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Unsigned and unwanted: Is Barry Bonds building a case for collusion?


Now that United States of America v. Barry Lamar Bonds has been pushed back until at least the summer, baseball's all-time home run champ has let it be known that he would like to play this season. For the second year in a row, Bonds' agent, Jeff Borris, has reportedly contacted every major league team requesting that each consider his client. Bonds is said to be willing to sign for the major league minimum, $400,000, a steep discount from his most recent salary of $15.5 million. Nonetheless, every team has passed.

Are big league teams colluding with each other to shun the notorious slugger? Or are they taking orders from MLB commissioner Bud Selig, who would probably want nothing more than for baseball to move on from the Steroid Era?

At first glance such questions might seem farfetched, even absurd. After all, there are rationale business reasons for every team to rebuff Bonds.

Most obvious, teams are leery of employing a player who is facing felony charges for perjury and obstruction of justice. While the legal system must presume that Bonds, who was indicted in November 2007, is innocent until proven guilty, major league general managers need not behave like judges and juries. In their assessment of free agents, general managers can openly consider the unwanted notoriety, distraction and risk associated with signing an indicted player. A general manager may understandably conclude that the media circus likely to follow Bonds, coupled with the possibility of losing him in the second half of the 2009 season to a sensationalized trial and possible prison sentence, makes Bonds untenable.

Bonds also carries a dubious reputation as a teammate and employee. By many accounts he is aloof and arrogant; he has also struggled to interact with media and fans. While the Giants may have overlooked those traits as Bonds approached the home run record, that chase is long over. Teams are thus more inclined to weigh whatever on-field production Bonds might offer against his perceived off-field liabilities, particularly if Bonds would undermine clubhouse karma or set a poor attitudinal example for younger players.

Aside from the legal and personality controversies that plague him, Bonds may no longer have much appeal as a player. He is 44 years old, has not played since 2007 and his range in the outfield has diminished over the years. In fact, if a team signed Bonds tomorrow, he would become the oldest active position player, eclipsing 41-year-old Phillies' outfielder Matt Stairs. While every player ages differently, position players seldom play into their 40s, with the incomparable Julio Franco, who retired last year at age 48, along with several others (e.g., Rickey Henderson) serving as notable exceptions. Bonds may thus be too old to entice interest, particularly for National League teams.

On the other hand, there's reason to believe that Bonds remains a high-performing slugger. Remember, had he reached the requisite number of plate appearances, he would have led the National League in on-base plus slugging (OPS) -- arguably the best measure of a hitter's productivity -- in 2007 (he amassed a phenomenal OPS of 1.045, to go along with 28 home runs, in 340 at-bats). Whatever deficiencies he may have exhibited playing the outfield certainly did not appear at the plate. Moreover, while Bonds' bat speed may have slowed since 2007, it seems plausible that he could continue to hit at a high level.

Bonds' willingness to sign for the minimum salary also deserves notice. With many cash-strapped teams worried about their budgets, a player of Bonds' considerable talents and inconsiderable salary demands would seem worthy of their attention.

There are also several teams that appear in need of an upgrade at designated hitter. Would the Baltimore Orioles be better off featuring Bonds as their regular DH instead of Luke Scott (.807 OPS last season)? How about the Angels and Juan Rivera (.720 OPS)? Does Bonds at least deserve a tryout?

These questions pose legal implications. In October 2008 the Major League Baseball Players' Association announced that it had uncovered evidence that Bonds was the victim of collusion, which in this case refers to a conspiracy between teams to avoid bidding for Bonds. The MLBPA did not disclose this evidence, but per baseball's collective bargaining agreement, the MLBPA intends to file a grievance on Bonds' behalf with a neutral arbitrator after his perjury trial ends.

The requisite proof for collusion remains a controversial topic, but under Article XX(e) of the collective bargaining agreement, teams cannot act "in concert" with other teams to deprive players of collectively-bargained rights. Basically, if two or more teams agreed to not sign Bonds, he would have a viable collusion claim; if those teams, acting independently, came to individual determinations to not sign Bonds, his claim would be tenuous, at best.

The "gray area" of collusion would be if general managers spoke to (or e-mailed) each other about Bonds and, while doing so, disparaged the idea of signing Bonds or opined that baseball would be better off without him. While such discussions might not reflect any kind of agreement between teams, they could evince a "common scheme for common benefit," which, in the view of some arbitrators, equates to collusion.

If the MLBPA proceeds with a claim and prevails, Bonds could reap a significant financial reward: a player victimized by collusion is due treble (three times) damages for lost salary. Lost salary would be calculated by the arbitrator in light of how much Bonds would have earned without collusion.

MLB's unsavory history with collusion might work in Bonds' favor. Arbitrators identified three instances of collusion by MLB teams in the late 80s. In MLB's defense, however, those instances arose in a very different context: Teams were trying to lower salaries for free-agent players across the board, as opposed to boycotting an individual player.

Whether Bonds would want the MLBPA to proceed with a collusion claim remains to be seen. Prevailing on the claim, however, could restore some of Bonds' lost reputation while possibly also engendering sympathy for an often reviled player. It might also help him land a job.