It started as a fairly simple answer to a fan's question on twitter... but then an Atlanta Braves' great got on a roll.
Before the incredible run of the 1990's, there was the 1980's. For the back half of that decade, the Atlanta Braves were a bad team.
Starting in 1985 and running through 1990, the team finished in 5th place twice and 6th place four times among the National Leagues Western Division members (realignment took place in 1994).
The best of those teams was the 1986 squad, which lost "only" 89 games... and still finished last.
In the midst of all that was Dale Murphy - a Braves from 1976 until mid-1990 when he was traded to Philadelphia.
It was those mid-80's clubs that were bad despite Murphy's play. It was 1982-83 in which he won the league's MVP awards, but he continued to produce at a high level for multiple years after that:
- 1982: .281 BA / .885 OPS
- 1983: .302 BA / .933 OPS
- 1984: .290 / .919
- 1985: .300 / .927
- 1986: .265 / .824
- 1987: .295 / .997
1984 emerged later as having been a key year - this was when Peter Ueberroth became the Commissioner of baseball and effectively told the MLB owners that they needed to change their tactics over player negotiations.
Shortly after being elected commissioner in 1984, Peter Ueberroth addressed the owners at a meeting in St. Louis. Ueberroth called the owners "damned dumb" for being willing to lose millions of dollars in order to win a World Series.
Later, at a separate meeting with the general managers in Tarpon Springs, Florida, Ueberroth said that it was "not smart" to sign long-term contracts. The message was obvious—hold down salaries by any means necessary. It later emerged that the owners agreed to keep contracts down to three years for position players and two for pitchers.
This was the beginning of Collusion. Roster sizes were reduced after the 1985 season. Many of the free agents were not getting offers. A grievance was filed, but nothing changed at that point.
After the 1986 season, the same things were happening:
The free agent market following the 1986 season was not much better for the players. Only four free agents switched teams. Andre Dawson took a pay cut and a one-year contract to sign with the Chicago Cubs. Three fourths of the free agents signed one-year contracts. Star players that ended up back with their old teams included Jack Morris (Detroit Tigers), Tim Raines (Montreal Expos), Ron Guidry (New York Yankees), Rich Gedman (Red Sox), Bob Boone (California Angels), and Doyle Alexander (Atlanta Braves).
The MLB owners continued to stonewall free agency against the players to one extent or another until roughly the end of the decade when sweeping arbitration victories for the players' union and a new Commissioner (Fay Vincent) finally ended the practice.
By then, the players had endured 5 seasons of depressed player movement and salaries. It seemed that the entire culture had changed. And at least one player thinks things could have been different.
Let's go back to that 1986-87 off-season and check in with Dale Murphy's twitter timeline where he was explaining the circumstances that ultimately led him away from Atlanta in 1990.
Among the high-end free agents that season were 2 future Hall of Famers in Andre Dawson and Tim Raines.
We'll pick up Murphy's explanation in mid-conversation as he discusses the circumstances in 1990 when he opted to leave Atlanta:
Now comes the sidebar... the part that obviously still sticks in his craw today:
The thing that really bugs me though was ‘collusion’. 85,86,87 collusion between clubs stifled FAs and really messed up clubs from improving through free agency. Which we, Braves, needed desperately. Wasn’t Ted or Bobby-was commish Ueberoth’s [sic] idea and clubs followed.
Very frustrating . Collusion, is not good for the game. And it’s illegal. Players sued and won... resulting in millions of $ allocated back to players. The rumor was Andre Dawson and (I repeat AND) Tim Raines wanted to sign w the Braves..we might have had a pretty good lineup.
Dawson and Raines were living in Florida, and the closest team to Florida was us. Would have been amazing. Add those two? In Fulton Co? Yikes! Free agency works. Clubs improve where needed and quickly. Is collusion happening now? I don’t think so.
So he believes that both Tim Raines and Hawk Dawson wanted to be members of the Atlanta Braves for the 1987 season and beyond and that MLB owner collusion prevented that from happening.
