Tuesday, January 10, 2012

A history lesson: Collusion and 12-man pitching staffs

The Twins Geek, John Bonnes, on Sunday had a post puzzling over who the 25th man on the 1987 Twins postseason roster was.

The answer, which I am old enough to know, is: Nobody. In 1987 -- and in a handful of surrounding seasons -- there was a "gentleman's agreement" among the teams to go with just 24 players on the active roster. Officially, they could have 25; nobody did.

It was part of the sorry collusion episode, in which the owners, led by then-Commissioner Peter Ueberroth, sought to undermine the collective bargaining agreement with the players union. Most prominent was the agreement not to pursue other team's free agents.

The collusion attempt proved costly in a variety of ways. The players union won massive damages in three grievance hearings. The stiff penalties prompted two rounds of expansion, as the owners sought to recoup the losses by dunning outsiders. The episode also further poisoned the waters for future labor talks, helping set up the strike of 1994.

Now the teams are required to have 25 players on their active roster.

But the effects are still evident on rosters. Follow me here: For years teams typically carried 10 pitchers and 15 hitters. Managers in the late 1980s, forced to trim a player, universally opted to keep 10 pitchers and 14 position players.

After four years of that, they'd become accustomed to that size bench. They had gotten used to the limitations of five (in the American League) bench options, had become used to making sure they had at least one Swiss Army knife of a multi-position player on hand.

And when the de facto rosters expanded, Tony LaRussa -- of course -- used the 25th spot for an extra pitcher. Memory tells me he initially used the slot to carry a Rule V selection; eventually he used to add somebody he actually wanted to use. He won. Other teams followed his example.

Tony LaRussa: Father of the expanded pitching staff
Perhaps the expansion of pitching staffs would have happened anyway. There were other influences, in particular the rise of pitch counts, and certainly the expansion didn't stop at 11. But LaRussa's realization in 1990 that he didn't need that 15th position player got the ball rolling.

Now there are managers suggesting that rosters should be expanded to 26 players -- which, if it should happen, would probably mean 13-man pitching staffs.

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