Having a wild Wednesday

2020-06-18 NationalsPark

Nationals Park.

What a Wednesday. It only began when MLB Network’s Jon Heyman tweeted, “Breaking: MLB and players union are closing in on an agreement to play the 2020 season, via players. Deal expected to be for prorated pay and include expanded playoffs.”

Heyman kicked off what was possibly baseball’s most exciting day since the Washington Nationals shook, rattled, and rolled their way to winning Game Seven of last year’s World Series.

The difference is that the excitement had nothing to do with a gutsy pitching performance, or one manager having to hook a bold starting pitcher whose tank reached empty after surrendering a two-run homer, or another manager calling for a play review so his next pitcher might have a little more warmup time, or the first manager’s best relief option being reached for a foul-pole ringing, coffin-forming home run.

It had to do with baseball itself being exhausted of the unconscionable standoff between owners to whom the good of the game means making or saving money for it and players who don’t like people trying to renege on agreements but whose itch to play the game can be ignored for only so long before they have to scratch it.

On Tuesday came the word that commissioner Rob Manfred and Major League Baseball Players Association executive director Tony Clark met up and talked. Come Wednesday, once Heyman hit the merry-go-round switch the horsies galloped almost all over the place.

Some said the deal might be a 66-game season with a postseason expansion from ten to sixteen teams. Others said a 60-game season. Jayson Stark of The Athletic tweeted get your kicks on route 66: “12 games each vs 4 division opponents. 3 games each vs 4 interleague opponents. 6 games (home and home) vs interleague rival.”

Halt right there, tweeted NBC Sports’s Craig Calcaterra: “16 playoff teams is a joke. As it is I have made a mental distinction between the season and the postseason, considering them different things but if they go to 16 the season starts hurtling toward meaninglessness.

Slow down, returned Stark, who ran down a quick list of teams who’d have made last year’s postseason in a 60-game season for a sixteen-team field: the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Milwaukee Brewers, the Chicago Cubs, the Atlanta Braves, the Philadelphia Phillies, the San Diego Padres, the St. Louis Cardinals, and the Colorado Rockies in the National League; the Houston Astros, the Minnesota Twins, the New York Yankees, the Tampa Bay Rays, the Texas Rangers, the Boston Red Sox, the Cleveland Indians, and the Oakland Athletics.

You may have noticed, as Stark couldn’t resist noticing, that among the missing in that scenario would have been 2019’s world champion Nats.

Then came the first chink in the chain pulling the merry-go-round in its circles, from Heyman’s fellow MLB Insider scribe Robert Murray: “Two sources with direct knowledge do not expect Major League Baseball’s latest proposal to the MLBPA to get a deal done. If a deal will be agreed upon, as [ESPN’s] @JeffPassan said, it needs to be for more than 60 games.”

Around 5 p.m. Pacific time USA Today columnist Bob Nightengale elucidated on the new proposal also including a universal designated hitter for this year and next. Shortly before that, former major league general manager Jim Bowden noted a likely deal would mean both the owners and the players foregoing grievances-to-be.

Then Heyman weighed in again, around 5:20 PDT: “The framework of the deal between Manfred and union chief Clark included: 60 games at 100% full prorated pay, waiver of grievances, 16-team expanded playoffs for 2 years, universal DH, more. Owner sources say it was agreed to pending constituency approval, meaning owners, players

Two hours and ten minutes later, Murray slipped another chink into the merry-go-round’s motor chain: “People familiar with players’ thinking believe that they are seeking more games because they don’t feel a 60-game season is worth losing their right to file a grievance. ‘The ability to file a grievance,’ one agent said, ‘is almost worth letting the owners cancel the season’.”

What seems still to be another key is that the players don’t want a too-short season and a too-convoluted postseason but, as Athletic writer Ken Rosenthal posited, they may be willing to settle for 65 games. May. For a nation starved for major league baseball that may yet prove as good as major medical relief. May.

A day earlier, Yankee president Randy Levine, a man not necessarily renowned as a moderate among baseball administrators, struck another bull’s eye when he isolated one key issue other than dollars tied to that March agreement: “From what I’ve discovered, the holdup is not about the number of games or money at this time,” he said.

The holdup, as I understand it, is about resolving the other items in the March 26 agreement. They include final agreement on all of the health and safety protocols, deciding what happens if a season is interrupted by a second wave of the virus, which players can opt out and under what circumstances can they, and a host of issues like that.

