“Stop us before we mal-spend again”

2020-05-28 MaxScherzer

Max Scherzer isn’t buying the owners’ bid to renege on a March agreement to pay players their 2020 salaries pro-rated if baseball returns this summer.

Most of major league baseball’s labour issues have come down, historically and factually, to the owners trying to order the players to stop them before they overspend, misspend, or mal-spend yet again. And, again. Despise Scott Boras to your heart’s content, but he has a point when he calls upon players to decline bailing the owners out for their financial follies.

The players seem to want nothing more but nothing less than for the owners to live up to the agreement they secured in March, that the players would play a shortened 2020 with their regularly-due 2020 salaries pro-rated accordingly. The owners want the players to forget that deal and pitch and swing for less.

“If this was just about baseball, playing games would give the owners enough money to pay the players their full prorated salaries and run the baseball organization,” says the uber agent in a memo obtained by the Associated Press. But, of course, this isn’t just about playing baseball.

“The owners’ current problem is a result of the money they borrowed when they purchased their franchises, renovated their stadiums or developed land around their ballparks,” Boras continues.

This type of financing is allowed and encouraged by MLB because it has resulted in significant franchise valuations.

Owners now want players to take additional pay cuts to help them pay these loans. They want a bailout. They are not offering players a share of the stadiums, ballpark villages or the club itself, even though salary reductions would help owners pay for these valuable franchise assets. These billionaires want the money for free. No bank would do that. Banks demand loans be repaid with interest. Players should be entitled to the same respect.

Under normal circumstances such borrowings might have made a certain level of sense and seem unnecessary at certain points, as Boras and others who wheel and deal in the game understand well enough.

I’m hard pressed to recall what occupied Joe and Jane Fan’s mind more, the deficit financings by which the Ricketts family bought the Cubs and redeveloped Wrigley Field in the first place, or the Cubs reaching the Promised Land at long enough last four years ago. Uh, oh. It’s been four years since the Cubs won the World Series. Will their next Series drought last even half of 116 years?

Whatever you think of him, Boras—and he’s hardly alone—would like to remind you appropriately that it wasn’t the players who counseled the owners to borrow big buying their teams, and the players benefit comparatively small from baseball’s recent record revenues and profits.

Beware the rat, Boras advises: the Rickettses [and other owners likewise] “will be able to claim that they never had any profits because those profits went to pay off their loans. However, the end result is that the Ricketts will own improved assets that significantly increases the value of the Cubs — value that is not shared with the players.”

Before the AP made the Boras memo public, Washington Nationals pitcher Max Scherzer tweeted, “We have previously negotiated a pay cut in the version of prorated salaries, and there’s no justification to accept a 2nd pay cut based upon the current information the union has received. I’m glad to hear other players voicing the same viewpoint and believe MLB’s economic strategy would completely change if all documentation were to become public information.”

Remember: An awful lot of public misinformation accompanied the runup to and the duration of the 1994 players’ strike. Hall of Famer Tom Glavine was there. Last week, he reminded one and all, “If it were to come down to an economic issue and that’s the reason baseball didn’t come back, 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.”

The players association “has held firm that a March 27 agreement between the parties ensures the players their prorated share, while the league believes that language in the agreement calls for a good-faith negotiation in the event that games are played in empty stadiums,” notes ESPN’s Jeff Passan.

Good faith, indeed. The players, with good contemporary and historical reason, Passan continues, are “skeptical of the data the league shared that showed significant losses across the sport and recently submitted additional document requests to the league in search of information about local television revenue, national television revenue, sponsorship revenue and projections from teams.”

With the coronavirus pandemic still in play, too, the players and the owners have health concerns to address and secure to the best extent possible if they want to play ball this summer. You may think the players are being greed heads for insisting that the owners live up to the March agreement and cut the shenanigans, but what does it say for the owners looking to use the pandemic still in play to force the players yet again to stop them before they overspend, misspend, or mal-spend—again?

There will always be the folks who blame the players no matter what,” tweets The Athletic‘s Marc Carig. “But let there be no mistake about it. The blame will also fall to the owners, who seem to have made weakening the union a priority over getting baseball back on the field.”

Part of that, of course, is an availability issue. It’s headlines when players sign bazillion-dollar contracts, but it’s crickets when the owners are asked to provide complete, undoctored financial disclosures that would indicate how much they actually as opposed to allegedly invest in actual baseball activity.

Do yourselves a couple of favours, dear readers. (All ten of you). Don’t let yourselves fall into the trap of thinking this is all a bunch of hooey over playing a kid’s game, for crying out loud! Remember whom you pay your hard-earned money to see at the ballpark. (Hint: it isn’t the owners, or even the general managers, no matter how dubious was that lopsided trade for which your team’s GM got the short end of the stick.)

