It’s Miller time . . . for retirement

Andrew Miller

The Cubs won the 2016 World Series but, until they did, Cleveland relief pitcher Andrew Miller may have been that postseason’s biggest star.

Andrew Miller’s mother once hoped he’d parlay his high 1500s SAT results into a college degree from Masschussetts Institute of Technology. Mrs. Miller would just have to settle for her brainy son becoming a lefthanded pitcher who helped revolutionise relief work, and who helped articulate the folly of the owners’ lockout from December through almost mid-March.

Miller had long proven that the best, most valuable relief pitcher in the bullpen isn’t necessarily your “closer” earning “saves, particularly with the team then known as the Indians (now the Guardians) in the 2016 postseason plus the second half of 2016’s and most of 2017’s regular seasons.

But during the foolish lockout, the 36-year-old Miller also helped clarify that the players refused to suffer tanking any more gladly than tanking teams’ fans do.

“All during these negotiations,” Peter Gammons wrote in The Athletic as the lockout finally came to its end, “Miller drove home the players’ insistence that tanking and ideas that diminished competition were contrary to their beliefs. He consistently called ‘increased competition a core goal’ of the negotiations. ‘Anything that points towards mediocrity is the antithesis of the game and what we’re about as players,’ he said.”

Miller announced his retirement Thursday, after a considerably distinguished sixteen-season pitching career, in which he shifted himself from a nothing-special starting pitcher who couldn’t harness his repertoire into a game-changing relief pitcher who used his stamina and his wipeout slider to show both the uselessness of the save-centric mindset and resurrect an ancient–and then-controversial, too—idea about relief work.

Hall of Fame manager Casey Stengel thought nothing of bringing prime relief (Joe Page, Allie Reynolds, Bob Turley, to name three) in earlier than the latest innings when he managed the Yankees. He hammered the point that the time to reach for a stopper happens any time, even in the earliest innings. Miller’s Indians manager Terry Francona, whose new toy came from the Yankees in a non-waiver trade deadline deal, used Miller in just that way the rest of 2016 and all the way through the postseason.

It finished what Miller’s four-year/$36 million deal with the Yankees in December 2014 started: making a mostly non-closing relief pitcher into a star. He stayed with the Yankees until that trade deadline. For the second half of 2016, right up to the moment he ran out of petrol in Game Seven of the 2016 World Series (an RBI single, plus David Ross’s last major league hit–a leadoff home run), Miller was the Indians’ best relief pitcher.

According to fielding-independent pitching, which accounts for the things within a pitcher’s control as traditional earned-run average doesn’t, it wasn’t even close: his 1.53 FIP was 80 points below the next-lowest in the pen, Dan Otero’s 2.33 . . . and 1.78 below designated closer Cody Allen.

The ancient beer commercial proclaimed, “Now—it’s Miller Time.” The skipper for team known then as the Indians proclaimed, “Now—it’s Miller Time,” whenever he needed a stopper in that postseason. Quick: Name the only two relief pitchers ever to win a postseason Most Valuable Player award without being their teams’ primary closers. Answer: Miller, in the 2016 American League Championship Series; and, Rob Dibble, in the 1990 Natoinal League Championship Series.

Miller was just as deadly in 2017 (1.99 FIP) until he developed patellar tendinitis in his right knee, his landing knee, in early August, returning that September. He ran out of fuel again in the postseason, this time against his former team, the Yankees, in the Indians’ division series exit.

In due course he signed with the Cardinals, but he fought injuries and the inconsistencies they provoked. He never really looked like the force of nature he was in 2016-17 again, except during three brief postseason trips with the Cardinals. In fact, his entire posteason relief FIP—seven postseasons, 29 games, and one trip to the World Series—is more sparkling than his regular-season career marks as a reliever and as the starter he first was before he discovered life in the bullpen with the 2011-12 Red Sox:

Andrew Miller—Fielding-Independent Pitching (FIP), Career
As a starting pitcher 4.78
As a relief pitcher 3.02
As a postseason reliever 2.43

He’d shortened his delivery into a partial slide step to help him put more bite on that slider. He also paid close attention to just how he and his fellow relief corpsmen were handled, fuming over an early-season set in Chicago during which Valentine seemed almost indifferent to how the April chill affected their pen preparation.

“The Red Sox returned home . . . and when Miller got to the park, he was upset about the usage of Rich Hill—who had already worked through a couple of operations in his career,” Gammons wrote.

Miller talked about how Hill had gotten up “close to eight times” and finally got in to face one lone batter in the bottom of the eighth inning, and Miller said, “there ought to be some kind of punishment for doing that to a pitcher, particularly someone with a medical history.” Miller turned a corner in his career that season under [2012 Red Sox manager Bobby] Valentine and there were no public issues. But he felt a teammate had been jeopardized and for 24 hours remained in that window.

“The problem still seems to be,” I wrote in the 19 March edition of the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America’s Here’s the Pitch newsletter, “that enough managers pay too little attention to the pitch volume relievers throw in the pen before they come into games . . . if they come into games. Some of those managers still think a relief pitcher hasn’t “pitched” unless he’s been in a game. Those men may well throw more innings’ worth of pitches in the pen than they’ll ever throw on the game mound.”

Apparently, there was at least one relief pitching thinking along the same lines in 2012. Rest assured, Miller’s probably not the only such reliever with the only such thoughts. The need to monitor relief pitchers’ warmup work carefully and manage it prudently remains profound if rarely appreciated.

