A Hall of Famer says beware bad looks through real concerns

2020-05-20 TomGlavine

Hall of Fame pitcher Tom Glavine—The Edmund Burke of the 1994-95 players’ strike hopes today’s players beware the bad looks even if their alarms about playing half a season are justified.

Hall of Fame pitcher Tom Glavine has learned many things over the years. Including that there come times when, even if you’re right, lots of people still think you’re wrong.

During the 1994-early 1995 players strike, Glavine couldn’t convince Joe and Jane Fan—well enough lubricated by a large enough, loud enough, pro-owners press—that the owners, trying to jam a salary cap down the throats of the players who’d already rejected it several times previously, really wanted to force the players to stop them before they over-spent, mis-spent, or mal-spent again.

Today, Glavine hopes to convince players to beware the bad look, even if they’re dead right, when they quake over the owners pushing to pay them according to a 50-50 revenue split if and when major league baseball returns this year, it’s not going to look good to an awful lot of people missing larger points—including the prospective health risks and whether sound precautions will be put in place for MLB to return.

It’ll be one thing if the return is hampered over genuine health concerns that the players haven’t been shy about expressing. It’ll be something else, Glavine fears, if it comes down to financial issues—even if the players are right to holler foul after the owners first agreed to pay their 2020 salaries on a pro-rated basis, before trying for the 50-50 revenue split that could cost both sides money but the owners considerably less.

“If it were to come down to an economic issue and that’s the reason baseball didn’t come back,” says Glavine—one of the most visible and more thoughtful players’ spokesmen during the 1994-95 strike—to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “you’re looking at a situation similar to the strike of ’94 and ’95 as far as fans are concerned. Even if players were 100% justified in what they were complaining about, they’re still going to look bad.”

At least as bad as Rays pitcher Blake Snell looked last week, when the lefthander said, “For me to take a pay cut is not happening because the risk is through the roof. I’ve got to get my money. I’m not playing unless I get mine, OK? And that’s just the way it is for me.” It was one thing for Snell to express concern for the health risk but something else to look as though his health depended entirely upon his income.

Even if the Washington Post‘s invaluable baseball columnist Thomas Boswell could and did write, the same day, that the owners first proposed the half-season to begin in July “provided that the players agree to a percentage-of-the-revenue deal on salaries that would be exactly the kind of de facto salary cap they have rejected in every labour negotiation I have covered since the 1970s. Very amusing, owners. What, you thought the players wouldn’t notice?”

It wasn’t only the players who noticed, either. It may be a bad enough look when Blake Snell says the risk isn’t worth it if he takes a pay cut to assume it. It’s just as bad if not worse when the owners one minute enunciate genuine alarms over the health risks with the coronavirus still on the loose but the next minute remind us that, to them, the common good of the game equals too little more than making money for it and them, and not necessarily in that order.

Glavine in 1994-95 wasn’t even close to Snell’s shoot-from-the-lip style of talker. He was thoughtful, articulate, and becalmed, enunciating the players’ positions with the tone of a parliamentary debator. It wasn’t his fault that it fell on blind eyes, deaf ears, and pre-conditioned minds.

The lefthander who pitched his way to the Hall of Fame with smarts, control, and a corner-dominating changeup, behaved as the epitome of professionalism even in the face of mal-informed opposition.

Glavine now admits he made one major mistake during the strike: making himself accessible to a fault. “[It] was a miscalculation on my part,” he tells the Journal-Constitution. “I just felt like if I did an interview on the radio or TV, if I had five or 10 minutes, I could make somebody understand what was going on and come to our side. That just wasn’t going to happen.”

Boswell saw and raised last week:

[Owners and players] face a choice that is not a choice at all. They can fight, waste time and end up with zero games and $0.00 in total revenue for the year, as opposed to the $10.7 billion they split up last year. Or they can figure out how to play those 78 (or whatever) regular season games, plus a postseason with as many as 14 teams and additional TV revenue. Then they probably end up with nearly $4 billion this year. That’s a lot better than $0.00.

So if it turns out that the coronavirus recedes enough in the next 50 days while safety measures and testing reach a point where a half-season could be played but isn’t because of bickering, I will be fascinated to see how anyone explains that to fans.

Still, you get the salary-cap animus. MLB is the one American team sport without a salary cap but with the greatest diversity of World Series champions since its disgraceful reserve era ended of any American team sports.

Those of us old enough to remember and with brains enough to know better when the owners screamed ending the reserve era meant ending “competitive balance” scoffed then. (And, pointed to all those “competitively balanced” decades when it seemed the World Series wasn’t a World Series without the Yankees in it or winning it) should scoff now at the owners’ bid to end-run their way to a de facto salary cap. But . . .

“So how could you frame a deal that would not set a salary cap precedent?” Boswell asked, then answered. “Maybe the owners say: ‘We’re going to get killed. We can pay you one-third of your 2020 salaries if you will play one-half of the season, plus a slightly expanded postseason.’ Then you negotiate from there.”

And you don’t step too far in front too often to negotiate in public, whether you’re an owner or a player. The looks are going to be terrible. Maybe not as terrible as a Donald Trump tweetstorm that in saner times would go innuendo and out the other, but terrible enough.

Glavine learned the hard way once upon a time, and he was probably the Edmund Burke of the players’ side during that 1994-95 strike. What Samuel Johnson observed of Burke could be said unapologetically about Glavine: “He chose his side like a fanatic and defended it like a gentleman.”

He knows that having our normal back would include having the games we love back, even as he knows concurrently that athletes have every right to fear for theirs or their families’ health. He doesn’t have to say that the owners should have the same concerns for the other staffers, front office and ballpark alike, who help the games play.

“For me here now, Georgia is open to some degree,” says Glavine, a New England native who’s made Georgia and Florida his home since his playing days. “I can choose what I want to do. I can choose how much I want to expose myself. When you’re starting to get on planes and travel as a sport, you’ve lost control over that. Now you’re trusting in everybody else providing an environment for you that is safe.

“If I was playing today, I wouldn’t say, ‘Hell no, I’m not playing’,” he continues. “But of course, I’d have a concern that once you step out that door and you go back into that world, there’s a chance you’re bringing something home to your family. It’s 100 percent fair for players, coaches, everybody to be concerned about that.”

Most of the players who’ve spoken out about the matter have been prudent enough to speak health first, pelf and anything else later. They’re not wrong to fear the owners reneging on a deal they thought they had, in the middle of figuring out how to play through and around the still-too-real health risk.

Just make the points without being dismissive, smug, or tunnel-visioned, and let the owners hang themselves if it comes to that. Anything beyond, and Joe and Jane Fan aren’t going to bother about the nuances when they have no MLB to see even on television.

Glavine does because he’s been there/done that, as a player and now as a fan who admits he missed the NHL postseason as much as he’s missing baseball, both as a fan and as a Braves television analyst.

“It’s part of the routine, it’s nice to do what you do all day, eat dinner and then sit down and watch some kind of game,” he says. “Not having games to watch has been hard. But, you know, we’ll get through it.”

Glavine himself helped take the sting out of the 1994-95 strike by throwing the clinching shutout in the only World Series championship (1995) won by those dominating Braves teams of the 1990s and early Aughts.

Someone will take the sting out of 2020’s coronavirus-lost baseball, too, in due course. Whether it’s in 2020 or, worst-case scenario, in 2021. Someone always does.