Then, ask yourselves, if it’s just a kid’s game, for crying out loud, whether you, too, could really handle going to work every day knowing there’ll be about fifty thousand people watching you do your job at the office, on the loading bay, or along the conveyors—never mind whether you, too, could really hit Scherzer, Jacob deGrom, or Jack Flaherty into the bleachers or sneak a meatball past Mike Trout, Christian Yelich, or Cody Bellinger.

Now, put the dollar amounts to one side, and ask yourselves how you’d feel if you had a deal with your employer and your employer decided you need to renegotiate it down, because said employer needs a bailout after borrowing up and out the kazoo despite having the wherewithal to carry on without debt financing.

Thought so.

There’s no place like home

2019-12-10 StephenStrasburg

Stephen Strasburg makes himself a Nat for life.

The temptation is overwhelming. So for once let’s give in to temptation. Stephen Strasburg, essentially, closed his eyes, clicked the heels of his spiked shoes, and chanted the mantra, “There’s no place like home! There’s no place like home!” And made himself a Washington National for life. Which was the probable outcome, after all, when he first bought a home in the D.C. region and then finished 2019 as the world champions’ World Series MVP.

That, as no few commentators observed in the immediate wake of Monday’s news, is what happens when a pitcher learns within the earliest days of his major league baseball life that he happens to wear the uniform of a team that actually cares about him as a human as well as a pitcher in the long term and not the short range. Enough to withstand a small but incinerating storm of criticism for acting upon it.

That’s what Strasburg learned, not without a little kicking and a little whispering (he doesn’t exactly scream), between 2010 and 2012. When he first hit the old disabled list (known nowadays as the injured list) in July 2010 with a stiff shoulder, hit it again after being in too-obvious pain in the fifth inning of an August start, then underwent Tommy John surgery and missed the rest of that plus the entire 2011 season. When former pitcher-turned-broadcaster Rob Dibble, then a Nats talker, said on the air that Strasburg just needed to suck it up and not call in the cavalry to save his butt every time he felt a little ache, the uproar cost Dibble his job. And helped save Strasburg’s career.

There were none so blind as those who couldn’t and wouldn’t see that there’s no such thing as one size fitting every last pitcher who takes the mound, and that there’s no such thing concurrently as every last pitcher experiencing pain in the limb that earns his keep equaling crystal over iron. It only took baseball thought a century to grok that pitching careers lasting two decades or just beyond were aberrations and not pre-ordained actualities, that you couldn’t and shouldn’t, really, expect every highly talented arm to endure just because some were so fortunate.

Strasburg underwent a surgery named for a man who’d been a quality pitcher for twelve seasons prior to undergoing the first such procedure and twelve more to follow, but a man who wasn’t exactly renowned around the game for throwing like a human howitzer, either. When he returned for 2012, the Nationals elected not to allow their prize, a well-hyped, high-priced product of San Diego State in the first place, to overdo it despite any personal inclination, his first full season back. And once again the hoopla, this time accusing the Nats practically of tanking it on behalf of preserving the crystal, never mind that their 2012 and 2013 shortfalls had nothing to do with the Strasburg Plan.

Strasburg didn’t implode the Nats in Game Five of the 2012 division series, when they followed a 6-0 lead taken in the first two innings by trying to hit six-run homers with every other swing of the bat or by trying to throw three strikes with every pitch from the mound. It wasn’t Strasburg who told the 2013 Nats they could survive without lefthanded relief. He didn’t tell anyone that Bryce Harper could survive trying to make himself the second coming of Pistol Pete Reiser in the outfield just because today’s fences are only slightly more forgiving than the concrete wall in old Ebbets Field, or that the Nats could survive him and other key men (Jayson Werth, Wilson Ramos) on the DL with little substantial reserves on which to call in their absence. And Strasburg wasn’t the genius who told that year’s Nats the starting rotation could take the mound believing nothing better than that they had to throw shutouts just to break even.

There were none so dumb as those who spoke beyond their competence, either. The reports of the Nats’ competitive death were more than slightly exaggerated, and so were those saying their absolute World Series-winning window got slammed shut on their fingers. It took a few years, of course, but there’s something to be said for long-term planning and executing, hiccups (there were plenty enough) to one side, and today the Nats sit as world champions, in large portion because of the 31-year-old righthander who’s graduated through long, hard, smartly managed work into a near-perfect number two starter and a postseason menace.

