amateur draft and there's been some tension within the union and Selig is generally regarded as one of the most powerful commissioners in the history of the game (but he can't stay in office forever right) and there's those other two leagues which are about to go on strike/get locked out and it might be really nice for everybody involved in baseball to be on the side of the one major American team sport (hockey doesn't count) not embroiled in ugly labor strife for once. You get the picture.
Be mindful, there is no statute of limitations as to when the MLBPA can come back to the collusion argument.
6.) Would collusion have made any sense to anybody?
I really like Bill's point here:
"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."
Bill's right, this is territory where one has to tread carefully. There are sharks in the water, which is why, at this point, I want to make a critical distinction. When Bill takes up the question of collusion, the assumption he makes from the start is that we are discussing the potential of legal repercussions; that, to be called "collusion," it must fall clearly within the definition outlined by the CBA. Basically, it's not collusion if no court could reasonably be expected to call it that. And on these grounds I think Bill has a strong case. It will take more evidence than is currently available to the general public for Bonds to make his case stick with a judge or an arbitrator and by the point that evidence surfaces (if it ever does) he may be so sick of courtrooms he wouldn't even want to bother with it.
But, let's go back to Mr. Baer's original article which concludes as such:
"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."
Mr. Baer's casual use of "collusion" was, by my reading, not a legal argument, but rather a historical one. And, though MLB may never be formally charged with collusion, the court of history gives circumstantial evidence much greater credence.
The "black eye on baseball's history" will not necessarily be founded upon unsealed documents, courtroom transcripts, payrolls, statistics, and deathbed confessions, it may, like many episodes in history, bear only a passing resemblance to truth, but it may go something like this:
Cue Yo-Yo Ma performing a sombre B-minor version of 'Take Me Out To The Ballgame'; Samuel L. Jackson narrates over footage from Bonds record-breaking '07 season.
Barry Bonds, one of the most controversial, most popular, and most talented players in the history of the game, was forced into retirement following a season in which he broke the most hallowed record in professional sports, a record formerly held by his Commissioner's hometown hero. Bud Selig, who ceaselessly voiced his admiration for former home run king, Hank Aaron, was reluctantly on hand to see the record broken and stood somberly, hands in his pockets, as Bonds celebrated #756 with his teammates, his young son, and the ecstatic fans of his longtime team, the San Francisco Giants.
As Jackson and Ma continue, Ken Burns pans and scans across pictures from the Congressional hearings, Bonds' trial, and Selig's press conferences.
Although there was nothing to suggest that Bonds' considerable powers as a hitter had been dramatically reduced, he was unable to find another job following the season. Impeding his search was an ill-timed federal indictment (the case was eventually thrown out of court) and the Selig-sponsored Mitchell Report, released in the winter of 2007. The Mitchell Report, which was not comprehensive or legally binding, named Bonds alongside 80-some other players who allegedly used steroids during the 1990s and 2000s. In the wake of the report, designed to be the last word in the PED scandal (it wasn't, not by a long shot), Selig and much of the baseball establishment were eager to put the so-called Steroid Era behind them. Although no allegations against Bonds ever lived up to the courts' burden of evidence, he became, along with Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire, and Andy Pettitte, one of the faces of the "Steroid Era." It seemed incompatible with Selig's eagerness to move past the scandal for Bonds to remain on the field, adding to record-setting totals which many, including the Commissioner, believed to be of dubious origins.
The narrative jumps forward to footage of Alex Rodriguez in pinstripes, generally looking pleased with himself.
A decade later, a player whose career overlapped with Bonds and who admitted using steroids, though he was never named in the Mitchell Report, managed to break Bonds career home run record in the final year of his career, though he was but a glimmer of his former self. Bonds and Selig were both on hand to honor A-Rod's fete, though neither could disguise their ambivalence. Rodriguez, PEDs or not, never put together a season on par with Bonds at the peak of his powers and many baseball fans are forced to wonder what Bonds career would've been like had he been allowed to end it on his own terms.
The camera retreats from the number 25 affixed to the outfield wall in at San Francisco's PacBell Park.