Miller’s Cardinals teammate Adam Wainwright, himself now approaching the end of a splendid pitching career, appreciates Miller as both a relief pitcher and an advocate for the greater good of the game as one of the players’ union’s main negotiators.

He changed the game and he kind of took that relief role back to when it first started, guys who could do two, three innings–and he was the guy who did it in the postseason. I have an appreciation for what he did for the entire game of baseball. As many hours as that guy put in for the union over these past few years is kind of staggering. He may retire and that means this whole offseason he still spent sixteen hours on the phone a day, for us, for who’s next–that means a lot.

Miller is also the kind of young man who appreciates such things in life as fine wines and (this endears him to my guitar playing heart even more) the woods used to make guitars. The relief force who has worn the uniforms of the Tigers, the Orioles, the Red Sox, the Yankees, the Indians, and the Cardinals also has a calm appreciation for baseball’s history and signatures.

“I’m usually pretty quick to be able to step back though and see how lucky I have been,” Miller told the Post-Dispatch. “The hard times were necessary for me to grow and to be able to appreciate the highs along the way. Ultimately, I was able to play for many great franchises, wear historic uniforms, and play in some amazing ballparks.”

Pondering such appreciation causes me to ponder that I’d love to find a way to suggest Miller in retirement could bring his considerable weight to bear, as a baseball thinker as well as pitcher, on behalf of a forgotten player class: the now 504 pre-1980, short-career major leaguers who were frozen out of a 1980 pension realignment that made pension vesting possible after 43 days’ major league service time

All those players have received since is an annual stipend negotiated by former Players Association director Michael Weiner and former commissioner Bud Selig. The original stipend was $625 per 43 days’ major league service time, up to $10,000 a year. Somewhere during the lockout, the stipend—whose February payment was delayed pending the lockout settlement—was hiked fifteen percent. Now, it’s $718.75 per 43 days’ major league service time.

It’s hardly close to what those pre-1980 short-career men deserve, but it’s something. The further bad news is that those monies still can’t be passed to those men’s families upon their deaths.

Many of those men were active union members supporting the battles for players’ rights and respect, which compounds the original injustice. Several of those players have said they believe a perception that most were mere September callups factored in their original freeze-out. Well. I’ve been looking it up. So far, the majority of such players either made even one of their teams’ rosters out of spring training or appeared on rosters as early as later in April, or May, or June, or July, or August.

Articulate, intelligent, sensitive Andrew Miller, entering a richly-earned retirement, would be an invaluable voice of influence on behalf of those men, if he could be made further aware of such an injustice.

Baseball’s unlocked. But . . .

“I believe that God/put sun and moon up in the sky./I don’t mind the gray skies/’cause they’re just clouds passing by.” So wrote Duke Ellington, and sang Mahalia Jackson, in his 1943 magnum opus reworked for 1958’s album  Black, Brown, and Beige. The lyric was part of a segment called “Come Sunday.”

Come Sunday, this Sunday, the gray skies yield metaphorically as spring training finally begins. And, early-series cancellations notwithstanding, there will indeed be 2,430 regular season baseball games played in a 162-game schedule this year. It might mean a tighter calendar, of course. But, given that, does it now feel as though spring has arrived properly at last?

Baseball’s owners’ lockout, which ended 26 years of labour “peace” needlessly, ended Thursday. Commissioner Rob Manfred called it a “defensive lockout.” Those who believe that might as well believe Vladmir Putin decided to defend himself against Ukranian “aggression.”

The owners could very well have elected to let baseball continue operating while they negotiated and hammered out a new collective bargaining agreement. The now-concluded 99-day lockout was and will ever be on them entirely. But they had the players right where the players wanted them. Sort of.

The players now have the owners accepting the largest hike in the so-called competitive balance tax—too long used by the owners as a de facto salary cap—since the tax was born after the 1994-95 players’ strike. They also have the owners accepting the largest jump ever in the minimum major league player’s salary, and a pre-arbitration bonus pool for young players emerging as early stars that’s worth $230 million new money just over the time span of the new CBA.

Yet the Major League Baseball Players Association’s vote for accepting the terms was a mere 26-12. The Athletic‘s Evan Drellich writes that it was “telling” for “roughly a third of the executive board [feeling] there was more to accomplish right now, in continued negotiations in 2022, not in the future.”

There’s the warning from Hall of Fame baseball writer Jayson Stark: The new competitive-balance tax threshold may not necessarily mean putting the “competitive balance” all the way into it:

You know those seven teams that came within $8 million of going over the [old] threshold last year? They’re likely to do that same thing this year—other than the Mets, who are already well north of it. But if all those teams spend another $20 million or so apiece, that’s a notch in the win column for players, except for one thing . . . teams that weren’t spending money before still have no incentive to spend now.

“All this does is just increase payroll disparity,” said one longtime club official. “Just because the Phillies go up $10 million doesn’t mean a team like the Marlins goes up $10 million.”

In other words, there’s still room enough for continuing tanking. Maybe that was why that one-third of the union’s executive board felt there was still more to get done now, if not yesterday. Remember Hall of Fame shortstop Derek Jeter took a hike from running the Marlins almost a fortnight ago, saying, essentially, that he didn’t sign up to preside over the Fish only to see their “direction” resemble a killifish and not a barracuda.