Set that to one side, however, and listen to those in the know who knew that in his heart of hearts, however tempting might have been the offers that would lure him back to within immediate reach of his San Diego roots (the Dodgers and the Angels were thought to have eyes upon him), Strasburg didn’t want to be anywhere but in Washington. Crunching the numbers is fun and revelatory, especially when you divine as The Athletic‘s Jayson Stark has: “I have to wonder if we should be looking at the actual “value” of this deal by dividing $245 million by seven. That’s because Strasburg was already guaranteed four years, $100 million before he opted out of his last contract. So he actually got three years, $145 million out of the opt-out. That comes to $48.333 million a year. How ’bout that AAV!”

Strasburg didn’t exactly behave after the World Series like a young man eager to hit the road, Jack, as Sports Illustrated‘s Stephanie Apstein records: “The Nationals knew something else: Strasburg wanted this done. During negotiations, he asked for the team to open the ballpark every day so he could work out. So when general manager Mike Rizzo and managing principal owner Mark Lerner identified Strasburg as their top priority this offseason, they decided to act like it. They began discussing a potential deal as the 2019 season closed, and they talked in earnest after Strasburg officially opted out on Nov. 2. That urgency appealed to Strasburg, if not exactly to his agent.”

You can accuse Scott Boras of many things, plausibility be damned as it so often is when his name arises, but not caring about his clients above and beyond the commission dollars they earn him for his efforts isn’t one of those charges. (One of the most plain stupid arguments around Boras essentially denies that this is in fact what agents do, assume the heavy lifting of negotiating for their clients on a properly open job market, which in Hollywood and other entertainment worlds is thought right and proper but in professional sports is thought somehow unseemly if not criminal.)

“To establish a legacy and wear the curly W for his career was something that was very important to [Strasburg],” Boras told Apstein. “And I think it was because he knew that people in this organization cared deeply about him and always cared about his interests and the interests of his family.” Meaning that, for all those moments when Strasburg wasn’t entirely happy about the old Plan, as Apstein puts it, “[S]omewhere along the way, he began to feel grateful that his bosses took the long view. His heart was here, but so was his arm, thanks to those weeks on the bench.”

Now the hardest part will be making sure Strasburg’s long, slow arising up from the stoic presence he was for so long continues. Little by little he learned to loosen up in the dugout and finally couldn’t resist getting drawn into the revelries upon this or that moment’s triumphs. The smiles now far more frequent from his fully bearded phiz can provide backup power in the event of a Nationals Park blackout. As illustrated on Twitter—by the Nats themselves, tweeting the news of his signing not with a look at him on the mound but a look at him hitting and celebrating a mammoth three-run homer against the Braves—Stras gotta dance, too.

Boras isn’t entirely altruistic, of course, and he knows bloody well enough that Strasburg now off the market means his other high-profile pitching client Gerrit Cole stands to make out even more like the proverbial bandit, possibly this week during the winter meetings electrified Monday by the Strasburg heel click, if not by some time in early January. If nothing else Strasburg now prompts the Yankees and the Angels—both of whom are known to be all-in on Cole, both of whom are now bereft of a plausible backup in Strasburg—to remake and remodel the numbers enough that Cole lacking Strasburg’s full track record, quite (Cole’s lifetime ERA: 3.22; Strasburg: 3.17; Cole’s lifetime fielding-independent pitching: 3.06; Strasburg: 2.96), could yet make for spring training a $300 million man.

While you ponder what it all means for Anthony Rendon, in the wake of the Nats saying they could afford either Strasburg or Rendon but not quite both, it’s not yet to rule out that Rendon and the Nats might yet decide it’s worth whatever it takes either or both sides to keep him in Nationals Park, too. The Rangers appear to be in position with Rendon as the Angels and Dodgers, possibly, were with Strasburg before Monday, a homecoming option for the Houston native and a nebula for the Rangers moving into a new climate controlled ballpark and needing such a nebula to help the on-field product and the gate counts. And the Nats still have a bullpen to repair behind Daniel Hudson and Sean Doolittle, which repairs aren’t exactly prone to year-end clearance sales.

Rendon may yet remember that, a year ago, the Nats said publicly they weren’t going to break the proverbial bank for Bryce Harper because among other things they wanted to keep Rendon in the family. (We’ve learned long since that that wasn’t quite the complete story.) And Boras, his agent, too, also has one habit one wishes were known far more broadly than it is, which the Harper talks with the Phillies last winter disclosed: when his client prefers to talk to the incumbent or prospective employer himself, the agent obeys when, as Harper did talking to the Phillies, he’s told politely to keep his big trap shut.

There remains the prospect, perhaps taking his cue from Strasburg, perhaps thinking entirely without that factor, perhaps an equal division between the two, that Rendon, too, will click the heels of his spiked shoes and intone, without once referring to his native Texas, “There’s no place like home! There’s no place like home!”