Exactly. The owners often behave as though they forget it won’t be them at risk if baseball returns while the coronavirus’s world tour continues. The players—you know, the ones the fans pay to see play—will be at risk. So will fans once they’re allowed to return to the ballparks. So will the stadium workers, from the concession stand workers and hawkers in the stands to the grounds crews, stadium maintenance, and scoreboard personnel.

The owners also behave as though getting into baseball is a guaranteed financial bath. As though Jerry Reinsdorf didn’t buy the White Sox for $100 million in 1981 but has a team now worth $1.7 billion. As though David Glass—who’d helped Reinsdorf push for the 1994-95 strike—hadn’t bought the Kansas City Royals outright for $96 million in 2000 (he’d been the team president up to that point) and sold them for $1 billion last year. To name two.

Small wonder the players don’t want to surrender their right to a grievance without a battle, and small wonder the owners want them to agree to such a surrender.

So perhaps when all was said and done on Wednesday’s merry-go-round, the best news was the likelihood of the universal DH for this year and next. Unless there’s a codicil somewhere that isn’t yet known, bank on the universal DH remaining universal. At long enough last, the National League will have what a slightly pre-20th century Pittsburgh Pirates owner first proposed for sound reasons and last year’s collective pitchers’ batting average (.125) justifies: the end of a wasted lineup slot and too many rallies aborted in the womb.

There may be a deal to get a 2020 season, any 2020 season, played yet. Maybe by the end of this week, maybe by the end of the coming weekend. But while we’re at it, there is a suggestion we might make to the players who have, otherwise, done a better job than normal of making Joe and Jane Fan understand just who’s done the most to try hustling them.

The MLBPA’s Player’s Trust has committed $1 million to minor league players whose leagues may not play this year because of the coronavirus’s not-so-grand world tour. Yet there remain a little over six hundred former major league players who played before 1980 whose careers were short for assorted reasons—and who were frozen out of a pension plan re-alignment that year which gave full pensions to players with 43 days major league service and full health benefits upon one day’s MLB service.

Longtime MLBPA executive director Marvin Miller eventually said that not revisiting that mistake was his biggest regret. His successor once removed, Michael Weiner, collaborated with Manfred’s predecessor Bud Selig in getting those players $625 per quarter for every 43 days’ major league service.

It was a beginning, but there were two problems. One is that the players in question can’t pass those monies on to their families upon their deaths. The other is that the ill-fated Weiner—who loved baseball deeply, left no doubt about it, and earned a reputation for reasonableness even in his hardest negotiatings—died of brain cancer before he could have the chance to think about pressing the matter further.

Others have tried prodding Clark toward giving those pre-1980 short-career players a second look and building upon what Weiner and Selig began. Himself a former longtime first baseman, Clark has disinclined thus far. Even when New York Daily News columnist Bill Madden acknowledged, by way of a source inside the MLB apparatus, that Clark “isn’t gonna have any appetite for siphoning money from his rank and file. That’s why he won’t even talk to these old players.”

Legally, neither MLB nor the players’ union is obliged to send another dollar their way. (Neither, for that matter, is the separate Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association, likewise disinclined, especially after forcing three of the 600 plus—former pitchers David Clyde and Gary Niebauer, and former first baseman Eddie Robinson—off its pension services committee.) Morally is something else entirely, when you remember that those 600+ players were Players Association members who stood with their fellows during the moves and pickets that pushed open the door toward free agency and all its riches.

If the Players Trust can send drydocked minor leaguers $1 million for openers, surely the MLBPA can find a way to do further right by those 600 plus who were frozen mistakenly out of the 1980 pension realignment. Assorted current players sort-of strong-armed their teams into taking better care of their drydocked minor leaguers. Such players might want to think about their wrongly frozen-out major league predecessors a little more.

Even a commitment to revisit and readjust the pension plan for those pre-1980 short-career players when the Show gets back into business would be a serious step toward resolving Miller’s regret and finishing what Weiner and Selig started.

This commissioner’s time should be done

2020-06-16 RobManfredBaseballsThat was last week: Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred saying there would absitively, posolutely be major league baseball in 2020. This was Monday, to ESPN: Manfred saying, “Not so fast.” Never mind that the March agreement the owners are trying to walk back gives Manfred absolute authority to order the season to go.

“I’m not confident,” he told ESPN’s Mike Greenberg for a special called The Return of Sports.  “I think there’s real risk; and as long as there’s no dialogue, that real risk is gonna continue.”