What, then, of commissioner Rob Manfred, who is probably the single worst salesman in baseball and barely sold it when he proclaimed at a Thursday press conference that he was “thrilled” the lockout was over and a new deal was done?

At least three questions presented to him inquired about future mended relationships between MLB and those who actually play baseball. Manfred actually doffed his stegasaurus-in-the-china-shop cloak to admit he hasn’t been so successful at promoting “a good relationship with our players. I’ve tried to do that. I have not been successful at that.”

Gee, what gave him the clue? Standing with almost no apology for the precept that the general good of the game is making money for the owners? Allowing the owners to go 43 days worth of silent after their lockout began? Dismissing the World Series championship trophy as “a piece of metal” while not quite holding all the Houston cheaters accountable when Astrogate tainted their 2017 World Series title and outraged as large a percentage of players as it did fans?

Saying it was Mike Trout’s fault Trout wasn’t considered baseball’s face outside the game itself? Abetting the owners trying to cheat the players out of their proper pro-rated 2020 salaries during the pan-damn-ically short season? Tinkering like Rube Goldberg with the game’s play, from the free cookie on second base to open each half inning to the three-batter minimum for relief pitchers?

Manfred did at least observe that the new deal should give the owners and the players more than a little room to move on working out such things as doing away with draft-pick compensation for players reaching free agency; and, on establishing a joint committee aimed at addressing issues involving field competition. But . . .

“The committee can implement rules changes with 45 days notice,” writes another Athletic staffer, Ken Rosenthal, “and with the league holding a majority of members, Manfred can push through any changes he desires. Will he do it, continuing the league’s chest-pounding, zero-sum style? Or will he and league officials show greater understanding that players are the product, and become better listeners?”

They’ve barely understood, if at all, that no fan has ever paid his or her way into a ballpark to see their team’s owner. “Recent history suggests that when the owners give in one area, they take from another, which again leaves the middle class of players vulnerable,” Rosenthal warns. “Don’t hold your breath waiting for the league to suddenly become more benevolent to its most valued employees, though even a mildly less aggressive approach would be helpful.”

But Rosenthal points to at least one team administrator not named Steve Cohen (the deepest-of-deep-pockets owner of the Mets whom enough owners fear for his willingness to invest in his team and its organisation) who has more than a clue. “It’s paramount,” said Twins president Dave St. Peter on a Zoom call to writers covering the team, “that we as an industry do a better job of building trust with our players.”

Coming in the wake of such petty tacks as scrubbing players from MLB’s own Website early in the lockout, St. Peter’s words may sound encouraging on the surface. But it’s wise to remember a remark once made often enough by the maverick journalism legend Sidney Zion: Trust your mother, but cut the cards.

Try not to get too hopped up over the new service-time adjustments, either, which mean rookies finishing with the Rookie of the Year or in second place for the award get a full year’s service time even if he didn’t spent the entire season in the Show. “[A]ny system based on counting days is a system that can be manipulated,” Stark warns. “So why do we suspect we could be back in this same, uncomfortable place in five years, trying to remind the powers that be again that there’s something wrong with a sport that rewards teams for not putting its best players on the field.”

For the moment, we can revel in a few things. The entire baseball family, from the teams to the fans, is watching to see the swift enough movement of the game’s remaining free agents. And we’ll be spared at long enough last the overwhelming, century-plus-old futility of pitchers at the plate wasting outs (those who can hit have always. been. outliers), now that the designated hitter will be universal instead of everywhere but the National League.

At long enough last, we should see a cutback in basepath injuries thanks to coming new bases that will be—relax, ladies and gentlemen—a mere three inches larger than the bases have been in the past, but designed with more give that may mean less leg injuries taking players out for two-thirds of a season or longer.

That twelve-team postseason format? With three wild cards per league? The good news is that the odds of a team with a losing record making the postseason under it aren’t great. Since the first wild-card game in 2013, Stark says, if this format had been in play only once might a sub-.500 team have burglarised its way into the postseason: 2017. (The Angels, the Rays, or the Royals.) And, the extra-card clubs would still average 87 wins.

“So despite this expansion,” Stark continues, “the baseball playoffs will still be the most difficult to make among the four major professional sports.” And still rather profitable for the owners, who stand to pull down $85 million postseason from ESPN with the third wild card. They may also change the trade deadline atmosphere, as Stark observes: “More buyers. Fewer sellers. Less incentive for teams hovering near contention in July to hold those depressing closeout sales.” May.

Myself, I remain in favour of something else: eliminating the wild cards entirely, adding two more major league teams to make sixteen-team leagues, and doing away with regular-season interleague play. But with or without the third of those, 1) divide each sixteen-team league into four four-team conferences; 2) best-of-three conference championships; 3) best-of-five League Championship Series (you know, the way the LCS was from 1969-85); and, 4) leaving the World Series its best-of-seven self.

Goodbye postseason saturation, welcome home genuine championship.

For now, I hope, too, that the remaining 525 pre-1980, short-career players maneuvered out of the 1980 pension realignment won’t be forgotten much longer, either. The lockout also suspended the annual stipend the late MLBPA director Michael Weiner and former commissioner Bud Selig got them—$625 per 43 days’ major league service time, up to $10,000 a year. (It would have been paid normally in February.)

