Kirk Gibson of the Detroit Tigers and six other players were granted immediate free agency yesterday in the first awarding of damages for the 1985 collusion case against major league baseball.
The other players are third baseman Tom Brookens of the Tigers, catcher Carlton Fisk of the Chicago White Sox, reliever Donnie Moore and catcher Butch Wynegar of the California Angels, outfielder Juan Beniquez of the Toronto Blue Jays and pitcher Joe Niekro of the Minnesota Twins.
Arbitrator Tom Roberts ruled that the seven will have until March 1 to negotiate with major league baseball's 26 teams, but they also will have the option of returning to their former teams under terms of their previous contracts.
He ruled last September that owners had improperly conspired to end free agency after the 1985 season. That ruling was in response to a grievance filed by the Major League Baseball Players Association, which has filed similar grievances concerning free-agent movement after the 1986 and '87 seasons.
Of the seven, it appears only Gibson will be affected, and his market value appears to have declined since he signed a three-year, $4.1-million contract three winters ago. Several sources tonight said he's almost certain to receive offers, with the New York Yankees believed to be the most interested.
Ironically, he would have been traded to the Yankees or Los Angeles Dodgers this winter, but lawyers couldn't determine who would be responsible for paying his damages. Despite getting his free agency, he could be awarded cash. His agent, Doug Baldwin, is believed to have told the arbitrator that the collusion cost Gibson more than $3 million.
The other players probably won't be affected because there isn't sufficient interest in them. Niekro is 43 and has an $800,000 contract for 1988. Fisk is 39 and has a contract for $700,000. Moore, who has had arm and rib problems the last two years, is in the last year of a three-year, $850,000 contract, and Wynegar has a $733,000 contract for '88. Neither Beniquez nor Brookens is expected to attract any interest.
The grievance was filed on behalf of 62 free agents, but 48 of them are now out of baseball. Of the remaining 14, only seven were declared free agents because the other seven -- Danny Darwin, Jim Dwyer, Tommy John, David Palmer, Jamie Quirk, Harry Spilman and Don Sutton -- have had chances to become free agents since then.
Commissioner Peter Ueberroth declined comment on the decision, deferring calls to Barry Rona, head of the owners' Player Relations Committee.
"I expected it," Rona said tersely. "I'm disappointed, but we'll comply with it."
Donald Fehr, executive director of the players union, said: "We think it is a very strong indication that the arbitrator understands the violations and will do everything he can to remedy the violations."
Fehr said the message to owners is: "You colluded, you were caught, you're going to have to make it right. If it is a signal, it is a signal that the arbitrator intends to honor his obligation, to do justice, if you will."
Baldwin declined to say where Gibson might land, saying only: "There are a few clubs Kirk would like to play for. The criteria are approximately the same now as they were in 1985. We obviously will be talking to the Tigers to see what their posture is, and there will be some other teams, unannounced at this time because I have to get together with Kirk and fill him in on the details of this decision. We will probably go forward sometime next week."
Arbitrator George Nicolau heard the 1986 collusion case, the one involving Tim Raines, Jack Morris, Andre Dawson and Lance Parrish, and is expected to make a ruling this spring. The 1987 grievance was filed only last week.