Major League Baseball's owners are colluding against the sport's players, long-time agent Jeff Borris charged when he.
"When you look at the revenues coming into the game ... it broke an all-time record and over $10 billion, the cost of labor should hand-in-hand go up as well," said Borris, who's represented the likes of Barry Bonds, Mike Piazza, and Rickey Henderson, and currently serves as general council for Ballengee Group.
"When that doesn't happen, I think that is an indication of a tremendous collusive effort on behalf of the owners to suppress salaries for the players."
In 2018, gross revenue hit $10.3 billion for Major League Baseball, yet salaries actually fell slightly, logging their biggest decline in six years. If Borris takes that divergence as a sign of collusion, you can hardly blame him, given what he's seen in his 30-plus years as an agent.
From 1985-1989, baseball's owners blatantly colluded against players, with Borris filing 13 separate claims on behalf of his clients. That industry-wide effort by owners to suppress salaries would later result in MLB teams paying $280 million in damages.
That era included teams sharing a call-in number they could use to review other offers submitted by rival teams. The situation grew so grim for players, All-Star outfielder Andre Dawson and his agent showed up at Cubs spring training in 1987, handed over a blank contract, and told the Cubs to fill in any salary they wanted. The amount was $500,000, a pittance even back then. All Dawson did that season was win the National League MVP.
"If you talked to an owner now, he would refer to that period as the good old days," quipped Borris. "At that time period, the owners were very brash about it. They would say, 'I know how much you've been offered, I'm not going a penny over that.'"
Owners aren't nearly as blatant today in their efforts to tamp down salaries, said Borris. "Over the years [they] have gotten more sophisticated in the methodology of how they go about doing that. That's what you're seeing right now."
Borris cited several tricks that teams use which can have the net effect of dragging down salaries. One seems to be happening as we speak, in the bidding -- or lack of bidding -- for Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, two superstars in their mid-20s who might be expected to reel in record contracts. They might, that is, if teams weren't using members of the media to relay their messages.
"One thing that teams do that they're not supposed to do is, they're not supposed to communicate through the media," Borris said. "For instance if you were to take a team like the Yankees, and the Yankees say, 'We're no longer in the Manny Machado sweepstakes anymore' -- they're not supposed to do that, because that takes a potential suitor out of the hunt. That should not occur, that's really not fair, but it still occurs to this day."
Borris ticked off numerous other factors that have swung the balance of power toward owners and away from players. When one-third of the league goes into tanking mode, that lowers the numbers of bidders for players' services; less demand naturally leads to lower salaries. Today's age curve does suggest that players in their mid-20s are a better bet to succeed than players in their 30s ... but teams have taken that notion to the extreme, lowballing veteran free agents and forcing them to accept one-year deals, which only leads to more veterans larding the market the following winter when all those one-year deals expire.
Then there's the farce that is baseball's luxury tax, and teams' ham-handed attempts to justify spending less than the tax threshold, despite their ability to make tens of millions a year in profits either way.
"The luxury tax is a disguise for a salary cap," said Borris. "It's a disguise for owners to not go over a threshold, it's almost a gentleman's agreement, like, 'Hey, nobody go over this, and we'll all be OK. We'll all be better off for that.'"
Present-day shadiness aside, Borris also lamented the way owners squeezed Bonds out of the game. In 2007, Bonds hit an absurd .276/.480/.565, leading the league in walks and on-base percentage and ranking second in park-adjusted offense. Yet Bonds couldn't get a sniff from any team the following year, not for DH duty, not as a pinch-hitter, not at the league-minimum salary, not even when Borris offered to donate all of that league-minimum salary to kids' charities.
"Which was utterly preposterous, right on its face," said Borris, still angry over owners blacklisting the all-time home-run king. "You cannot take a player who has statistical performance like that ... it's unfathomable that he cannot even get a job."
Borris was quick to note that he didn't have any hard evidence of collusion against Bonds, just as he has no smoking gun now that proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that teams are acting in concert to depress player salaries.
Still, whether it's arguably the greatest player of all time being unable to find a job anywhere, or player salaries going down at a time when teams are drowning in cash, you don't have to have irrefutable evidence to know when something smells.
For much more commentary on the state of baseball, owners' efforts to take as much money as possible out of players' pockets, and the steps that need to be taken to fix the sport's growing imbalance and avoid a labor war, listen to Jeff Borris on the latest edition of The Jonah Keri Podcast.