Tiny sweetening for pre-1980, pension-less players

For 525 pre-1980 major leaguers, their cups of coffee are sweetened only slightly by a raise to their still-short-of-full-pensions annual stipend.

Once upon a time, a World War II-era radio commentator named Gabriel Heatter opened the lion’s share of his broadcasts with, “There’s good news tonight!” For 525 remaining pre-1980 short-career major league players denied pensions in the 1980 pension plan re-alignment, there was a small but significant spot of good news to start the week.

The New York Times‘s David Gardner, writing of one such player, Aaron Pointer, mentioned almost in passing that not only will Pointer and the others receive the annual stipend payments the now-solved lockout blocked in February, but the stipend will increase by fifteen percent over five years.

The stipend in question was arranged by the late Major League Baseball Players Association director Michael Weiner and then-commissioner Bud Selig in 2011. The original deal delivered $625 per 43 days’ major league service time for those players, up to $10,000 a year before taxes.

A fifteen-percent increase isn’t close to what those former players deserve, considering how unconscionably they were frozen out of the 1980 pension plan re-alignment, but it’s something. The bad news is that they still can’t pass their stipend to their families upon their deaths.

“That’s a good move, and I’m glad they remembered us,” says Pointer, the last full-season .400+ hitter when he did it in Class-D minors in 1961, to Gardner. “Although it could have happened earlier, and it should have happened earlier. A lot of guys who have passed won’t benefit, but it does help the guys who are still alive. It’s just a shame: It should have happened years ago.”

Several such players to whom I’ve spoken, since my first encounter with former Mets/Senators/Tigers pitcher Bill Denehy in 2019, have said they believe one key reason for their freeze-out was a perception that the bulk of them were only September call-ups, enjoying what journalist Douglas J. Gladstone termed—as the title of his book about these players and the freeze-out called it—A Bitter Cup of Coffee.

Denehy himself made all three of his major league rosters out of spring training, including as a rookie with the 1967 Mets. (His teammates included Hall of Famer Tom Seaver, with whom he shared a Topps rookie card that season.) A misdiganosed shoulder injury compromised his career; numerous, excessive cortisone shots have had the long-term effect of rendering him legally blind since early 2005.

The September question shouldn’t even have been an issue in the first place, particularly since the 1980 pension re-alignment changed pension vesting to 43 days’ major league service time, period, as opposed to the previous four years’ vesting time. It also changed the vesting time for qualifying for MLB’s health benefits plan to one day’s service time.

But I’ve begun examining the game logs at Baseball Reference of all remaining 525 such short-career, pre-1980 players. Running down in alphabetical order just the first 25 names on the list, none of those 25 were mere September call-ups.

Fourteen of the first 25 either came north with their major league clubs in at least one April or joined their teams during at least one April to play several games during that month. Three arrived in at least one May; four more, in at least one June; three more, in at least one July; and, one in at least one August. I suspect that, once I’ve seen the game logs of the remaining 500 names on the list, I’ll discover much the same.

Those players paid their MLBPA dues faithfully and supported any and all actions to begin prying players out of the abusive reserve era and toward their rightful free agency. Many of them had their moments in the sun of the Show even if they weren’t destined to become long-term players for assorted reasons, never mind superstars.

But you’ll be very hard pressed to find more than an extremely few sportswriters with national reach (Bill Madden of the New York Daily News has been a very notable and honourable one of them) who have written more than cursorily or by-the-way, if at all, about these men and their pension freeze-outs.

The Players Association’s first director, Marvin Miller, once told frozen-out players that in 1980 the money to cover them wasn’t yet available fully but he believed future labour agreements would repair that. Miller’s tenure ended in the early 1980s; Denehy, Clyde, and other such players have said Miller’s largest regret was that the union didn’t redress that 1980 mistake completely.

Those to whom I’ve spoken since 2019 have told me they believe that, if Weiner had lived (he died of an inoperable brain tumour in 2013), he would have worked to get further redress for themselves and their otherwise frozen-out short-career brethren.

But we’ll never truly know. And today’s major league players, flush as they are even in minimum-salary terms, seem barely aware if at all that these men, who helped make their justly-earned and not-begrudged riches possible in the first place, settle for a mere stipend instead of a full, just-as-deserved baseball pension.

Met fan Cohen, athwart Met fans’ impatience

Steve Cohen, an owner who believes a jump into the pool requires water in it first.

“I don’t need to be popular,” tweeted Steve Cohen, the so-far very popular new owner of the Mets, on Monday. “I just need to make good decisions.” Apparently, there were enough Met fans thinking Cohen needed to make decisions, period, in the wake of the Padres’ wheeling and dealing and the Mets deciding not to join the hunt for Japanese pitcher Tomoyuki Sugano.

