Complications strike at heart of agents' jobs

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Houston Astros first baseman Jeff Bagwell just had the best year of his life. He was the most productive hitter in the major leagues in 1994 -- with 39 home runs and 116 RBIs -- and he was positioned perfectly to make a major killing in salary arbitration.

So why isn't agent Barry Axelrod smiling?

Because there probably won't be any salary arbitration this year, and the baseball strike may leave Bagwell short of the necessary service time to qualify for restricted free agency if the owners unilaterally implement their salary cap proposal.

Such is life during baseball's mean season. The lengthy labor dispute that canceled the World Series has created an uncertain off-season land scape for everyone involved in the game -- particularly the agents who are trying to prepare for the coming logistical nightmare.

"I remember telling Jeff before the strike that even in a worst-case scenario he would be all right," Axelrod said. "As a four-year player, either he gets arbitration if the old rules stay in place or he gets right-of-first-refusal free agency if the owners implement."

The trouble is, Bagwell won't get to four years' service because he lost nearly two months of service time during the strike. In every previous labor dispute, the owners have given back lost service time as part of the eventual settlement, but there is no guarantee that will happen this time. In fact, it seems unlikely now that the strike has wiped out the postseason.

"Which creates an interesting scenario," Axelrod said. "Last year, Jeff was eligible for arbitration. This year, if players are not given back their service time and the owners implement their new system, he essentially has no rights."

Bagwell is not alone. The service time squeeze could affect a number of prominent players not under contract for the 1995 season. Chicago White Sox pitcher Alex Fernandez also is a three-plus player who didn't get to four years. So are Montreal Expos outfielder Moises Alou and Minnesota Twins second baseman Chuck Knoblauch.

There also are some big-name guys who could lose out on their first year of unrestricted free agency. White Sox ace Jack McDowell and New York Yankees left-hander Jim Abbott, for instance, might have to settle for a right-of-first-refusal situation that could significantly limit their value.

The service time crunch is one of a number of aspects of the current labor situation that could make the next few months complicated for those players and the people who represent them.

"The confusion goes from top to bottom," said Ray Anderson, who represents free agent-eligible outfielder Mike Devereaux of the Orioles. "We haven't been given a clear enough indication that would make us comfortable enough to know what to do. Are the owners going to go with the traditional deadlines? If they want to negotiate, should you negotiate? Who knows at this point?"

The Major League Baseball Players Association has not been much help yet. Union officials have met with agents all over the country to brief them on the status of the labor dispute, but there have been few hard answers on how they should conduct business during the off-season.

If the Astros offer Bagwell a five-year contract worth $35 million next week, can he accept it?

"Theoretically, yes," Axelrod said. "As far as I know, there is no preclusion to keep an employee on strike from entering into an employment agreement. It would be pretty tough to tell Jeff Bagwell not to sign a five-year deal at $35 million-$40 million."

The precedent already may have been set. The Cincinnati Reds signed two players -- Lenny Harris and Thomas Howard -- last week. If that is indicative of management's winter strategy, off-season business could be transacted in a fairly traditional manner until it becomes clear which player compensation system will be in place for 1995.

The agents have to go on that assumption. The expired Basic Agreement mandated that players must file for free agency over a 10-day period beginning on Oct. 15 or five days after the final game of the World Series, whichever comes first. Look for a flurry of filings on Oct. 16, because no responsible agent is going to allow the status of a client to be left in doubt.

"I know I'll be filing Mark Grace on that date," Axelrod said of the Chicago Cubs first baseman. "It would be malpractice not to file for him."

That doesn't mean that a signed player has to show up for spring training. If the union votes to remain on strike, those players who have signed new contracts would be under no obligation to report to spring training.

"Theoretically, I can certainly agree to a contract, but that doesn't mean we would cross the line," said Baltimore lawyer Ron Shapiro. "If it was a senior guy and I felt it was an opportune time to sign and it would stand up well, I might advise him to sign. But I probably would try to include some strike or lockout language for my player."

Union officials have been weighing the alternatives. MLBPA director Donald Fehr said recently that the sign-and-sit scenario is a real possibility, but the union undoubtedly will wait for the owners to determine how they will proceed before recommending how the players should react.

Acting commissioner Bud Selig has appointed an operations committee to determine what the management strategy will be. That committee met last week and is expected to come up with a list of guidelines for dealing with players, but that could take several weeks.

In the meantime, Selig and Fehr have -- at least tacitly -- given their approval for clubs and players to go about the business of getting ready for the 1995 season, even if there may not be one.

"I wouldn't draw a conclusion one way or the other," Selig said. "Individual clubs are free do to what they want to do, but there eventually may be some recommendations."

Individual agents seem to be taking the same approach, though no one can say whether the contracts that players sign will still be valid when the labor crisis ends.

"It's conceivable that if we signed Jeff Bagwell today under the conditions they dictate, and then it was determined that there would be no salary cap, we might want out," said Axelrod. "We might want another bite at the apple. It might be similar to what happened in collusion, where players like Kirk Gibson got to go back and try again."

It appears that the uncertain landscape that lies ahead may not seem quite as uncertain as both sides feared when the strike began, but it still will be weeks before there is any kind of consensus on how to proceed into baseball's winter chill.

"I think we will get a little clearer picture soon," Anderson said. "I would like to think that the owners are going to announce what their intentions are, as far as how they will operate this winter, and give more direction for the players and the union. For now, we are going to do what we have to do."

That means meeting all of the traditional deadlines -- just in case -- and helping clients navigate the financial uncertainty that comes with an open-ended work stoppage.

The next few weeks probably won't be that uncomfortable, but agents could be put in a difficult situation next spring if the owners decide to open training camps without a settlement. The players have a stated obligation to stand with their union, but the agents have an obligation to represent the best interests of their individual clients.

"If anyone tells you they know what's going to happen, they're blowing smoke," Axelrod said. "Anyone can surmise or use their best guess to project what's coming, but no one really knows."

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