Which would, of course, require what they once called the vision thing. This commissioner and his bosses tend to lack that. Today’s players have it, but they could use a lot more depth. Doing right further for those pre-1980 men whose playing careers were short, but who supported the union in its most critical early years, toward the end of reserve era abuse, and the rightful advent of free agency, would show vision even philosophers only imagine having.

Missing: The MLBPA leader who didn’t like to wait

Michael Weiner

Michael Weiner, watching pre-game activity at the 2013 All-Star Game, four months before his premature death. Would the late MLBPA leader have helped things be very different now if he could have lived longer?

This much we know about baseball’s current paralysis: The owners and their trained parrot (it’s almost impossible to think of Rob Manfred as a proper commissioner) think both the players and (most) fans make a bag of hammers resemble the Harvard Classics. The Major League Baseball Players Association, however, did commit one barely discussed but crucial error.

Musing about how the owners and the players might, maybe, be able to straighten their priorities out, ESPN’s Buster Olney remembered a not-too-distant time when the players, at least, did a lot more advance work with a collective bargaining agreement’s expiration on the horizon.

“Why didn’t we start this sooner?” Olney thinks the players should ask themselves, before remembering someone on their side who actually did, once upon a time.

“The late union leader Michael Weiner constantly engaged with Major League Baseball in the months leading up to the CBA expiration, working through the complicated puzzles,” Olney writes. “[Current MLBPA director Tony] Clark has taken a very different approach in the past two CBA negotiations, waiting and waiting before diving into the core issues.”

Earlier in the essay, Olney remembers Manfred speaking of “wanting to forge relationships with individual players” upon becoming commissioner but failing to do precisely that. Further down, Olney suggests the players with Weiner’s successor (and former first baseman) Clark could do with doing similar, among themselves and with the commissioner’s bosses.

“The players are rightly furious about some of the owners’ tactics and PR spin,” Olney continues. “But is it possible the union would be better served by a Weiner-style engagement? Moving forward, could the business relationship be improved by more consistent dialogue?”

Weiner’s death of an inoperable brain tumour in November 2013 saddened a sport that came to love him back as much as he loved the game. He was known as a geniune baseball fan, who didn’t let that stop him from both reasonableness and deep-diving preparation. He was practically the union’s version of a commissioner who’d died prematurely, too.

Weiner was a man with vision though not a proper professional scholar. But he had this much in common with A. Bartlett Giamatti: Whatever particulars confronted them otherwise, Giamatti didn’t seem to believe the good of the game equaled little more than making money for the owners, and Weiner didn’t seem to believe the good of the game equaled little more than making money for the players.

Both men grew up as polar opposite baseball fans. Giamatti grew up loving the Red Sox; Weiner grew up loving the Yankees. Giamatti became a baseball executive in 1987, as president of the National League; Weiner joined the Players Association in 1988, the year before Giamatti became commissioner. Surely the two looked upon each other, measured each other’s lifelong rooting commitments, and concluded, “Well, that doesn’t make him a terrible person.”

Both men loved the game itself too deeply to isolate to single passions or by way of single quoted commentaries. They also loved the game too deeply to let either the owners or the players push it to the point of no return.

Giamatti could be seen visiting spring training camps and mingling with players, umpires, managers alike. He could also be seen in the stands, itching to shake his fist and cheer, when Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan blew Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson away for Ryan’s precedent-setting 5,000th career strikeout. “Giamatti knew,” wrote the New York Times‘s George Vecsey upon his death, “that baseball is about rooting, about caring.”

Weiner could be seen in the spring camps every year, too, spending as much time just enjoying the sounds and sights of players rounding into season’s shape as he did picking their brains. You just knew Weiner, by then wheelchair-confined, unable to walk or use his right arm, was dying to leap if he could and holler with the Citi Field masses when Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera—entering with the field left empty by both sides, allowing him to stand for tribute before throwing eight warmups alone—became the 2013 All-Star Game’s ceremonial and baseball story alike, and its most valuable player.

The Pete Rose case overwhelmed too much of the commissioner’s other business. But Giamatti’s handling and disposition showed baseball’s government was in good hands. The second case of Ryan Braun and actual/alleged performance-enhancing substances plus the Biogenesis/Alex Rodriguez case didn’t overwhelm Weiner’s union business quite so heavily. But his handling of both—and, especially, his shepherding of the union’s emerging stance athwart such substance users—showed the union was in hands just as good.

Said former major league general manager Jim Duquette upon Weiner’s death, “It was almost ridiculous. You’d be negotiating contracts with agents, or just talking shop, and you’d always hear it: ‘The most reasonable guy in the union, the guy with the best rationale, is Michael Weiner.’ Then they’d go on to explain how he thought about something, and you’d think, ‘Wow—this guy really gets it’.”

He even delivered what might have proven only a beginning toward a redress of certain injustice had he lived to build on it further. He worked with then-commissioner Bud Selig to give pre-1980, short-career major leaguers—frozen unconscionably out of the 1980 pension re-alignment—a $625-per-quarter stipend for every 43 days’ major league service those players actually had, up to four years’ worth. (Reminder: The owners’ lockout also blocked their February payments; the payments are covered by CBAs.)

Weiner’s death prevented any further, more advanced redress for those players. Clark seemed distinctly disinterested in pursuing further such redress even prior to the current owners’ lockout. Never mind that the players in question often walked pickets and supported the union’s battles themselves, on the path toward ending the abusive reserve era.

