Libertyby John Brattain
October 27, 2008
I generally support the players and the MLBPA when they go mano a mano with ownership.
I have no problem with players going for top dollar. Heck, Manny Ramirez earned back a little respect from me (his exit from Boston left me with a sour taste in my mouth—in the interests of full disclosure I think the Red Sox front office was far from innocent in all of this) with his "I want to see who is the highest bidder. Gas is up and so am I."
Hey, he wants top dollar and said so. It’s about the money and he has no bones about stating it. I can respect that. But I digress. (Don‘t I always?)
My current irked state (which is better than being in a state of Urkel I suppose) goes back to a Ken Davidoff piece in Newsday from about three weeks ago.
Before I get into the particulars I would like you to imagine the following scenarios:
The MLBPA outlaws player agents. Now, that may not seem like a bad idea—I mean a world without Scott Boras is like a world without Paris Hilton, the unofficial fifth and sixth horses (ahem) of the Apocalypse. Sounds pretty good, but that isn’t the point. The reason agents are outlawed is that the union has decided that when a player becomes a free agent, clubs are to submit their bids to the MLBPA office. The union will inform clubs of what has been offered and solicit another round of bids. When the bidding finally stops, the union will then inform the player of his next destination. The destination is based solely on who put in the highest bid.
Think about it—the best talent will always go to the handful of ultra-wealthy clubs. Unless you can put together an obscene financial package you have no chance. You could have a gorgeous ballpark on a club that’s poised to make a World Series run in front of the most knowledgeable fans in the sport in the city where the player grew up and always dreamed of playing, and that player will have no chance of making his dream come true because his favorite team could never outspend the Yankees/Mets/Red Sox etc.
In short, the MLBPA will do its part to ensure that any advantages large-market teams already enjoy will be increased courtesy of the union. Top. Talent. Guaranteed. Sound outlandish?
Let’s take a snippet from the linked article from Newsday:
C.C. Sabathia told reporters this past week that his experience with the Brewers opened up his world. That no longer was he married to the idea of using his impending free agency to relocate his job near his West Coast home …
But there will be more forces in play than just geography or even the actual dollars. Keep in mind that, in high-profile free agency cases like this, the Players Association also plays a role. And that potential impact should only help the Yankees.
Flash back to the 2002-03 offseason. The country was headed to war, and fresh off a new collective bargaining agreement, teams exhibited (conspired for) self-discipline.
The one free agent set to make big-time money was Jim Thome … The Phillies bid heavily on Thome, offering him a six-year, $85-million package. The Indians … countered with a five-year, $60-million deal …
But the Players Association leaned heavily on Thome to take the Phillies’ offer, saying, essentially: “You can’t turn this down. Not this winter.”
This isn’t to say that Thome chose the Phillies’ offer — which concluded with the Phillies paying a good portion of Thome’s salary for the White Sox the past three seasons — only due to union pressure. But it absolutely was a factor, according to a person familiar with the situation …
Let’s look back at Curt Flood’s letter to Bowie Kuhn regarding his trade to the Phillies:
Dear Mr. Kuhn:
After twelve years in the major leagues, I do not feel that I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective my wishes. I believe that any system which produces that result violates my basic rights as a citizen and is inconsistent with the laws of the United States and of the several States.
It is my desire to play baseball in 1970, and I am capable of playing. I have received a contract offer from the Philadelphia club, but I believe I have the right to consider offers from other clubs before making any decisions. I, therefore, request that you make known to all Major League clubs my feelings in this matter, and advise them of my availability for the 1970 season.
Note the phrase “irrespective my wishes”—I have a difficult time believing that a man who stated “A $90,000 slave is still a slave” (bear in mind that $90,000 was pretty good money back then, even by player salary standards of the time) was somehow concerned that the Phillies wouldn’t pay him what he felt he was worth. Indeed money seemed to be the furthest thing from his mind. Flood was concerned that he was being denied the right to choose.