Cohen’s apparent watchword is, “If Rome wasn’t built in a day, the Mets won’t be reinforced in a week.” Met fans drained from years of Wilpon family follies say the American prayer: “Lord, grant me patience—and I want it yesterday.” For Cohen, that’s about as funny as passengers booked for seafaring passage aboard torpedoes.

When the Padres blew up the hot stove with deals making Padres of Blake Snell and Yu Darvish, Met fans felt the old familiar itch to do. something. anything. like yesterday. They forgot for the moment that, before the Padres wheeled and dealt, the Mets were the most active on this winter’s odd market.

I guess on to another pitcher. @StevenACohen2 well I guess McCann and May is it for us. Time to hibernate until Spring Training,” tweeted one such fan. To which Cohen had a polite but snappy retort at once: “That’s the spirit, just give up and go to sleep.”

From the moment his purchase of the Mets was affirmed, Cohen has been singular among baseball owners for putting himself out to engage his team’s fans. He has solicited their input and suggestions. It doesn’t mean he’s inclined to suffer fools, gladly or otherwise, even if they forget that he has been a Met fan himself—like me, since they day they were born.

He knows he has a team to reinforce. He knows his amiability has made him something customarily alien to baseball owners: beloved, so far. He doesn’t want to go from there to public enemy number one, but neither does he want to step imprudently into any one of several abysses.

The New York Post‘s Joel Sherman has also caught onto Met fans’ indignation: he’s been receiving no few tweets and e-mails “wondering whether Steve Cohen is the Wilpons, just hoarding a larger stash of money.

“After all,” he continues, “why was George Springer not under the Christmas tree? Why wasn’t Trevor Bauer provided to joyously greet 2021? Why James McCann and not J.T. Realmuto [behind the plate]?”

Sherman notes what such fans forget. This winter’s free agency market, for various reasons, has been about as swift as a number 7 train with a wheel chip on each car. The Mets handing James McCann $40 million for four years is both the most free agency money invested this winter and the longest contract done yet for non-foreign free agents, Sherman reminds you.

“Cohen’s promise was that the Mets would spend like a big-market team, and he should be held to that promise,” Sherman writes. “But that promise has not been broken this offseason. At least not yet.” And Cohen did not become wealthy because he reads markets the way old television jokes read Romeo and Juliet: “Two crazy kids ran off together and died.”

He’s willing to spend but not like the proverbial drunken sailor. For one thing, Cohen knows the Mets’ farm system, what will remain of it after the Show finishes its more than slightly mad stripping of the minor leagues, needs replenishment if not a mild overhaul. For another, he knows a healthy farm often leads to healthy reinforcements either by promotion to the Mets or in deals that bring healthy reinforcements if not fresh prime.

“Hey, Give the Padres credit,” Cohen tweeted after one of the Friars’ two splashy trades. “They had a top 5 farm system that gave them flexibility to trade for Snell. Newsflash, the Mets farm system needs to be replenished.”

News flash, further: Met fans may have the patience of piranha at meal time, but Cohen has no patience for falling into the position of bidding against himself. “The Blue Jays are the only other club known to want to spend lavishly in free agency,” Sherman observes, “but historically it has been difficult to lure top free agents to Canada. Cohen will have to believe that a Springer or a DJ LeMahieu is really going before he considers that game of chicken. There certainly are quieter suitors. But, again, none of the remaining big free agents will be signing without hearing Cohen’s last and best. He will not do a deal he calculates as bad just to stop the noise of even impatient Mets fans.”

Cohen’s memory, like mine, surely harks back to the 1980s when another New York team, owned by a man to whom patience was a vice, jumped into the market pools as often as not before checking to see the water level. For every Catfish Hunter, Rickey Henderson, and Dave Winfield, there were a few too many Dave Collinses, Joe Cowleys, Don Gulletts, Steve Kemps, Dave LaPoints, Bob Shirleys, and Ed Whitsons.

Cohen also knows that, with one or two outlying exceptions, the Yankees’ greatest successes in the free agency era have come by way of a homegrown core blended with a little smart horse trading. Yap all you want about them trying to buy pennants, but when the Yankees spent the biggest in the open market they didn’t reach the Promised Land to which Yankee fans believe they’re entitled every year.

When another fan tweeted to Cohen, “What exactly are we doing? Is James McCann really going to be our biggest pickup this offseason? Please say no,” Cohen replied, “Let me put it differently. Don’t you think someone will take our money? It just has to make sense.”

The last time any Met administrator spoke about “making sense” was when?

The Mets know their starting pitching can’t stop at Jacob deGrom, re-signed Marcus Stroman, David Peterson, due-to-return Noah Syndergaard, and just another body. Seth Lugo is far better suited at the rear end of the bullpen, which also needs all the reinforcement/replenishment it can get.