Not long from there, Manfred said . . . of course! It’s the players’ fault, for ending “good faith negotiations” that anyone with two brain cells to rub together knows really means “on the owners’ terms” coming from his lips. Anyone with the same two brain cells also knows that the owners crying “good faith” equals Donald Trump closing his Twitter account.

Want to know what the players really turned down over the weekend, with an emphatic harrumph of, “Seriously?”

The owners wanted a 72-game season at 70 percent pay per game played, 80 percent if the one-time-only (we think) expanded postseason (the owners wanted the players to say yes to 22 more such games) was played to the end. The players would get a 64.5 percent pay cut taking 100 percent of the safety risks—there’s still the coronavirus on its grand tour, you know.

Ken Rosenthal, writer for The Athletic, half the team (with Evan Drellich) who blew open the Astrogate/Soxgate illegal sign-stealing scandals, thinks plausibly that Manfred—whose powers include acting in the game’s best interest but who’s employed purely by the owners to whom the game’s best interest involves making money for them first—would rather incinerate the forest than see it for the trees.

Rosenthal also thinks Manfred is beginning to get one thing: strike a deal with the players who aren’t buying the owners’ Kickapoo Joy Juice or see his legacy as a baseball commissioner go into the tank.

The threat of a billion-dollar grievance from the [Major League Baseball] Players Association has forced Manfred to reconsider exercising his right to set a schedule for the 2020 season and return to his original mission of reaching a deal that is acceptable to both sides. What he wants now, according to sources, is to stop bickering with the union, start negotiating and reach an agreement that will bring the sport at least temporary order.

Yet for a guy who suddenly is looking for peace, Manfred sure has a funny way of showing it.

He and the owners, supposed stewards of the game, are turning the national pastime into a national punch line, effectively threatening to take their ball and go home while the country struggles with medical, economic and societal concerns.

Baseball’s better commissioners have been remembered among other things for appearing the next best thing to statesmen. Find me someone with skin in baseball’s game—a fan, a player, an owner (even), an analyst, a broadcaster, an historian—who’d call Manfred a statesman, and I’ll find you the last sworn-in government of the lost continent of Atlantis.

It’s been hard enough to think of Manfred as someone who genuinely loves the game after he made such remarks as the World Series trophy being just a piece of metal, trying to explain why it was one thing to discipline three 2017 Houston Astros while taking owner Jim Crane off the Astrogate hook but something else to strip their World Series championship.

Now Manfred has little choice other than that between finding and striking a deal with the players to get a 2020 season at all, or let it go and watch as nobody but the most stubborn among the tunnel-visioned takes Manfred or the owners seriously as stewards of the game any longer.

Remember: The owners are talking through their domes if they think anyone with an IQ higher than half (.064) the collective batting average (.128) of MLB’s pitchers last year buys their poverty cries. As Thomas Boswell pointed out early Monday, the average major league team value jumped by over $1 billion in the past six years—from $811 million to $1.9 billion.

Manfred’s contract as baseball commissioner is extended through the end of 2024. Assuming he doesn’t do anything else to implode the game between now and then—even assuming he finds a way, somehow, to be as Rosenthal describes, “the adult in the room, a leader with a sense of the game’s place in our society, the caretaker of the sport”—maybe it’s time at last to think of a better way to choose his successor.

There’s no reason on earth that the commissioner should be hired by and beholden to the owners alone. There’s no reason on earth a plausible candidate shouldn’t stand for election by the owners and by the Players Association through the thirty team player representatives. The commissioner should be beholden to neither faction but the consensus choice of both.

“Players come and go, but the owners stay on forever,” then-American League president Joe Cronin once told the late Marvin Miller, early in Miller’s tenure as the union’s executive director. Let’s just see about that. The owners stay only until they designate successors (think of the New York Yankees’ Hal Steinbrenner or the Detroit Tigers’ Chris Illitch) or sell. Fans don’t wear team jerseys with the names of owners on their backs.

The game stays on forever. And with very few exceptions the first thing you think about when you think about the game is the men who’ve played it. You don’t think of Joe Cronin as a meaner-than-a-junkyard-dog league president before you think of him as a Hall of Fame shortstop and even a manager. You don’t think of Joe Torre as baseball’s top cop before you think of him as an outstanding catcher/third baseman and a Hall of Fame manager.