When free agency came into the sport, the vast riches players enjoy today was not a given. Reggie Jackson’s fantasy where he wondered if there would ever be a million dollar player seems laughably quaint and naïve today.
Once upon a time George Toolson was unable to make his big league dreams come true because the Yankees wanted to keep him in the minors as insurance even though they were deep at his position (first base). He thought he could land a big league job with another organization, but his dreams meant little to the Yankees who were concerned with the consequences should Joe Collins, Johnny Mize and Tommy Heinrich all be unable to play first base at any given moment.
Danny Gardella never signed a major league contract with any team and yet was blacklisted from the game for having the audacity to decline a contract from the New York Giants to take a better offer in the Mexican League.
The players wanted freedom from such injustices.
Of course, what kept them in indentured servitude was the owners’ lust for money. Nothing keeps salary demands down like knowing (1) the player plays for you or nobody and (2) you have five or six guys in the minors willing to take his job if he doesn't like the salary being offered.
Now, it seems the lust for money is again threatening player freedom. The MLBPA has become so concerned with player compensation that they’re willing to sacrifice player freedom to push up the salary bar.
Marvin Miller had a vision: a player would be a free agent; he could enter the marketplace, receive bids on his services and the player could then choose—using whatever criteria he wished—where he wanted to play. The strike of 1981 was based on retaining the value of free agent rights that ownership was trying to undermine by insisting on outrageous compensation to be paid by clubs acquiring free agents.
Here’s a little tidbit you might not know: when Catfish Hunter won free agency after the Oakland A’s (Charlie O) reneged on his contract he didn’t accept the offer with the most money. The biggest package on the table (sounds like something Johnny Lindell or Sparky Lyle might do) was from the San Diego Padres, but Hunter wanted to go to the Yankees and Miller was cool with his decision.
It was about Hunter’s right to choose.
One thing we learned from the players’ fight for rights was this: one side—the owners fought for money. The other side—the players fought for freedom. Money divides, freedom unites and the results spoke for themselves. Now the MLBPA has become more about money than freedom, and the union’s lack of unity and consensus is apparent.
Despite staggering revenue growth, the last two collective bargaining agreements have contained strong disincentives for spending on players. You can bet the next one will have even stronger measures.
This will mean that the owners will have more power over the players; the players will have less freedom all because the MLBPA has forgotten its role. It’s the job of the player agents to worry about compensation; it’s the union’s job to keep the marketplace free, open and honest and to ensure that the players have a safe environment in which to work.
Steroids meant higher revenue that translated into bigger paychecks and the Players Association resisted efforts to eradicate the game of performance-enhancing drugs because of it. They should have been in the forefront of efforts to exorcise anabolic substances from the sport since players felt pressure to juice to keep their jobs.
Their job is to protect the players and their freedom and not the salary bar. The organization has forgotten this, and it’s the players who will pay (and are paying) the price. It’s time for the MLBPA to get back to protecting the players. If the game is enjoying high revenues, the player marketplace is free and open and the union is solidly united, then salaries will continue to enjoy healthy increase.
What will prevent this from happening is a union lacking consensus. We’ve seen it in the NFLPA, NBAPA and NHLPA. Fight for money and they will be divided since only a few truly benefit; fight for freedom and everybody is on board because everybody benefits.
A message to Don Fehr and Gene Orza: butt out of free agents’ decision-making process—after all, if a $90,000 slave is still a slave, then so is one who earns $90,000,000. The MLBPA should be the players’ servants and not their masters.
Our good friend, and THT stalwart, John Brattain passed away on March 24, 2009. John was a prolific writer, whose work can also be read at Sympatico/MSN Sports and Baseball Digest Daily. John's work was also featured at USA Today, MLBtalk, ESPN Insider, Baseball Prospectus, The Baseball Analysts and The Baseball Journals. Never afraid to express himself in any medium, he was also a frequent radio speaker.