For fun, then, let's see what was happening in 1987:
- MURPHY: Age 31. All Star, 11th in MVP voting. .295 BA / .997 OPS /7.7 bWAR
- DAWSON: Age 32. All Star, Gold Glove. WON MVP. .287 BA / .896 OPS / 4.0 bWAR
- RAINES. Age 27. All Star, 50 steals. 7th in MVP. .330BA / .955 OPS / 6.7 bWAR
Now all of this the follows is clearly speculation. For instance, just because both players may have wanted to be Braves didn't necessarily mean that both would have been - sans collusion.
After all, all three were corner outfielders and only 1 corners was possibly available (since Murphy occupied one himself). In addition, the Braves already had Ken Griffey (Senior) in Left Field... and though he wasn't a full time player anymore, he was still an 800+ OPS guy.
After Dawson's MVP year - which yes, was notably less productive than either Raines or Murph that season - he continued to put up some decent numbers through his age 37 season (1992).
Raines would have been the better choice of the pair since he was in the midst of his prime years - which continued until roughly 1993 with WAR numbers between 3 and 6.7 after 1986. His running game was also something that would have wreaked havoc along with other assets the 1987 Braves had.
The rest of the 1987 Braves team included...
- Gerald Perry (1B). 42 steals.
- Glenn Hubbard (2B). Strong glove.
- Ozzie Virgil (C). .801 OPS
- Dion James (CF). .869 OPS
- Murphy (RF). .997 OPS
Murphy is right that the combination of Dawson and Raines would have been pretty spectacular, but more would have been needed to turn that team into a true winner.
Nothing about the pitching staff was particularly special. Gene Garber (at age 39), Paul Assenmacher, Jeff Dedmon, and Jim Acker were the best bullpen arms in that '87 season, and that group still averaged roughly a 4.30-ish ERA.
The '87 season was Dale Murphy's last really good season. In '88 his production dropped from that 7.7 bWAR to 3.1 and then 1.6 in 1990... never reaching even that level again.
The 1988 Atlanta Braves added a young Ron Gant, but while the '87 team already sported 4 regular hitters with .800+ OPS production, the '88 club had none who even surpassed .760.
The pitching seemed to improve a bit with Mahler and Zane Smith returning while Glavine and Pete Smith joined them.
Some 21-year-old kid named Smoltz also came in for a dozen unremarkable starts at the beginning of his career.
This review is actually a bit disappointing on multiple levels.
- ON THE FIELD. While it's reasonable to believe that at least one of the Dawson/Raines pairing might have been a strong candidate to be brought in as a free agent - in a normal market year - it seems clear that Atlanta needed more (perhaps much more) just to turn a last place club into something truly competitive... never mind a playoff contender.
- OFF THE FIELD. It's still remarkable to me that these owners allowed themselves to sign on to a scheme that basically insured few changes in team construction for 3-5 years, Moreover, there was an arrogance about the behavior - a belief that they could get away with it without consequence. Instead, it has had a generational impact on the relationships and attitudes between ownership and the player union... and not a good impact at all.
- ABOUT THE COMMISSIONER. Ueberroth became MLB Commissioner after the running the1984 Los Angeles Olympic games - said to have been the first modern games to have been operated at a profit.
- Some of his penny pinching ideas may have come home to roost via MLB. Had no collusive behavior been done, owners might have paid extra star salaries totaling in the low millions of dollar. In the name of saving a relative few bucks, owners were rightly socked with total penalties above 9-figures.
Marvin Miller, the MLBPA lead since 1968, spoke out strongly on the matter, saying that the collusion was "tantamount to fixing, not just games, but entire pennant races, including all post-season series."
He was right. Whether the Atlanta Braves would have won anything with a different playing field is almost not relevant, for all teams would have had their own Dale Murphy stories.
In total, Murph was right - it was a very bad black eye to baseball: one that better never happen again. You can still read the sensitivity of the union to the topic given the swift (and over-the-top) reaction to Alex Anthopoulos' comment of a few weeks ago.
At the same time, the immediate clarification from the Braves also reflects recognition that the owners absolutely do not want to be perceived to be operating in that manner ever again.
Dale Murphy just wanted a fair shake. And now, 30+ years later... that wound hasn't healed.