You don’t always think of Bill White as the first African-American (and next-to-last) president of the National League before you remember him as an outstanding first baseman who also helped shepherd the St. Louis Cardinals through their racial growing pains. You don’t think of Nolan Ryan as a baseball executive (including a term as the president of the Texas Rangers) before you remember him as a Hall of Fame pitcher with seven no-hitters on his resume.

You don’t think of the late, ill-fated Mike Flanagan as a Baltimore Orioles executive before you remember him as a Cy Young Award-winning pitcher. You don’t think of Eddie Lopat as a snake-in-the-grass baseball executive (when a Kansas City Athletics player reminded him about a promised salary raise, Lopat the general manager shot back, “Prove it!”) before you think of him as a pitching star on five straight Yankee World Series winners.

You don’t even think of Al Rosen as the baseball executive who put a shot of rocket fuel into player salary inflation when he was the San Francisco Giants’ general manager (the once-notorious Bud Black deal), before you think of him as a powerful third baseman who swept the first-place votes as the American League’s Most Valuable Player in 1953, but whose career was torpedoed by back and leg injuries.

But you probably think Manfred wouldn’t be able to tell you any of that. You’d probably be right. He has to go. And, among numerous other lackings, the owners need to own up and agree—whether or not they’d accept that their duplicities brought us here in the first place—that baseball needs a better way to choose a better steward. A steward to whom the good of the game isn’t always the same thing as making money for it.

The owners, running out of feet

2020-06-14 CamdenYards

Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Other than frustrated Oriole fans who’d like to throw things at Peter Angelos, baseball fans don’t spend money to see their teams’ owners. The owners still don’t get the message.

But . . . but . . . not. profitable. That’s what enough of Major League Baseball’s owners kept trying to tell us while they tried to strong-arm their product (the players, in case you keep forgetting) into playing a short 2020 season and accepting less than their agreed-in-March pro-rated 2020 salaries. Right?

But . . . but . . . not. profitable. Never mind that the redoubtable Thomas Boswell once actually figured out that, over the past century’s time, baseball owners have hauled down a twelve percent compound annual rate of return: “That kind of tax-free compounding . . . is like striking an oil well that never runs dry.”

But . . . but . . . not. profitable. Baseball’s such a money loser that MLB just nailed a billion-dollar deal with Turner Sports—you may recall that its founding father once owned the Atlanta Braves—to “keep a playoff package that includes one of the league championship series on the network,” according to the New York Post. Earning MLB at least $150 million a year more than under the current deal set to expire after next season.

Philadelphia Phillies outfielder Andrew McCutchen couldn’t resist. “But baseball is dying!” he snarked. And who could blame him?

When you’re a group that pulls down the aforesaid compound annual rate of return, Boswell said three days ago, and you happen to be baseball’s stewards, “holding the sport in multicentury trust for fans who love it and support it,” you “have a duty to take the brunt of the financial hit from the coronavirus. In the long run, the owners, as a group, are always the huge winners. The players just pass through and get what they can grab — some of them a fortune but most far less.”

. . . The owners’ position appears to be: We don’t want to lose money. The whole world is. But us, no. We want players to accept additional pay cuts below a prorated level (but we won’t show you our books). In contrast, we will take a $0.00 year but not a share-the-pain loss . . .

. . . The owners are so self-protective, so oblivious to the good of the game, they even want to maximize their defenses against a second wave of the virus. Oh, we will play until the normal Oct. 31. But don’t talk to us about playing games in November because that would increase the chance of an erased World Series, lost TV money and losses for us.

That was three days before the Turner Sports deal. Now, remember, as Boswell does: The owners want the absolute maximum safety margin if the Show comes back, but if you assume the coronavirus isn’t quite finished with its grand tour guess who takes the maximum safety risk?

Hint: They’re the ones you pay your hard-earned money to see in uniform on the field, at the plate, on the mound. Accuse me as you must of flogging a dead horse, but nobody hands over anywhere from $15 to $150 or more per ticket to take themselves and their families or friends out to the ballpark to see Peter Angelos (not counting frustrated Oriole fans wanting to throw things at him), Mark Attanasio, Jim Crane, Bill deWitt, John Henry, Mark Lerner, Arte Moreno, Tom Ricketts, Hal Steinbrenner, and company.

