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A tale from a cartel

Here's a interesting story via Richard Justice in today's Houston Chronicle:

University of Texas center fielder Drew Stubbs remembers being "a little bit disappointed" when the Astros abruptly pulled out of a deal with him two years ago.

"I would have liked to have played for them," he said. "Maybe I'll get another chance some day."

Not likely.

He'll probably be one of the top five picks in the 2006 draft. He's got such a dazzling set of skills -— speed, power, instincts, smarts -— that some scouts believe he'll be the overall No. 1 choice.

... Stubbs was signed, sealed and delivered for $900,000 when they took him in the third round of the 2003 draft.

Scouts thought he'd be a bargain at that price.

And then Astros owner Drayton McLane got involved.

In a move he may long regret, McLane ordered his baseball people to renege on that $900,000 deal. He told them the Astros could only pay Stubbs $450,000.

"I wouldn't say we reneged," McLane said. "I never approved the deal you're talking about."

His baseball people clearly didn't think his approval would be an issue. Signing Stubbs should have been as routine as signing any other draft choice that year.

How the deal fell apart, how the Astros lost a terrific prospect, isn't the organization's finest hour.

"Please don't mention Drew Stubbs to me," a club source said. "I get sick thinking about the way we handled that."

... The deal fell apart when a representative of commissioner Bud Selig's office telephoned McLane and told him the price for Stubbs was too high. ... Stubbs, McLane was told, should be paid $450,000.

Bonus scales can be fixed through collective bargaining, as with the NBA and NFL. But these shenanigans trace directly to baseball's antitrust exemption. It's a legal cartel, so one can expect the consequences: restrictions on competition that have a purely pecuniary basis, incentives to cheat, and threats of punishment from the cartel coordinator. Fortunately, everything seems to have turned out well for Mr. Stubbs, though I wouldn't mind seeing him in right field at Minute Maid Park.