But Weiner believed in advance and continuing dialogue and in preparation going in. He knew that waiting until somewhere too close to the eleventh hour did neither the players nor, truly, the owners any big favours.

Nothing here should be construed as saying baseball’s present paralysis is anyone’s fault other than the owners’. But it’s only too possible that a far different commissioner and a far different union leader would have avoided it. Even if they’d agreed, as should have been done this time, to just operate and play under the terms of the expired CBA while wringing forth a new, better one.

“Rational thinking can be hard to find in baseball, with so many competing interests among—and within—the ranks of the players and the owners,” wrote another New York Timesman, Tyler Kepner, upon Weiner’s death. “Weiner always had it.” Had he lived, he might even have persuaded Manfred and the owners that a lockout equaled the next best thing to a suicide mission.

Above and beyond what they used to call the vision thing, and each man’s genuine love for the game, Weiner has one more sad thing in common with Giamatti. Both men were the same age upon their deaths—51.

The lockout is on

Before you start cringing while you lament the lockout, try to keep one thing in mind: It hasn’t canceled any games, regular, postseason, or World Series. Yet. If there must be a “work stoppage” for baseball, let it happen during the off-season. Let yourselves be fooled not one moment, either, that baseball has ceased going to work entirely.

About the only work that’s been stopped is contract offerings and signings between the owners and the players. Be advised that team front offices and staffs will continue going to work and players will continue their customary off-season routines preparing for the season to come.

That slightly surreal rash of tradings and free agency signings leading up to the deadline for the lockout—right down to the Red Sox trading Hunter Renfroe to the Brewers to bring home Jackie Bradley, Jr., he of the modest bat but the immodest outfield defense—is halted. That portion of the annual winter meetings involving the Show is pre-empted.

The lockout, as The Athletic‘s Evan Drellich observes, was somewhat inevitable “for months now, even years.” It’s the first “work stoppage” Major League Baseball has seen since the 1994 players’ strike.

That strike was pushed and provoked by the owners then. This “stoppage?” “Players have grown increasingly dissatisfied with club behaviors and the CBA that enables at least some of them,” Drellich writes, “and owners have shown little interest in making the concessions the players seek.”

Talks broke off a few hours before the Wednesday/Thursday midnight deadline after the owners refused to consider any economic proposal from the players unless the players agreed “in advance” to cease certain demands. Those demands, Drellich writes, include the time it takes a player to achieve free agency and changes to the current revenue sharing system.

The players believe with plenty of good reason that the current revenue sharing ways enable too much tanking, teams refusing to rebuild on the fly in favour of just throwing in the towel, allowing the major league product to perform like the St. Louis Browns while (it is alleged) they rebuild from the ground up.

Now hear this: Only two teams are known to have tanked successfully, meaning they tanked to rebuild and ended up in the Promised Land: the Astros and the Cubs. The Cubs tanked to build their 2016 World Series champion within just a handful of seasons; the Astros tanked likewise to build their long-since tainted 2017 World Series champion.

Time was when teams tried to urge certain star players out of the lineup the better to enable them to reach particular milestones before the home audience. It’s a lovely thing to behold when a man does it at home, but when his team tries maneuvering him into it it besmirches the competitive mandate.

That kind of tank usually drew a fury of indignation against the team that put coffers ahead of the honest competition, ahead of the presumption that a team must and does put its best possible lineup forth in the best interest of winning an honest contest.

Today’s tanking teams put coffers ahead of an honestly competitive season. In perhaps one of the top five perversions of “stop us before we over-spend/mis-spend/mal-spend again,” the owners would rather see a small handful of teams abuse their fans than demand such teams do what needs to be done to ensure at least an effort to compete.

Commissioner Rob Manfred audaciously calls it “this defensive lockout,” needed because the Major League Baseball Players Association’s vision for the game “would threaten the ability of most teams to be competitive.” If you believe that, my Antarctican beach club’s sale price has just dropped another hundred grand. “It’s simply not a viable option,” Manfred’s statement continues. “From the beginning, the MLBPA has been unwilling to move from their starting position, compromise, or collaborate on solutions.”

The union says the lockout was anything but “defensive”—“It was the owners’ choice, plain and simple, specifically calculated to pressure players into relinquishing rights and benefits, and abandoning good-faith bargaining proposals that will benefit not just players, but the game and industry as a whole.”

“This drastic and unnecessary measure,” says a statement from union director and former first baseman Tony Clark, “will not affect the players’ resolve to reach a fair contract. We remain committed to negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement that enhances competition, improves the product for our fans, and advances the rights and benefits of our membership.”

Do you notice that the owners through Manfred didn’t mention the fans but the players through Clark did? Do you notice the owners didn’t mention enhancing competition but the players did? The player are also concerned, rightfully enough, with younger players getting their major league earnings due and with younger players no longer subject to arbitrary whims that include suppressing them in the minor leagues when they’ve shown themselves Show ready.

“There’s also a feeling among players that front offices have become very good at manipulating the system to their advantage,” says the union’s chief negotiator, Bruce Meyer. “We want to make changes designed to incentivize competition for players, and remove disincentives for that competition. We want to find ways to get players compensated at an earlier stage of their careers when the teams are valuing them the most. And we want to preserve the fundamental principles of a market system.”

