Tim Marchman writes about baseball for The New York Sun and is one of the brightest voices currently working in the alternative press. He had a piece today that is worth bringing to your attention, but because it is difficult to link to The Sun on-line, Tim has generously agreed to let me reprint the article for "Bronx Banter."
Frank Coonelly may be the most powerful person in baseball you’ve never heard of.
Coonelly’s job title is chief labor counsel for Major League Baseball. One AL executive told me that so far as he knew,Coonelly “coordinates our side on the arbitration stuff” and that he is on management’s committee on salaries and relations with the union. Doug Pappas, who is the chairman of the Society for American Baseball Research’s Business of Baseball Committee, puts it this way: “Coonelly is in charge of monitoring compliance with suggested draft bonuses and free-agent negotiations.”
Aside from Pappas, no one I talked to wanted to say anything about Coonelly on the record, and he didn’t answer a phone message I left at his office yesterday. But an article by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s John Hickey on Mariners pitcher Freddy Garcia’s salary arbitration case earlier this year is telling. Coonelly, in an unusual — though not unheard of — step, attended the arbitration hearing to rebut arguments made by Garcia’s agent. Hickey quotes the pitcher as saying that Coonelly “‘got pretty excited’ while he was talking.‘From what I heard about him, that’s the way he is,’ Garcia said…‘He was pretty loud.’” Garcia won the case.
A prominent player agent suggested to me that Coonelly plays a much more important role than merely popping up at arbitration cases to argue on behalf of management.
“The clubs are calling him before they sign people,” the agent said.
Now in considering such an allegation, it’s important to consider the source, and player agents have a real interest in leading people to believe that illegal collusion is going on. As I wrote on Tuesday, I don’t believe that baseball’s owners are illegally colluding to drive down player salaries, although I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if they were. The evidence, though, suggests an agreement among owners and the Commissioner’s office to honor the letter but not the spirit of the collective bargaining agreement they’ve signed.
It’s important, first, to understand that while it is illegal for owners to restrict the free-agent market by discussing with one another the offers they plan to make, that still leaves a legal grey area. As Pappas puts it, “Having clubs directly vetting one another’s offers would clearly be collusion. The owners may argue that sending them to a central information bank isn’t, but [that would be] skating on very thin ice.”
If, as the player agent implies, teams are maintaining an information bank in the person of Coonelly,it is possibly not collusive. But, possibly, it is.
The second point to understand is that it is not illegal for clubs to discuss arbitration offers they plan to make, because the player is bound to negotiate with one party. This leaves a loophole for owners to collude in fact, if not in law, against the players. What they can do is let one another know what players they will be non-tendering by running all arbitration information through a single person, such as Coonelly.
The effect of such information having to do with what is, in effect, a secondary free-agent market is to depress the primary free-agent market; after all, there’s no reason for a team to sign a second baseman now when they know that there will be another five available if they wait until mid-December.
This mechanism seems to be what agents and the players union are talking about when they intimate that there is collusion going on. It fits in with the general pattern of MLB conduct over the last few years, which has been to employ every means of driving down player salaries, short of a blatant, 1980s-style agreement not to sign free agents. For instance, the “slotting” of bonuses paid in the amateur draft, for which Coonelly is responsible, is legal only because the players union negotiated away the rights of those it doesn’t represent. The owners have exploited this mistake to the fullest.
Perhaps an information bank is being maintained; perhaps not. But the activities centered on Coonelly’s office amount to an attempt to make the collective bargaining agreement cover only those irreplaceable players whose skill will continue to command top dollars. The rest of the players — the undifferentiated mass — will be set against one another in a market that no longer functions according to the rules they thought they had negotiated. It’s a classic union-busting tactic but one that is perfectly within the rules of the game.
I hope Frank Coonelly is available for comment in the coming days. If he’s half as powerful as everyone says he is it will be one of the most interesting conversations I’ve had in a while.