Again assuming the coronavirus tour isn’t finished, the maximum risk takers are also the ones who guide you to your parking spot; sell you the food, drinks, souvenir hats and jerseys and other chatzkahs of rooting; post around the parks to keep the lunatics from spoiling your fun; and, run the park facilities from the gates to the scoreboards to the concession stands and back.

Show me a baseball owner and I’ll show you someone who shoots himself in the foot so often it’s a wonder he has a foot left to shoot. Of all the cliches you can attach to the so-called Lords of Baseball, and it’s been true for just about the entire life of professional baseball, the truest may be that they never miss the opportunity to miss an opportunity. (Except, perhaps, for the tax write-offs.)

Here’s the sport that could and should have dropped the big one on its competitors and gotten major league baseball back onto the field on the Fourth of July. “You get 15-games-a-day visibility before the NBA and the NHL return,” Boswell wrote, “as well as a two-month jump on the NFL.” So much for that idea.

That kind of image enhancing would have been worth more than the entire difference ($4.6 billion, roughly, if you’re scoring at home) between what Hal Steinbrenner’s late father paid to buy the New York Yankees from CBS in 1973 and what the Yankees are worth today.

The only shock, then, in the players all but walking away from the negotiating table on starting a delayed 2020 season—as The Athletic‘s Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich put it Saturday, “The March agreement between the parties empowers commissioner Rob Manfred to set the number of games as long as the league awards the players their full prorated salaries, with the caveat that the league make its best effort to make the schedule as long as possible”—is that anyone should be shocked.

Except, perhaps, by the owners looking for every possible way to renege on the March agreement, and the players—not always eloquently, not always with their best (unshot) feet forward—looking for every possible way to thwart them.

Remember the wisdom of the late Hall of Fame manager Sparky Anderson, again: We try every way we can think of to kill this game, but for some reason nothing nobody does never hurts it. Come Monday, when the players asked the commissioner to finalise seasonal plans, we may begin learning whether Anderson is still right.

MLB’s own Saturday statement said they were “disappointed” that the players chose not to negotiate “in good faith.” Set aside for the moment how similar that is to the classic Communist tack of claiming the invaded were the invaders. Remind yourself that, from time immemorial, the owners demanding “good faith” is like hearing Attila the Hun sing “All You Need is Love.”

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.

Marvin Miller’s pension regret

2020-05-24 MarvinMiller

Marvin Miller lived to regret that short-career players pre-1980 were frozen out of that year’s pension plan re-alignment.

Forty years ago, the Major League Baseball Players association revamped the players’ pension plan dramatically enough. They changed the vesting eligibility from four years’ major league service time to 43 days for pensions and one day for health care benefits. But they excluded players with short careers prior to 1980—approximately 1,100 such players at the time, but just over 600 still living today.

Those players were loyal Players Association members who hit the ramparts and the pickets when called upon to help end the reserve era and usher in the era that has made more than a fair number of players wealthy beyond their childhood imaginations. The late Marvin Miller, elected to the Hall of Fame at last, is known to have told some of those players that not reviewing and revamping the 1980 pension realignment to include those players was his biggest regret.

They are men such as Bill Denehy, once a New York Mets pitcher (he shared a Topps rookie baseball card with Hall of Famer Tom Seaver in 1967) traded to the Washington Senators for manager Gil Hodges despite shoulder damage. Men such as David Clyde, the mishandled Texas Rangers phenom, pushed to start in the Show right out of his staggering high school career, but not sent to the minors for seasoning after that, as manager Whitey Herzog promised, before he was ruined by shoulder issues and gone.

Denehy played parts of three major league seasons in New York, Washington, and Detroit. Clyde’s career ended when he was 37 days short of qualifying for a pension under the old plan, after playing parts of five seasons with the Rangers and the Cleveland Indians. Theirs and their fellows’ battle for pension redress has been enunciated most prominently in Douglas J. Gladstone’s A Bitter Cup of Coffee.

“I don’t think any one of us are at a point where we’re asking for something that we haven’t earned,” Denehy told me in a telephone interview over a year ago. Thanks to multiple cortisone shots (possibly 57 in a 26-month span) to address a 1967 shoulder injury (about which the Mets conveniently failed to inform the Senators), Denehy eventually incurred eye issues that have left him legally blind today.

“You know, I don’t think they owe me because of all the cortisone shots that they gave me, I don’t think that they owe me for the tear that I had in my shoulder,” Denehy continued then. “All I’m asking for is what I earned, and that was the service time that I got in. If they do that, make me just a regular pension, I will continue to stay happy and promote this great game of baseball.”

