As the deadline for Kirk Gibson and the Tigers came down to its final minutes, it became clear we were witnessing the end of one story — and the beginning of another.

One that could shake major league baseball down to its very stitches.

Why didn’t Gibson get a contract offer? Why didn’t clubs like the Yankees or the Braves — who always unloaded the money truck for free agents in the past — even sniff at him? Or Donnie Moore or Carlton Fisk?

The owners claim they got religion, in the fiscal sense. Say they’ve wised up to the evil temptations of free agency.

The Players Association says: yeah, right.

“You’re telling me all the owners saw the light the same year?” said executive director Don Fehr, from his New York office Wednesday. “Come on. You’re telling me Kirk Gibson is worth $4 million to his team and nothing to any other team?

“Wouldn’t you think someone else would at least want to see what Kirk Gibson wants? At least make an offer?”

Fehr thinks so. So does Marvin Miller, the man who helped usher in free agency 10 years ago as and is now a consultant to the players union.

“You’d have to be Santa Claus or the tooth fairy,” Miller said, laughing,
“to believe 26 clubs individually got the same idea, and kept to it.”

What we have here, they say, is not a failure to communicate. What we have is too much communication.

What we have is an owner conspiracy.

And there are laws against that in America. Ueberroth is the band leader

Now you have to be careful with conspiracy charges. Suspicion runs free and pretty soon, so does common sense.

So let’s start with the undeniable: Had the 1986 Gibson been available in 1983 or 1984, he would have been gobbled up, along with all the other free agents who hit the contractual jackpot back then.

But now, no offers. Why? If you take the owners side, you point to several developments:

1) Last year, for the first time, the 26 owners got to check each others’ balance sheets (an off-shoot of the collective bargaining negotiations). They saw how much money they were all losing. They began to re-examine the cost of free agents.

2) Along came new commissioner Peter Ueberroth to hammer the point home
— never exactly saying not to bid on free agents, but pointing to the ledgers and saying, “Hey, fellas,come on. Take a look. Who’s kidding who?”

3) Eventually, even the most celebrated spendthrifts, such as Atlanta Braves owner Ted Turner, decided to turn away from free agency and re-emphasize the farm system as a way of developing young talent. The Braves have added several new farm clubs this year, for example.

So why no mad rush for Gibson and company? Business. Smart business. That’s what you say.

Then you duck.

Because the other side isn’t buying any of it. The Major League Baseball Players Association is already preparing to file grievances and possibly anti-trust lawsuits against the owners. The charge: collusion.

“It seems to me the owners got together and decided the way to cut down salaries was to deal with it through the free agents,” said Miller, who believes Ueberroth “orchestrated the decision.”

Fehr would not implicate Ueberroth, at least not on the record. But he consistently raised the issue of the owners “sudden change of behavior.”

And he pointed out that any agreement by the owners to curb free-agent bidding — whether done in a smoke-filled boardroom, over a telephone, or while passing in a hotel lobby — is a violation of the Collective Bargaining agreement, and quite possibly the anti-trust laws of this country.

And is cause for action. This could really be a mess

Make no mistake. This could turn into a real mess. Depending on what happens with Gibson and the others, a whopper of a lawsuit could be on its way, one that could muck things up for years. Every contract negotiation could become a potential nightmare. Miller went as far as to predict the owners’ current actions “will bring about the worst instability they have ever seen” in baseball.

“It’s not one player dealing with one club anymore,” he said, “it’s one player dealing with all 26. Everything will change.”

Which means what happened with Gibson might only be the beginning.

You can believe the worst. Or, if you’re a Gibson fan, you may feel the worst has happened.

Either way, it’s hard not to feel that Gibson, who just recently got off the altar, has been dragged back. This time as a sacrifice.

One story ends. Another begins.

The first may leave a hole in the Tigers’ outfield. The second might blow one through the belly of baseball.

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