Tanking to one side, both sides have a couple of troublesome competition proposals. The owners are said to want a fourteen-team postseason; the players are said to prefer twelve.  Both should be rejected out of hand, no further questions asked, because postseason competition needs no further dilution than has happened in the wild card era.

Not long ago, there came a proposal for four-division leagues that might require expanding the leagues to another team each. I’ll see and raise: expand each league with one additional team each (and, this time, please do make damn sure there’s a real market for major league baseball in the new locales), but return each league to two divisions.

You’d actually have something resembling baseball the way it once was, after its first expansion: eight-team divisions, two in each league. Now, eliminate the damn wild cards and make it plain enough that either you’re playing for first place or it’s wait till next year, and don’t even think about tanking any longer.

Then, you remove the number one reason why the postseason loses its audience the deeper it progresses—saturation. Today’s postseason involves a maximum forty-two games. This still isn’t as crazy as the National Basketball Association’s maximum possible 98 postseason games, but it’s insane enough. In two divisions of eight teams each, baseball could (should) re-align itself to best-of-five League Championship Series and leave the World Series its best-of-seven self.

Guess what? In that re-alignment, you’d have a maximum of seventeen games, and the postseason wouldn’t even think of sneaking into the wee small hours of the month of November.

No, I’m not angling to become baseball’s next commissioner, but I’m only too well aware that the postseason has become a plaything through which the common good of the game becomes even more equal to making money for the owners and provoking the players to demand their cuts of it, too.

“[B]oth sides, after years of discontent, could be interested to test the other’s resolve,” Drellich says of the lockout now on. “The owners, as well, might believe that the free agents who remain when the lockout concludes will feel pressure to sign quickly, and therefore, at a discount.”

Don’t believe for one nanosecond that the owners should get away with crying poverty. Not when such new deals or extentions come forth as those recently handed to a Mets trio of Mark Canha, Eduardo Escobar, and (especially) Starling Marte; plus, Sandy AlcantaraJavier Baez, Byron Buxton, Wander Franco, Avisail Garcia, Kevin Gausman, Jon Gray, Robbie Ray, Corey Seager, Marcus Semien (is it me, or did the Rangers just drop about $512 million on new signings including Seager?), and (especially) Max Scherzer.

Unfortunately, the mid-level players often get bypassed during collective bargaining issues and often bear the brunt of whatever new CBAs cost. The talks usually involve “a league minimum and free agency eligibility,” as ESPN’s Buster Olney observes. “The players’ middle class, which has seen salary diminishment as a lot of teams apply analytics and identify cheaper replacement-level players, while other teams adopt the tanking strategy and cut payroll dramatically, has mostly been left out of those conversations.”

Scherzer isn’t the only player concerned about that plus making sure the owners can’t further suppress real competition and the full free agency picture. “Unless this CBA completely addresses the competition (issues) and younger players getting paid,” Max the Knife says emphatically, speaking as a member of the union’s eight-member player subcommittee, “that’s the only way I’m going to put my name on it.”

More competition issues? How about pushing the owners to push Manfred away from that ridiculous three-batter minimum for relief pitchers? How about pushing them to make the designated hitter universal, once and for all time, and eliminate the single most automatic out in the game? And, to make it so without one insane owners’ proposal that it be tied to a six-inning minimum for starting pitchers?

How about knocking it the hell off with monkeying around with the baseball itself (yes, MLB used two different sets of balls with two different actual weights in 2021—unbeknownst to anyone), then just develop and use a viable ball that favours neither pitcher nor hitter but makes it as level a confrontation as possible?

People thought Pete Alonso (Mets first baseman) was talking through his batting helmet when he waxed last June about MLB manipulating the balls themselves on behalf of impacting free agency. An astrophysicist discovered not only the different ball weights this year, but spoke to one unnamed pitcher who suspected the possibility that MLB might send different-weighted balls to stadiums hosting certain series: say, deader balls to sets between lesser teams but livelier balls to those hosting, say, the Yankees vs. the Red Sox.

I’d say that demands a full-throttle investigation. If people could and did go slightly mad over pitchers using that new old-fashioned medicated goo, they ought to go slightly more mad over ball cheating by baseball’s administration itself. The MLBPA should bring that up—and stick it in the owners’ ears.

The best news about this lockout is that it did happen during the off-season. Assorted analyses say strikes in sports are becoming things of the past. The bad news is that unreason isn’t going to become a thing of the past any time soon. Not, at least, until baseball’s ownerships today continue to prefer manipulation over competition, and the players increase their concern that competition be diluted no more.

Marvin and Ted, a love story revisited

Marvin Miller, Joe Torre

Marvin Miller (left) with then-Cardinals catcher-turned-third baseman Joe Torre at a 1972 press conference.

Yes, Marvin Miller decided before his death that being elected to the Hall of Fame was no longer worth it. Not even if it was no less than his due. “At the age of 91,” he said, “I can do without farce.”

But there’ll be a nice synergy in Miller and catcher Ted Simmons being inducted into Cooperstown Wednesday, along with two more from last year’s class, Derek Jeter and Larry Walker. Miller and Simmons were joined in an unlikely way early in Simmons’s career.

