Labor Peace in MLB isn’t Working

My livelihood isn’t on the line, so I vote to strike.

Major League Baseball players don’t earn the type of empathy I reserve for employees of Wal-Mart, or Amazon, for instance, but they are still the labor. They might make $500,000 or $25 million per year more than the average worker, but they are still engaged in a fight against the ownership class — the owners of the individual MLB franchises.

The big baseball news is the MLB Players’ Association “rejected Major League Baseball’s latest pace-of-play proposal, increasing the likelihood that baseball will unilaterally implement a pitch clock and a limit on mound visits in advance of the 2018 season[.]”

I wrote about pace-of-play in 2014, mostly talking about why it’s a thing, because that was the first year baseball writers made an effort to really dig in and bitch about how long the games were. What was once a two or two-and-a-half hour affair became — with the advent of major television money pouring in — three (or occasionally four) hour events.

I don’t personally give a shit about how long the games are. If the Rangers are playing and I’m not at work, I am going to watch. I will mute the TV, open my laptop to listen to Eric Nadel and Matt Hicks on the radio, and probably play poker on my phone while those two things are happening. How I consume baseball games isn’t going to change.

But the writers have it different than I do. They actually have to be at the games (well before the first pitch), live tweet (during the action), and stick around (well after the game) to get interviews from the players and coaches. This isn’t an apology for the writers, it’s just what I expect an apologist would say. Satisfying all the social medias on top of writing is a young man’s occupation, but the overwhelming majority are anything but.

Main point of the news, though: Major League Baseball wants to institute pitch clocks and a reduction to catcher visits to the mound. They believe, or at least they are acting on the perceived belief, that this will shorten the games.

The Players’ Association, on the other hand, doesn’t (and shouldn’t) want this. Part of it, I presume, has to do with jeopardizing the integrity of the game. If a pitcher is faced with a critical situation, especially during the postseason, they shouldn’t be penalized an automatic Ball if they exceed the 20-second pitch clock threshold. The other part is: Why would the Players blindly give in to what the owners want without getting something in return? If MLB wants pitch clocks, the MLBPA should resist all the way. Unless, of course, they could leverage something out of the owners, which doesn’t appear likely since the Players’ Association is currently as weak as it’s been in 50 years.

NBC Sports baseball writer Craig Calcaterra seems to focus his blame (and rightfully so) on MLBPA President Tony Clark, though he is really, really nice about it. (He even says “I like Tony Clark,” unless you aren’t clear.) From his article (emphasis mine):

As the players have, in the aggregate, and certainly at the top of the scale, grown richer, and as the threats presented by the owners have appeared to be less existential, they’ve lowered their defenses. Part of the lowering of defenses is that they’ve moved away from wartime consiglieres, as it were. Marvin Miller and Don Fehr were blunt instruments. The sorts of blunt instruments you need when your very existence is on the line. When wars end, however, blunt instruments aren’t always welcome. As it is, one wonders how players relate, on a day-to-day basis, to a labor lawyers who are wired like those guys were wired. When you get the sense that, maybe, you don’t really need blunt instruments like them, you look to someone like Tony Clark.

Everybody that wasn’t born yesterday knows that the best baseball players in the world do exceptionally well. When Bryce Harper becomes a free agent after the 2018 season, there is a realistic possibility his contract will exceed $400 million in total value. The era of superstar athletes earning $40 million per season is going to become a regular thing.

This is all thanks to Marvin Miller, who, in the 1970’s, turned the MLBPA into the strongest union in professional sports, and it remained that way through most of my childhood in the 1990’s. I can still hear my dad talking about the Players’ Association like it’s some nefarious organization, but people like this exist all over the place. For every asshole like me that cares about the rights of the Players (or labor), there are five or ten jagoffs who will defend the super-rich owners as stringently as if they were on the payroll. In politics, individuals like this are often referred to as “useful idiots,” people who actively vote (or throw their support) against their own interests.

Like Calcaterra writes, during peacetime the MLBPA grew soft, and the owners (acting in their best interests) took advantage of this. Through the luxury tax, draft pick compensation, restrictions on how much teams can spend on international talent, and how much teams are allowed to spend on the Rule-4 draft in June, the owners have gotten the clear upper hand on (at least) the last three Collective Bargaining Agreements.

More from Craig (emphasis still mine):

Ultimately, the players have a nuclear option: to strike. Or, at the very least, to pose a credible threat to strike. They have a seat at the table and are a part of every CBA negotiation, but striking or credibly threatening to strike is their ultimate card to play. It’s not a pleasant option. It turns the players into villains in the eyes of fans and the press, costs them money and keeps them from doing their favorite thing in the world, which is, duh, playing baseball. But that’s the power they have, and both using that power and threatening credibly to use that power has proved to be pretty dang effective for them over the years.

