The financial not-so-merry-go-round goes round

2020-06-04 ManfredBaseballsMaybe Hall of Fame pitcher Tom Glavine was wrong when he said last month that, if major league baseball doesn’t return, the players are going to look bad no matter how right they might be. The deeper goes the impasse between the owners and the players, the more the owners resemble the people to whom the good of the game equals nothing but the bottom line.

The owners and the players agreed in March to play any shortened season with the players paid their signed-for 2020 salaries on a pro-rated basis—until the owners said not so fast. The owners tried for a 50-50 revenue split knowing it would cost a lot of players a lot more money than just playing under their pro-rated 2020 salaries—and the players said not so fast.

Now the players, as if they needed further evidence for the defense that yes, they’d rather be playing baseball, proposed a 114-game season. The owners, who first thought of an 82-game season, said, essentially . . . not so fast. They rejected that proposal almost out of hand, then decided that negotiating further meant nothing when they could find a way to impose a 50-game season and, by the way, the players were perfectly free to negotiate against themselves.

That’s the way Yahoo! Sports columnist Hannah Keyser phrased it, more or less. MLB “believes that language in that agreement around ‘economic feasibility’ of restarting a season allows them to negotiate a further pay cut for the players now it’s become clear that games will be played without fans, at least at first,” she writes. “The union disagrees with that interpretation, as well as the league’s assertion that owners will lose money on every regular season game.”

By comparison it’s been simpler for the owners and the players to agree on such details as playing this season with a universal designated hitter (and it should be kept when things become normal again in 2021), a one-time-only postseason expansion, and wringing out the fine details of proper health protocols.

Where they demur mostly is about money. The owners, who’ve rarely passed on a chance to try suppressing player pay in the past, are using the coronavirus-triggered season delay to try it now. The players, who know they have a March deal to play pro-rated, have the unmitigated gall to insist the owners live up to the deal to which they themselves agreed.

Oh, sure, the owners harrumph that they’ll still pay pro-rated 2020 salaries under a 50-game season. Don’t fool yourselves: it means the players earning less thanks to drastically slashed time on the job. Talk about a de facto salary cap.

It means, as Keyser writes, that commissioner Rob Manfred and the owners “would declare the negotiations a failure and effectively cut the hours of their employees who refused to agree to lower wages. All of which they seemingly can do, and it would be a success . . . ”

That is an almost embarrassingly trite and self-evident thing to say based on the behavior of Major League Baseball owners over the past few years. Of course they’re more concerned with minimizing costs than retaining top talent or paying minor league players a living wage. But it’s worth emphasizing that they just announced they’re also more concerned with savings than even hosting baseball games. They’re betraying more than the spirit of competitive balance with their cheapness now, they’re also depriving fans of the very product they’re trying to sell.

Speaking of paying minor league players living wages, it’s worth noting that major league players have embarrassed a few teams out of trying to cut their minor leaguers off. Without even throwing a single regular season pitch in the uniform, Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher David Price elected to hand each minor leaguer in the Dodger system $1,000 out of his own pocket.

When the world champion Washington Nationals thought about cutting their minor league players off at the pass, their players—as announced by relief pitcher Sean Doolittle last weekend—said not so fast, and prepared to pool their own monies to take care of those minor leaguers, prompting the organisation to keep their farm players on the payroll after all. Doolittle subsequently announced the Nats’ major leaguers would continue offering the team’s farm players financial help.

Remember: The major league players may not be impoverished, exactly, but the owners are impoverished far, far, less. When Chicago Cubs owner Tom Ricketts says it’s not like they can just move money around at will—given that the virus shutdown has wreaked losses at a “biblical” scale and MLB doesn’t exactly “make a lot of cash”— even his fellow owners know he’s talking through his chapeau.

For the seventeenth year in a row, 2019 saw MLB set a new revenue record. Forbes recorded it as $10.7 billion. “In accounting, revenues are calculated before factoring in expenses,” writes NBC Sports’s Bill Baer, “but unless the league has $10 billion in expenses, I cannot think of a way in which Ricketts’ statement can be true.”

Something else to ponder as well, if the owners aren’t going to the poorhouse and are trying to game the players yet again, and if the players are willing to extend financial helping hands to their teams’ minor leaguers: What about going the extra few miles and extending helping hands to 600+ short-career pre-1980 major leaguers who were frozen out when baseball’s pension plan was realigned that year to shorten up the time in MLB service required for a full MLB pension to vest?

Remember: The late players union director Marvin Miller said in due course that not revisiting and remodeling that realignment to include those pre-1980 short-career players was his biggest mistake and regret. The players in question do receive some monies from a deal worked out between former commissioner Bud Selig and the late players union director Michael Weiner—but they can’t pass that $625-per-quarter-of-MLB-service to their families when they pass on.

Today’s players union director Tony Clark has been (phrased politely) cool about the matter. The Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association has been likewise, unfortunately. Amplified especially since three of the players who’d been involved actively in the pension redress cause—former pitchers David Clyde and Gary Niebauer, and former first baseman/longtime coach Eddie Robinson—were squeezed off the association’s pension services committee.

Maybe today’s players, if they can be made further aware, might think of pitching in likewise for those short-career men who also supported their union in actions that helped pry open the door to free agency and tackle other pertinent issues involving major league players, and sacrificed considerable income despite earning less than princely salaries for assorted reasons.

Maybe. First, let’s find the right way to get a 2020 season played at all, about which the owners seem less concerned than about preserving whatever they think remains of their bottom lines. You don’t want to know what might emanate if the owners get away with imposing a too-short season for no better reason than to cut the players off at the financial pass.

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