The pan-damn-ic then told the new Hall of Famers, “Wait ’till next year.” Wherever he reposes in the Elysian Fields, perhaps Miller has bumped into Charlie Watts, the lifelong drummer for a band that once sang, “You can’t always get what you want/but if you try sometimes, you just might find/you get what you need.”

What Miller and Simmons needed from the last-convened Modern Era Committee in 2019 was twelve votes minimum. Miller got the twelve, one shy of Simmons’s thirteen. Both men deserved Hall of Fame plaques long enough before they finally got them. And one inadvertently provided the other with invaluable intelligence.

At age 22 Simmons found himself the Cardinals’ regular catcher entering spring training 1972. Self-aware enough, Simmons decided his emergence should be worth more than a $6,000 raise. He refused to sign a new contract that would pay him one penny less than $30,000. The Cardinals’ general manager, Bing Devine, said not so fast, son, holding the team’s offer to somewhere in the lower $20,000s.

That was while Curt Flood’s reserve clause challenge awaited its day in the Supreme Court. (Flood, alas, would lose there, but he’d kick open a door that refused to be shut again.) Simmons started the reason without a signed new contract. The Cardinals renewed him automatically as the rules of the time allowed.

Everyone in baseball trained their eyes upon the sophomore catcher who belied the usual athletic stereotypes. (Among other things, Simmons would serve active and knowledgeable time on the board of a St. Louis art museum in due course.) They also trained their eyes on the reserve clause abused so long by the owners to bind their players like chattel, until they damn well felt like selling, trading, or releasing them.

Simmons played his way onto the National League’s 1972 All-Star team as its backup catcher. Once he went to Atlanta for the game, Devine rang his hotel phone post haste. Would Simmons kindly accept a mere $75,000—as in, the $30,000 he wanted for 1972 in the first place, plus $45,000 for 1973?

Miller watched Simmons a little nervously, too, knowing the kid pondered taking it to court himself. He understood completely when Simmons accepted Devine’s new proposal. But Simmons handed Miller intelligence you couldn’t buy even on the black market: Those  owners would rather have handed a barely-seasoned kid $75,000 than let any arbitrator get a look at the reserve clause even long distance through a telescope.

Miller had once been a United Steelworkers of America economist. After a players committee including two Hall of Famers (pitchers Robin Roberts and Jim Bunning) and two respected other veterans (pitcher Bob Friend, outfielder Harvey Kuenn) chose him to run their embryonic union, Miller won the rest of the players over by being just who he was—a brain, not a bludgeon. It didn’t hurt that Miller instilled an open-door policy: “It’s your union,” he insisted.

Miller didn’t follow the stereotypical union playbook, either. He may have kept the players’ eyes on the ultimate prize, but he knew and convinced them reasonably that it had to be done step by step, from pension and clubhouse issues forward. Even as he told them, as often as need be, “You are the game. Without you, there is no game.”

His two signature triumphs came almost by accident. The first was when then-Athletics owner Charlie Finley reneged on a contracted-for insurance payment to Hall of Fame pitcher Catfish Hunter. Hunter filed a grievance and won. He also became subject of a game-wide bidding war that reached the millions and ended with him taking the third-most lucrative offer put in front of him.

Why only the third? Because the Yankees (whose representative Clyde Kluttz was the former A’s scout who signed Hunter for the A’s in the first place) were willing to divide the dollars Hunter’s way, right down to a certain amount put into an annuity to guarantee his children’s education. It was still enough to make Hunter a rich man on a fair, open market.

But Hunter was a single, isolated case. His triumph didn’t mean the end of the reserve era just yet. To do that, it took then-Dodgers general manager Al Campanis making contract talks far too personal for pitcher Andy Messersmith’s taste in spring training 1975. Messersmith promptly refused to talk to anyone below team president Peter O’Malley. He also refused to sign any contract that didn’t include a no-trade clause.

The Dodgers merely harrumphed that they’d never given no-trade clauses before and they weren’t about to start now. Messersmith said, essentially, that he’d rather be caught naked in a barracuda school than let the Al Campanises dictate his baseball future. He, too, refused to sign a 1975 contract. The Dodgers, too, renewed him automatically under the old rules.

Messersmith pitched on and pitched very well. (He’d lead the National League in starts, complete games, and innings pitched, while throwing seven shutouts and finishing second with a 2.29 ERA.) He withstood the snark of both indignant, ignorant fans and indignant, artery-hardened sportswriters.

“Every time he took the ball,” Simmons once said, “everybody in management wanted him to fail and everybody from the players wanted him to succeed.” Just as long as they didn’t have to bat against him. (The National League’s hitters batted a mere .213 against Messersmith in 1975.)

By that August, Messersmith found himself receiving two things: continuing Dodger offers for then-glandular dollars, and an education from Miller about the reserve clause itself. He was also the only active player left that season who hadn’t signed a 1975 contract. By September, the Dodgers offered him a pot of $540,000 for three years including 1975. “Where’s that no-trade clause?” Messersmith retorted, essentially. Without it, he wouldn’t budge.

When Peter came up with the dough, I was adamant. The money was incredible, but they wouldn’t bring the no-trade to the table. I’d gotten stimulated by Marvin and Dick [Moss, the players’ union’s general counsel]. Now I understood the significance of what this was all about. I was tired of players having no power and no rights.

Ted Simmons

Now a Hall of Fame catcher, Ted Simmons as a Cardinal helped Miller build his leverage against the old reserve clause abuse.