Here’s the problem: If the last couple Collective Bargaining Agreement’s are any indication, the Players’ Association really only seems to look out for the best players in the sport. Because if you aren’t one of the 50- or 60-best players MLB, you are vulnerable to getting screwed one way or another on your next contract.

The MLBA does not protect minor leaguers (who make sub-poverty wages and ride busses six months out of the year), it doesn’t protect U.S. amateurs (who get drafted and sign for well below market value because of a spending cap), and it doesn’t protect international amateurs (who overwhelmingly come from the poorest countries in the world, and are also forced to sign for below market value because of a spending cap). Those groups of players have virtually zero representation.

Your first question should be: Well, no shit, Eric, why should the MLB Players’ Association look out for minor leaguers, or 18 year-old American kids, or 16 year-olds from Latin America and the Dominican Republic? And I get it. Major Leaguers are supposed to look out for the best interests of Major Leaguers. My simple explanation basically goes like this: Who the fuck cares? Why should the Players give any free rides to the owners?

Big leaguers have already “made it,” as it were. They think¹ playing in the minor leagues is some rite of passage, and that they really had to earn it to make it to MLB. Any reasonable person would have a hard time disagreeing.

Yet, it’s also hard to disagree with the numbers. Nearly every player currently on a big league roster was once selected in the first 10 rounds of the Rule-4 draft,² meaning they received a signing bonus between $100,000 and $5 million. This I assume — and I know I’m going out on a limb here — makes minor league life more tolerable for 18 and 19 year-olds, which goes without mentioning the special attention they receive from that specific team (who wants to see their investment succeed). But for all the minor leaguers who are non-prospects, essentially just filling up roster spots because someone’s gotta play on these farm clubs, they earn well below the minimum wage and sacrifice six months out of their year. Some love to do it, since they love playing baseball. Others are chasing a dream that isn’t really there.

¹I don’t know if this is what they think. I just imagine it’s the way would think if I was in their position.
²According to Bleacher Report 66 percent of first round draft picks reach the major leagues. Second rounders make it at a 49 percent clip, 3rd-5th rounders make it 32 percent of the time, and 6th-10th rounders make it 20 percent of the time. Only seven out of every one hundred players taken in rounds 21-40 make the show.

Almost every meaningful addition to the last two CBA’s has been to discourage the owners from spending money. Free Agents like Michael Bourne (in 2013) and Ian Desmond (in 2015) — as two examples — basically had to wait until spring training to sign somewhere, because doing so cost that team a first-round draft pick. There is literally a penalty in place for signing a guy who was given a Qualifying Offer from his last team.

However, since there is such a divide between the players at the very top and the middle, and everyone else, it’s hard to say where there priorities are. Why should someone making $20 million per year care about guys playing for the league minimum, or minor leaguers (most of which will never make it to the big leagues)? As with everything else, the system has a way of working out well for those at the very top.

This isn’t a knock on the most elite players in baseball. I actually think (based on zero evidence) that most players are just uneducated about the power they wield over ownership. There has not been a beef serious enough to warrant a strike since 1994 — nearly a quarter-century of labor peace — and so their demise has been slow, piece by piece, in a way that’s probably difficult to realize.

In reality, the players are the stars. The players are why fans pay outrageous amounts of money to attend games. People don’t show up to see the umpires, or the coaches, or the owners. Nobody willingly pays for the privilege to park, or buy a beer, or a hot dog, without getting taken care of on the back end by the product on the field. The players drive the revenue, so they should be getting their cut of all the new wealth that has flowed into the sport.

I probably sound like a goddam communist at this point, but I have to know: At what point is enough enough? I don’t yearn for some utopian system where Ian Desmond and Michael Bourn are making the same amount of money as Bryce Harper or Mike Trout, just to make things fair. I’m only saying — as one of many examples — MLB sold the rights to MLB Advanced Media, and each owner is receiving $50 million just for the fuck of it. These guys aren’t hurting for money. There is enough to go around to raise the floor for everybody.

I’m not optimistic that the pushback from the Players Association will ever be realized the way I want it to be, but that’s more to say I’m not confident in them doing anything to help themselves anytime soon. The players’ union already boxed themselves in so hard over the last few CBA’s, seemingly the only effective option they have left at their disposal is a strike. But, like I mentioned earlier, this is complicated by the fact that there are so many factions within the group. It won’t be easy to band everyone together.

As a start, it’s good that the Players have rejected MLB’s proposal to add pitch clocks. Now if MLB decides, as Jerry Crasnick points out in the original ESPN article I embedded, “to unilaterally implement new rules,” the MLBPA will have a legit beef to stand on, and unite around. It’s not exactly the most inspiring rally cry — being anti pitch clock — but it is something. And when the owners take, and take, and take, at some point the chickens have to come home to roost. If this is what it takes to get the Players’ Association to have an honest autopsy of everything that has gone wrong for them over the last twenty years, it could give them the motivation they need heading into the Collective Bargaining negotiations in 2021.

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