Signing freeze could thaw with joint talks resuming

The Major League Baseball Players Association will hold an executive board meeting today in Washington, and could vote to lift the month-old freeze on signing contracts.

The union put a hold on signings soon after Major League Baseball declared collective bargaining negotiations at an impasse and unilaterally imposed a new economic system. Players and agents have honored the freeze, but have been free to continue negotiating with clubs.


Collective bargaining is expected to resume tomorrow, and there finally are indications that baseball's labor dispute is going into the end-game phase, so union officials may decide that it would be detrimental to the rank and file to keep the contract freeze in place much longer.

"One of the many issues is whether to continue the signing freeze," said agent Barry Axelrod, "and if so, for how long."


The union originally recommended the freeze because of the potential long-term problems that might result if large numbers of players willingly signed on to an economic system that the union hopes to prove illegal. Now, there is the possibility that an extended ban could hurt players by creating an instant talent glut when it is lifted.

"I sort of felt that one of the problems we would face when the freeze came off would be a feeding frenzy: guys panicking and signing contracts," Axelrod said. "Maybe it will work the other way and the GMs will go into a feeding frenzy. It has happened that way in the past, but there's no way to know."

No one is worried about the premier players, many of whom already may have agreed in principle to new contracts, but there has been little interest shown in the mid-level players who make up the bulk of this year's free-agent market. Axelrod already has seen that problem up close.

"I've had significant discussions with several teams about [former Chicago Cubs first baseman] Mark Grace, and I think I could sort out the situation and make a decision in a day or two," Axelrod said. "But with guys like [former Colorado Rockies right-hander] Mike Harkey, clubs are saying, 'Yeah, we have an interest, but we need to see how things shake out.' "

The situation is further complicated by a Feb. 6 deadline for restricted free agents to accept offers or remain under the control of their original clubs. Premier players such as Jack McDowell and Marquis Grissom will need time to work the market if they are to get contracts that reflect their value.

The signing freeze has made life particularly difficult for agents such as Scott Boras, who has cornered the market on baseball's best young pitchers. He has six premier pitchers in the restricted free-agent class, including Orioles right-hander Ben McDonald, Andy Benes, Alex Fernandez, Jim Abbott, Steve Avery and Kenny Rogers, and has just a week to bring in offer sheets on all of them, or risk losing millions of dollars' worth of leverage when their negotiating rights expire.

Of course, agents and club officials hope that something happens soon to normalize the relationship between them, especially now that the Clinton administration is applying pressure.

Rep. John LaFalce, D-N.Y., introduced legislation yesterday that would form a seven-member national commission to impose a settlement and oversee the administration of the game in the interest of the fans. The bill would turn baseball into something like a public utility.