That August, too, Messersmith agreed to file a grievance seeking his free agency if he remained unsigned. The season ended; Messersmith’s stout pitching alone couldn’t keep the Dodgers from finishing second in the National League West. He filed the grievance.

(Arm-and-shoulder-troubled pitcher Dave McNally, technically unsigned but intending to stay retired after leaving the Expos in June, agreed to join the grievance in August, upon Miller’s persuasion—as insurance, in case the Dodger dollars finally seduced Messersmith, who refused to be seduced by dollars alone.)

The owners had no essential argument better than “this is the way we’ve always done it.” The evidence in the grievance included a newspaper article, in which penurious Twins owner Calvin Griffith basically admitted proper reserve clause application allowed a player’s free agency after one contracted season and a second team option season and no more.

Messersmith won. (The owners promptly fired arbitrator Peter Seitz.) The Lords of the Realm author John Helyar described Simmons as “choked up” when he said, “Curt Flood stood up for us. [Catfish] Hunter showed what was out there. Andy showed us the way. Andy made it happen for us all.”

Miller was smart enough not to demand immediate free agency for all. Even he recognised teams had certain rights in players they developed, even as he insisted baseball players deserved the same rights as any other American—from the greenest labourer to the most seasoned executive—to test their value on a fair, open job market when no longer under contract.

It did far more for the good of the game than the artery-hardened hysterics of 1975 would have had you believe, especially when they mourned the death of “competitive balance.” Pace Mark Twain, the rumours of that death would prove greatly exaggerated. More teams have won the World Series since the Messersmith triumph than won the Series before it.

It’s not the players’ fault that the owners since have tried everything in their power, and sometimes beyond it, to try putting them back into their “places.” (The 1980s collusion, anyone? Isolated front-office executives willingly handing the gold to players who’d barely proven themselves worth copper? The 1994 strike born of the owners insisting the players stop them before they overspent/mis-spent/mal-spent again? Tanking?)

And they said free agency would destroy the undestroyable game. If you’d asked former commissioner Fay Vincent about that, he’d tell you what he told ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick in 2009: Blaming Miller for “destroying” baseball was “like blaming Thomas Edison for putting the candle industry out of business,” which didn’t happen, either.

Perhaps the only thing more astonishing than the owners’ post-Messersmith chicaneries was the years passing by with the idea of Miller in the Hall of Fame not so popular with his former clients (he left the union in 1982) as his work on their behalf. No less than Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson said the Hall of Fame should be for players only. You wonder what he thought when the Hall inducted Effa Manley—co-owner of the Negro National League’s Newark Eagles—as a pioneer in 2006.

“Instead of pointing to the sky,” the late Jim Bouton told Crasnick, referring to gestures often made by players crossing the plate after hitting home runs, “today’s players should be pointing to Marvin Miller.” As also to Curt Flood, Ted Simmons, Catfish Hunter, Andy Messersmith, and others who collaborated to do the once unthinkable.

Simmons himself went on to enjoy a career that should have gotten him elected to Cooperstown. His peak value matches that of the average Hall of Fame catcher. He went one and done in his only year’s eligibility on the Baseball Writers Association of America’s Hall ballot. Exactly why never really seemed clear. If he was a better hitter than catcher, the metrics simple and complex alike still show him the number eleven catcher ever to strap it on.

Maybe it was residual ill will over Simmons’s late-career tangle with Whitey Herzog. (Herzog traded him to the Brewers citing defensive shortcomings, after he declined moving to another field position. Yet Herzog eventually became a member of the Modern Era Committee that finally elected Simmons.) Maybe they had a problem marrying baseball’s most honorific museum to an art museum board member.

Miller died in 2012 with only one other regret: not having been able to convince the MLBPA to revisit the 1980 pension realignment that froze players with short careers prior to 1980 out of the pension plan. Players since 1980 need only 43 days major league time to receive a pension and one day to receive health benefits.

The only thing the frozen-out have received since comes from a 2011 deal between then-commissioner Bud Selig and then-MLBPA leader Michael Weiner: $625 per quarter for every 43 days’ major league service time for up to four years. Before you say that’s something, at least, be reminded that they can’t pass those dollars to their loved ones if they pass before the final dollars are collected.

The MLBPA leadership since Miller’s departure has little to no known desire anywhere in its ranks to redress that or anything else involving the pension freeze-out. Attrition has reduced the number of affected players from over 1,100 to just over 600. Would anyone with leverage in the game now think to resolve Miller’s regret?

“Nobody has picked it up,” former Twins pitcher Tom Johnson, one of the affected, told me last December. “Don Fehr [Miller’s successor] didn’t pick it up, [present MLBPA director] Tony Clark hasn’t picked it up, nobody has picked it up and cared about it. I wish they’d go back and listen to that.”

Listening was one of Miller’s strong suits. “It took forever for each of us to get in,” Simmons has said. “He was the real deal. During my career, Marvin was the Players Association. He was an incredible man who was very special to me specifically. It’s an honor to be inducted with him. It’s bittersweet for his family but I’m lucky I can arrive in the flesh.”

Simmons has also said he hoped restoring the Hall inductions would be a stride in the right direction of returning life to something resembling normalcy. Surely he knows that “normalcy” doesn’t always mean without hiccups or pratfalls, both of which baseball has had in abundance for too long.

Portions of this essay have been published previously.