CBS Sports’ Jon Heyman reports that Barry Bonds and his lawyers are working on a grievance against Major League Baseball alleging that it and its clubs colluded against him and effectively blackballed him following the 2007 season, his last in the majors.*
The idea that Major League Baseball blackballed Bonds has been talked about for years. And it’s understandable why the idea has some appeal, even if there were a lot of good, non-illegal arguments for a club to steer clear of Barry Bonds at the time.
Bonds was a pariah by the winter of 2007-08. He was widely and deeply reported to be a PED user before then and he broke Hank Aaron’s home run record the previous season to underwhelming reviews outside of San Francisco. Just weeks into the following offseason he was indicted by the BALCO grand jury for perjury and obstruction of justice charges that were finally resolved a mere two weeks ago. At the time the Mitchell Report was almost complete and widely anticipated. Baseball was in a bunker mentality with respect to PEDs and Bonds, at the time, was the PED poster boy.
And that’s before you take into account that he was widely thought of as being one of the biggest pains in the butt in Major League Baseball. He didn’t get along with many of his teammates and he made big demands on the Giants as far as personal accommodations went, making them give him his famous clubhouse recliner, multiple lockers and allowances for the comings and goings of a mini-entourage. Put that together with him being an active criminal defendant and the subject of intense media scrutiny, and it would make sense for risk-averse executives to want to avoid Barry Bonds.
All of that said, it was clear that Barry Bonds could still be a useful player heading into 2008. An extremely useful player, actually. While he was off his peak by 2007, had just turned 43-years-old and had become a defensive liability, he had also hit .276/.480/.565 with 28 home runs over 477 plate appearances. If you put up numbers like that today you’d be in the MVP conversation. At the time, it was still well above league average — his OPS+ was 169 that year — and Bonds would help just about any offense in baseball. Maybe he was a big bag of controversy, but baseball teams have routinely given second, third and even fourth chances to guys with problems as long as they could still play, and Barry Bonds could still play.
So that’s the setup: Bonds was, in many ways, radioactive. But he was also still one of the game’s best hitters and, at the time anyway, he and his agent Jeff Borris claimed that he was willing to sign for the league minimum, only to have no takers. Which seems crazy in baseball terms. That, plus the fact that the owners had been found guilty of colluding against free agents on multiple occasions in the past — and not in just the 1980s; they quietly settled collusion claims by players as late as 2006 — forms the basis of a pretty decent he-said, he-said.
But he-said, he-said will not win the day for Barry Bonds. He’s going to need evidence. Testimony from people within the game who were party to or aware of actual acts which form the basis of collusion. Memos and emails would help, but seven or eight years is ample time for evidence to disappear. And that’s before you realize that MLB front offices were a lot smarter about just about everything by 2007 than they were back in the 1980s. Both in terms of not creating evidence trails and in terms of not giving out bad contracts to aging players. Put simply: the defendants in this case will not be pushovers.
But it will definitely be fun to watch.
*UPDATE: An earlier version of this post discussed the statute of limitations implications if Bonds filed a lawsuit as opposed to a grievance. While a grievance would not, presumably, be subject to such limitations, a lawsuit filed in court would. Most likely four years, per federal antitrust law.
Bonds’ last active season ended over seven years ago, which would seem to foreclose such a suit. One possible way around that, however, would be for Bonds to claim that he has been colluded against continuously since 2007. Indeed, some people still floated Bonds as a possible DH at least in halfway serious terms as late as the 2008-09 offseason, so 2007 shouldn’t necessarily be seen as a definitive cutoff. A reach? Possibly. At some point it was not realistic for anyone to consider Bonds as a legitimate player, but it is certainly an interesting procedural issue which could arise if Bonds chooses to sue instead of file a grievance.