Rank desertion? Don’t even go there.

2020-07-11 BusterPosey

San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey has opted out of playing this year for the sake of his children—an incumbent pair of twins and a pair of twin newborns freshly adopted. Some dare call it desertion—erroneously.

Whatever else you think about those major league players who have opted out of playing in 2020, or who think about doing so, here’s something that shouldn’t come into play: someone snarking about such players committing “rank desertion.” (So help me, that’s how someone phrased it in one online baseball forum.) Ignore them. Let them rant their heads off, but you’re under no obligation to listen.

That’s one of the beauties of free speech, what’s left of it. You can rant your head off any old time and place it strikes you to rant. You also bear no known mandatory obligation to listen to any particular ranter for any particular reason.

Militarily, of course, “rank desertion” equals one soldier, sailor, marine, or airman, or a group of them, walking away from their units or posts without call, usually but not exclusively in wartime. In civilian terms, “rank desertion” implies someone or a group of someones walking off the job where there’s no known option aside from a labour strike or formal resignation to do it.

The players were given the opt-out option after all those weeks of haggling between the owners trying to game them out of agreed-upon-in-March pay protocols before they finally agreed to give what remained of a 2020 season a try. Handed that option, those players exercising it cannot be accused credibly of rank desertion.

There’s a coronavirus still on world tour, to various extents, and baseball players play and sojourn in places that still present exposure risks they’re not entirely anxious to bring home. Especially when they have loved ones considered in the high-risk category.

San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey may be the highest-profile player to opt out of the season to date. There but for the curse of injuries might he be in the Hall of Fame conversation; maybe two or even three more injury-free seasons on his jacket might keep him there. He could still get those seasons beginning next year.

As was his right under the current protocols, Posey thought more than twice about the twin babies he and his wife, Kristin, are adopting. They were born prematurely last week and at this writing remain in neonatal intensive care. The San Francisco Chronicle says the little girls are doing well enough in the circumstance.

Already the father of incumbent twin children, Posey weighed the risk and pondered the opt-out option that has yet to be rescinded. Then, he made his decision for the sake of his children’s health. The same decision Los Angeles Angels demigod Mike Trout continues weighing as the birth of his first child with his wife, Jessica, looms next month.

Trout isn’t exactly on poverty row so far as major league baseball players are concerned. Neither is Posey, even if Trout is above and beyond his and any other player’s pay grade. Atlanta Braves outfielder Nick Markakis has a family to consider as well, and he’s not exactly going to be among the poor by opting out of 2020, either, as he did during the week now past.

Two factors moved Markakis to opt out, the risk to his family and the very real COVID-19 infection incurred by his franchise co-face face teammate Freddie Freeman. (Braves fans have a case to make that Freeman now shares the distinction with Markakis’s fellow outfielder Ronald Acuna, Jr. Markakis also admits playing with no audience at first doesn’t exactly pose a thrill.)

Markakis spoke to Freeman by phone and learned fast enough. “Just hearing him, the way he sounded on the phone, it was tough,” he told reporters last Monday. “It was kind of eye-opening. With everything that’s going on, not just with baseball but all over the world, it makes you open your eyes.”

Felix Hernandez, the longtime Seattle pitching bellwether now trying to resuscitate his career with the Braves, has also opted out of 2020. So has Michael Kopech, the Chicago White Sox pitcher who’d otherwise hoped to begin his return from his 2018 Tommy John surgery. So has Colorado Rockies outfielder Ian Desmond, whose teammate Charlie Blackmon was hit with COVID-19 and who has alarms about equal to health alarms for doing so.

On health terms, Desmond and his wife, Chelsey, are already parents of four young children and Mrs. Desmond is pregnant with their fifth. That’s the immediate reason Desmond exercised his opt-out option. But it provided him a chance to speak publicly enough on social and even spiritual terms.

Desmond—who is bi-racial—laments what the George Floyd murder at police hands in Minneapolis re-exposes of society in general and, from his perspective, the game he loves otherwise. “Think about it: right now in baseball we’ve got a labor war,” Desmond began in a round of jolting but thought-provoking Instagram posts.

We’ve got rampant individualism on the field. In clubhouses we’ve got racist, sexist, homophobic jokes or flat-out problems. We’ve got cheating. We’ve got a minority issue from the top down. One African American GM. Two African American managers. Less than 8% Black players. No Black majority team owners.

Perhaps most disheartening of all is a puzzling lack of focus on understanding how to change those numbers. A lack of focus on making baseball accessible and possible for all kids, not just those who are privileged enough to afford it.

If baseball is America’s pastime, maybe it’s never been a more fitting one than now . . .

Other opt-outs, also for familial health concerns, include Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher David Price (who has yet to throw a pitch in regular-season competition for them), and three Washington Nationals: first baseman and elder statesman Ryan Zimmerman, relief pitcher Joe Ross, and catcher Welington Castillo.

Baseball’s coronavirus testings have not exactly proven the epitome of consistency or coordination. Teams like the Giants, the Nationals, the Houston Astros, the St. Louis Cardinals have postponed several “summer camp” workouts over them. Astros third baseman Alex Bregman skipped a subsequent Astros workout when his test didn’t arrive back on time. That had a few of his teammates more than a little shaky.

“We want to know how these test results are going to work out for us,” said outfielder Michael Brantley. “Not having Alex here today was just another day he didn’t get to prepare. As I read around the league, a lot of players are voicing their opinions that we need our test results back faster.”

You can say anything you wish about those players opting out and others yet to come who opt out of 2020 for their health’s sake first. If baseball’s testings continue being that inconsistently performed and handled, would you really be shocked to see more players deciding their health and their families’ health just can’t be entrusted to that? Regardless of their salaries?

You can also say as you wish about Desmond’s not-to-be-dismissed-out-of-hand thoughts regarding the first American team sport to end segregation officially while still having issues 73 years later accepting and assimilating non-white personnel on and off the playing field. You don’t need to demand a quota system to say baseball can, should, and must do a better job of it.

Much as we’ve missed a major league season thus far, we seem to need reminders more often than comfortable that certain things cut both ways. Things like the “human element,” for example. The traditionalists screamed blue murder over technological advances they thought (erroneously) would erode the “human element.” But it isn’t just traditionalists dismissing the opting-out as rank deserters.

That dismissal is a plain, no-further-discussion-necessary false dismissal of, what do you know, the human element. The element that says baseball players are not invincible androids who can’t be felled by or transmit disease but mere human men, prone to all manner of incurring and transmitting affliction, particularly during a pandemic that’s become as much a political football as a challenge to medicine.

The rank desertion accusers should be asked how swiftly they’d step in and take the risk for the sake of playing a game much beloved but not without risk. When they answer, “five minutes ago,” they should be asked just as promptly whether they’d like to bring an infection back to their loved ones.

The crickets should be heard playing the entirety of a classic jazz album—In a Silent Way.

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.