Slightly more than 33 years ago, in December 1985, the large headline on the cover of The Sporting News asked the somewhat rhetorical question, “Why Won’t Anyone Sign Kirk Gibson?”

For those who don’t really remember Gibson (or The Sporting News, for that matter), or know him only from the replays of his later romp around the bases in the World Series, you have to understand that, as the 1986 season approached, he was pretty much Bryce Harper.

Gibson was two years older, 28, than Harper is now, but he was a free agent at the absolute top of his game. In the 1985 season, he ranked among the top 10 in the American League for home runs, slugging, OPS, offensive WAR, stolen bases, total bases and doubles. Plus, he was considered a great teammate and leader, and, if you add in that he was handsome in a rugged, old-school baseball kind of way that endeared him to fans, he was what any team would want to add to its roster.

Except none of them did.

Gibson didn’t get a sniff from other teams, and he finally re-signed with the Detroit Tigers for a decent raise, but nothing compared to what he deserved, or what might have come his way had there been a legitimate bidding war for his services.

The answer to the question posed by The Sporting News turned out to be a simple one: “Because the Commissioner of Baseball Told Them Not To.”

Peter Ueberroth, the sixth commissioner of the grand game, was a practical businessman. He instructed owners not to poach free agents from other teams unless given the go-ahead by those teams, and to limit contracts to three years for position players and two years for pitchers. When Ueberroth took office before the 1984 season, more than three-quarters of the teams were losing money. When he left office before the 1989 season, baseball was a profitable enterprise for just about every team.

In Ueberroth’s estimation, failing to control employee expenses across the industry was “damned dumb,” and that’s what he told the owners, and they listened. In the offseason after 1985, when Gibson was waiting for the phone to ring, only four of 35 free agents changed teams. The numbers were essentially the same the following two years, despite the availability of players such as Jack Morris, Tim Raines, Bob Boone and Ron Guidry.

Kirk Gibson homered against the Padres in 1984 but struck out in free agency after the '85 season.
ASSOCIATED PRESS
Kirk Gibson homered against the Padres in 1984 but struck out in free agency after the '85 season.

The only problem, of course, was that Ueberroth and the owners were violating the collective bargaining agreement with the players. The very first CBA was drafted in 1968 and contained a sentence that remains there today: “Players shall not act in concert with other Players and Clubs shall not act in concert with other Clubs.”

When the collusion mess was finally sorted out, the players were awarded a total of $280 million in arbitration rulings, Ueberroth left his post a year early, and former literature professor Bart Giamatti was brought in to redirect attention to the lovely smell of the grass and the pleasing geometry of the diamond.

(It’s notable, or at least interesting, that one of the few violations of Ueberroth’s dictums came when the Phillies signed catcher Lance Parrish before the 1987 season. Parrish was an enormous bust in his two seasons here — at the exorbitant price of $1 million per season — and was eventually traded to the Angels for minor-league pitcher David Holdridge.)

The lesson learned by the owners from that period was that holding down costs was good, but doing so in an organized, or detectable, fashion was bad. It is a lesson that has not been forgotten.

Which brings us to today, and the most remarkable aspect of baseball’s offseason. It is not the fact that two players are going to receive contracts worth at least $300 million. That is the appropriate valuation for Manny Machado and Harper. You might not like it, and might scream about players “making all that money to play a kid’s game,” but your voice is nothing but an echo that has been bouncing off the walls for a century.

Babe Ruth made more than Herbert Hoover because, in Babe’s words, “I had a better year than he did.” That’s how it is supposed to work, and Machado and Harper can put wins in the standings, and fans in the seats. They are what every team should want to add to its roster.

Except very few tried.

That is what is most remarkable about the offseason. You can call it what you like, but this has been collusion again, even if it is just the independent collusion of rich men who wish to keep their riches, and are making money regardless.

“Players’ eyes don’t deceive them, and nor do fans’. As players report to spring training and see respected veterans and valued teammates on the sidelines, they are rightfully frustrated by a two-year attack on free agency,” Tony Clark, executive director of the players association, said.

There are very profitable franchises that have simply taken a pass on making their teams better, and their fans should be outraged. It’s not just Harper and Machado, but also Craig Kimbrel, Dallas Keuchel, Jose Iglesias, Gio Gonzalez and a raft of others among the nearly 50 unsigned free agents. The Phillies aren’t one of those teams, and deserve some applause for that, even if they don’t ultimately land Harper.

Baseball players make a lot of money. No question about it. But the owners make a lot more, and they never lose their fastball or bat speed. That’s not an economics lesson. In baseball, it’s a history lesson.