“I guess what bothers me the most about it is, the Players Association—they loathe being called a union—didn’t hesitate one bit taking my dues when I was a major league player,” Clyde told me in a separate telephone interview last fall. “But as soon as you’re no longer a major league player, they basically don’t want to have anything to do with you.”

Clyde David 6218-89a_act_NBL

David Clyde, warming up on the sidelines for the Rangers.

The late Michael Weiner, who succeeded Donald Fehr as the players union’s executive director, managed to join then-commissioner Bud Selig in getting the frozen-out players some redress: in 2011, the pair got the frozen-out pre-1980 players $625 per quarter for every 43 days’ major league service time for up to four years. “It was a nice gesture on the part of Weiner and Selig who, undoubtedly also realized it could hardly make up for all those lost years in which the pre-1980 players got bupkis,” wrote longtime New York Daily News columnist Bill Madden in February.

But they can’t pass even that on to their loved ones upon their deaths. And, as Madden pointed out, they can’t buy into the players’ medical plan, which would help significantly enough for former short-career players now dealing with assorted serious health issues. In these days of the coronavirus pandemic, redressing that lack would have been even more significant.

Exactly why the short-career players pre-1980 were frozen out of the original pension re-alignment has never been made entirely clear. Denehy, Clyde, and other players known to have spoken on record have thought many in the union then believed that many if not most were mere September call-ups.

Denehy made each of his three major league teams directly out of spring training. Clyde, of course, was signed right out of high school with then-Rangers owner Bob Short hoping he’d goose the team’s sagging gate—which he did by winning his first two heavily hyped starts. Jim Qualls, a Chicago Cubs outfielder known best for breaking up Seaver’s perfect game bid with two outs in the ninth in 1969, made the Cubs out of spring training that season as an outfield reserve.

Another Cub, third baseman Carmen Fanzone, was once a July callup and made the Cubs as a reserve out of another spring training, but was blocked mostly by Hall of Fame third baseman Ron Santo before Santo’s departure in a crosstown trade to the White Sox. An Atlanta Braves pitcher, Gary Niebauer, also made the Braves out of spring training 1969 and 1970.

Clyde, Niebauer, and former longtime first baseman and coach Eddie Robinson—long key voices on behalf of short-career players within the Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association—were finally removed from the association’s pension services committee not too long ago.

“The problem is, because they’re not vested, the union has no obligation to do anything for pre-1980 players — and so they don’t — even though it currently has some $3.5 billion in the pension fund,” Madden wrote. The $625 payments come from the competitive balance tax, and Madden cited an unnamed MLB insider who said today’s players union executive director, former first baseman Tony Clark, “isn’t gonna have any appetite for siphoning money from his rank and file. That’s why he won’t even talk to these old players.”

Legally, of course, MLB and the players union aren’t obligated to lift a single finger now. The Denehys, Clydes, Niebauers, Robinsons, Quallses, and others believe it’s a moral and ethical question. They were there, too, surrendering pay and preparation time to fight with their fellow players for the same rights as any American worker at any level had—to negotiate job compensation and conditions on a fair and free job market within their industry.

You would think that Clark himself having been a player might be more inclined to find a way to bring further help and redress to those players who also helped pave the way for, among other things, the reported $22.3 million Clark earned in fifteen seasons as a power hitting but often injury-compromised first baseman.

You would think likewise that numerous former players long established in the sports media—Hall of Fame pitchers Dennis Eckersley and John Smoltz, 1986 World Series champion Mets Ron Darling (pitcher) and Keith Hernandez (first baseman), former outfielder Doug Glanville, former first baseman John Kruk, former shortstop/third baseman Alex Rodriguez, pitchers Mark Gubicza and Rick Sutcliffe, among others—might be more inclined likewise, if only to bring further attention to the issue.

Especially on behalf of disabusing the public’s prospective view that any former baseball player must be a wealthy former baseball player. Joe and Jane Fan today don’t always know or recall the pre-free agency era, when the owners misapplied the reserve clause to bind players for life or until traded or sold, and most players needed to work in the off-seasons to make ends meet or keep the ends within close sight of each other.

If Marvin Miller himself regretted not revisiting the 1980 pension re-alignment to do right by those players, it seems more than reasonable that the players union today, and those former players in strong enough positions to raise the issue, should think and re-think about the men whose playing careers might have been short but whose commitment to their fellow players was no less profound.