For agent, baseball's cap another word for opportunity

January 07, 1995|By KEN ROSENTHAL

The baseball owners are going to love this. They implemented a salary cap only two weeks ago, and already a player agent has figured out a way to squeeze even more money out of their new system.

Scott Boras is the agent who engaged the Orioles in a bitter contract dispute over Ben McDonald in 1988. He still represents McDonald, and now he has devised a plan that would enable the pitcher to leave Baltimore.

McDonald, 27, is a restricted free agent under the owners' new economic system, meaning the Orioles can retain him by matching the offer of any club attempting to sign him.

Boras also represents four other top pitchers in the same category -- Steve Avery, Andy Benes, Alex Fernandez and Jim Abbott. His plan not only would make them rich, it would give them unprecedented bargaining power.

That is, if the owners went along.

It seems doubtful, seeing as how the plan revolves around an oral promise by a player to stay with the club that signs him. The point is, agents like Boras will find loopholes and outsmart the owners under any system.

Boras is Lex Luthor to Bud Selig's Superman.

And now he's even more dangerous, with time on his hands.

For now, the union has imposed a moratorium on contract signings, not because the players are on strike, but because it wants to educate them on the cap. Eventually, that moratorium will be lifted. And then the fun will begin.

Oh, the owners will just love the Boras plan. They designed restricted free agency to hold down salaries for the four- and five-year players who once benefited from salary arbitration. Boras, naturally, is proposing just the opposite.

"The clubs are saying, you know Baltimore will match any offer for McDonald," Boras says.

"And I say, believe me, there's a contract mechanism I can give you where there's no way a club can match it."

Are you ready, Roland Hemond?

Breakfast is served.

Boras says he would ask clubs interested in McDonald to make an offer, but not just any offer.

A five-year, guaranteed offer.

An offer with an inflated first-year salary.

L An offer with an option to void the contract after one year.

Yes, it's the dreaded one-and-out clause, coming soon to a ballpark near you. The owners are to be congratulated. Without realizing it, they might have created an entire generation of Chris Webbers.

"The excuse of, 'I know Baltimore is going to match that,' would be gone," Boras says. "No way Baltimore is going to match that. It would put them in a very disadvantageous position.

"A) They'd have to pay him a big salary for a year. B) There'd be no guarantee he'd stay. And C) The only way he'd stay would be if he was injured [and wanted to collect his guarantee]."

Obviously, Boras fears the owners might engage in collusion, depressing the market for his players. There's just one problem with his plan: What club would want to sign a McDonald under his one-sided conditions?

Remember, the signing club would be bound by the same agreement as the Orioles. Still, Boras says McDonald could make an oral promise to waive his free-agent option the moment he signed, protecting his new club.

An oral promise from a Scott Boras client.

An oral promise from a pampered major-leaguer.

An oral promise when all of the contents of the contract are supposed to be in writing -- bad faith negotiating, at its finest.

What would prevent McDonald from breaking his promise after he goes 21-3 and wins the Cy Young Award?

Absolutely nothing.

"None of my clients would ever do that -- that's unethical," Boras says.

Larry Lucchino, the former Orioles president who went toe-to-toe with Boras in '88, will have a nice chuckle over that one.

Still, the worst-case scenario for the signing club would be overpaying McDonald for one year, then losing him as an unrestricted free agent. Who's to say George Steinbrenner wouldn't bite?

Boras claims the owners' system offers another incentive as well. Say McDonald signed a five-year, $25 million contract, with a first-year salary of $7 million. Boras believes only $5 million would count against the cap.

The NBA uses actual salaries when computing its cap, but when it comes to multi-year contracts, baseball will average them out. Of course, rival owners would claim the McDonald contract was binding for only one year.

A circumventing-the-cap debate.

Don't you love it?

Boras does. The way he has this figured, the Orioles should act now, or risk losing McDonald. Or, they could make an offer to an Avery or a Benes, defining the market before it takes shape.

Boras says he spoke with Hemond about McDonald on Tuesday. He didn't mention his plan in that conversation. At that point, he ++ had not yet applied the finishing touches.

"Roland indicated to me that he definitely wants to keep Ben in Baltimore," Boras says. "I indicated to him that Ben was very happy in Baltimore. We'd like to work something out."

Always beware of agent-talk, but Boras says it's now or never if clubs want to sign his clients. If the National Labor Relations Board files an injunction against the cap, baseball could return to something resembling its old economic system, with six-year free agency.

The owners then would lock out the players, but that's another story. Boras envisions all of his pitchers signing under the new system, then a three-year wait for the next set of top free agents -- Mike Mussina, Wilson Alvarez, etc. -- under the old.

"You're talking about the availability of No. 1 pitchers in the major leagues," Boras says. "Here's your chance."

That's Lex Luthor talking.

Look out, owners.

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