They also have a very solid core around the field and at the plate, and McCann is a big upgrade behind it. But if they really want to go in for George Springer, they need to decide who’s the expendable one to slot Springer into their outfield. They need to decide how to make things work otherwise so Jeff McNeil can be restored to his natural infield habitat.

They need to decide whether Cohen’s determination to replenish the farm is worth casting eyes upon Springer, Trevor Bauer (pitcher), and D.J. LeMahieu (middle infielder). That trio, Sherman reminds us, got qualifying offers from their 2020 teams, meaning the Mets lose draft picks if they sign any or all of them. For farm replenishment, that’s not an option. If they can only afford one big ticket, Springer may yet be their prime target. May.

Cohen and the Mets also need to find a way to help commissioner Rob Manfred off the proverbial schneid and into the right decision about last year’s experimental rules. So does, well, every other Show team. You’d like to think that even ownerships as determined to tank as Cohen isn’t don’t want to embarrass themselves entirely.

In with the universal designated hitter, once and for bloody all, and out with the other nonsense. Among other salutary things—such as an end to the lineup slot wasted by spaghetti-bat pitchers, and rallies murdered when enemy pitchers work around that potent number eight bat to strike out their counterparts—it’ll keep Dominic Smith’s bat in the lineup without having to sacrifice Pete Alonso’s bat (yes, children, Alonso’s 2020 was an aberration of a down irregular season) at first base.

Cohen seems determined to avoid the comedies of errors committed by prior team ownerships and administrations. He resists the temptations to which too many Met fans would be prone if placed into his position for even one week. A man who speaks about making sense is a man who earns a very wide benefit of the doubt.

Speaking for myself alone, now, I have a wish of my own for Cohen. It has nothing to do with wanting him to slip into a sailor’s uniform, get himself bombed out of his trees, and throw dollars around the free agency market like they were just blasted out of a pinata.

My wish is that Cohen might consider a gesture on behalf of more than a few of the Met players he, like me, grew up watching and rooting for in the 1960s and 1970s. Players whose major league careers were kept too short for assorted reasons. Players who were frozen out unconscionably when, in 1980, owners and the Major League Baseball Players Association re-aligned baseball’s pension plan.

The re-alignment awarded pensions to players after 43 days’ major league service (previously, a player needed four years) and health benefits after a single day’s major league service. But it didn’t apply to short-career major leaguers who played between 1949 and 1980.

For those short-career players, their sole redress was a 2011 deal between then-commissioner Bud Selig and then-players union director Michael Weiner, a deal giving them $625 per quarter for every 43 days’ major league time they had, up to four years’ worth. The kicker, right in the pants, is that they can’t pass that money to their loved ones if they pass before they stop collecting the money.

Several former Mets are among what are now 618 such short-career players without full pensions other than what they receive under the Selig-Weiner deal. They include pitchers Bill Wakefield, Bill Denehy (traded to Washington in exchange for manager Gil Hodges) and Jack DiLauro (a 1969 Met, though not in the postseason), infielder Bobby Pfeil (another Miracle Met), outfielders Rod Gaspar (still another Miracle Met) and George (The Stork) Theodore, and others.

Denehy, Pfiel, and Gaspar have each told me in interviews they believe that, if Weiner had lived (he died of brain cancer in 2013), he would have worked to go further with such pension redress. The players union since has taken little to no interest in such redress; neither, apparently, does the Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association.

But Marvin Miller, the late pioneer of the players union, is known to have said that not re-visiting the 1980 pension changes on behalf of the short-termers was his biggest regret. And if the Show has now conferred proper formal, official major league status on the seven known Negro Leagues we believed to our souls contained major leaguers all along, it should be known that there are African-American and other minority players among the frozen-out 618.

I’m not a man who believes I have the right to tell anyone else how to spend his or her money or where to channel their resources. Nor do I believe I have the right to choose another person or group’s obligations, moral or otherwise. But Gaspar had a point when he told me, last month, “They have so much money, the owners, the players’ union, they have so much money, how much money would it cost them to give the [pre-1980 short-career] guys who are still alive the pension?”

It would be a phenomenal gesture on Steve Cohen’s part if he should think well, by himself, of doing something solely for the short-career, pre-1980, former Mets affected negatively by that pension change. If nothing else, the image augmentation would be invaluable—an owner doing what the players union and alumni association either can’t or won’t.

Should Cohen consider it, however he might choose to do it, it might even kick off a wave among his fellow owners to do likewise for their teams’ frozen-out, pre-1980 short-career former players. Might. Quick: Name one owner who wouldn’t mind making the players’ union look a little foolish.