DUNEDIN, Fla. — This was not the return of ghosts of labour disputes past. Not yet. But it was a mighty impressive sight: Josh Donaldson and Curtis Granderson by side, flanked themselves by John Axford and Kevin Pillar. Steve Pearce hanging around off to the side. A show of veteran force and big voices after a meeting with Major League Baseball Players Association president Tony Clark.
A show of force with four years left in a collective bargaining agreement that has come to be viewed by many former players and some of us in the chattering classes as a Trojan horse, or in the least a short-sided mis-step that has started a slide down a slippery slope.
It was put to this group of Toronto Blue Jays players that perhaps their union took its eye off core economic issues in the last round of bargaining in favour of "lifestyle" issues or quality of life stuff. The answer? Quality of life stuff is a core economic concern.
Clark himself was asked the same question less than half an hour earlier, when he pursed his lips and answered in measured tones:
"It’s been an interesting piece of the rhetoric that is out there," Clark said Saturday. "Rest assured from start to finish the attention was paid to core economics. The other ‘stuff’ was just stuff… even to the extent that a lot of that stuff was discussed, it wasn’t even discussed in the main room it was discussed in even smaller groups away from the main table because the focus was on the economics. So it’s interesting how that rhetoric got thrown out there but I’m suggesting to you that the core economics are always the most important piece of the proverbial puzzle."
Clark emphasized the word stuff with sarcasm as he answered the question, knowing full well it was in a very direct way a criticism of himself; that it fed into the narrative that the first former player to lead the MLBPA had been, well, snookered in negotiations with ownership and commissioner Rob Manfred.
Funny things, these quality of life issues. At a time when big-name free agents remain unsigned at an unusually late stage of the off-season cycle, leading to unpacking of some of the old tensions from the days of collusion, it’s easy for some of us labour cold warriors to point to some of the "gains" made by players and wonder whether Marvin Miller isn’t spinning in his grave. Chef in each home clubhouse? Check. Two seats per player on bus in spring training? Check. The doing-away of clubhouse fees in return for a reduction in meal money that will save each player $6,000-$7,000 per year? Check! I mean, unions are fighting rear-guard actions everywhere and North American society in general seems to value other people’s well-paid labour less than in the past but what hope do any of us have if the MLBPA can’t hold the fort? Analogies to Manfred’s threat to unilaterally impose pace of play rules can be found in myriad industries, if you want to go down that road.
Speaking of which: open seats on buses? Really?
Granderson let Donaldson answer the ‘eye off the prize’ question, but his look said he needed to say something. And he did. For the 36-year-old, 14-year veteran, who is with his fifth big league team and has career earnings of over $103-million, focussing on the chefs and buses — the details — misses the over-arching point. Those are ancillary issues to matters such as scheduling (the players agreed to start the regular-season earlier in return for more days off) and travel.
"From a fan standpoint, I want to see the best product on the field," said Granderson. "So, when a team plays 18 days in a row or when they’re coming from the east coast to the west coast and they’re getting in at six in the morning — I’ve seen it; have experienced it — and then you have to give us a day off because of that… you’re ruining the experience for the fans that have paid their hard-earned money to see us.
"From a lifestyle standpoint, we’re fighting for those things to make sure you can go out there every day and see the best talent. If that includes making sure meal money is taken care of… making sure times are altered accordingly… making sure there’s an off-day in there…."
"These are little things like that get taken for granted, especially as we’ve done the things in terms of cleaning the game up and (getting rid of) performance enhancing drugs. All those different things are out of it… so for everyone out there listening, just think about when you wake up and don’t have your cup of coffee and how groggy you are and how tired you are when you’ve had to work a 12-hour shift and come back the next day. Well, we’re doing the same thing."
It’s not ‘workers of the world unite’ rhetoric and none of the Blue Jays assembled were pleading hardship. Rather, what Granderson presented was a common-sense, well-reasoned defence of just one aspect of what was a complicated set of negotiations. Whether the players need to re-group before the next CBA and figure out an additional option for restricted free agency earlier in their careers (something Donaldson suggested had some merit) or whether they need to guard against being hoodwinked again by ownership’s red herring international draft proposal, it is clear that this group of players think they have a different set of concerns than their predecessors. The old lefty in me would like these guys to be Molotov-cocktail throwing radicals who want to burn it all down, but as Donald Fehr, one of Clark’s predecessors, once told me: professional athletes, especially successful one, are inherently conservative. The system worked to get them this far. Why change it?
This is a strange time for major league baseball, especially for those of us with memories of past labour disputes – most particularly, the players strike that killed the 1994 season. We have become used to an unprecedented run of labour peace since then U.S. Federal appeals court judge Sonia Sotomayor (now a Supreme Court Justice) issued a ruling that effectively ended the strike. There was a wobble in 2002 when drug testing was a nascent yet thorny issue and a deal was not done until the players put on an Aug. 30 deadline, but when this current CBA was formalized last season a sport that at one point had gone 32 years without a stoppage-free CBA found itself in its 15th year of labour peace. Along the way ‘baseball labour’ became a beat at most large newspapers, and it was a topic that polarized not just fans but media – the latter of which were often played off against each other by both sides.
Different reporters were pigeon-holed as being pro-player or pro-owner. Off the record information sessions were held after each day’s negotiations, either in person in some New York City hotel or by telephone. This was before the internet and before 24-hour sports channels, so the battle for the hearts and minds of fans was waged in the national print media, in outlets such as the New York Times or USA Today. Those of us who considered ourselves ‘enlightened’ found common cause most often with the players, since the argument most often made by owners linking increasing salaries and increasing ticket prices was and remains easy to rebut: if they are so inextricably linked, why do teams not decrease ticket prices when they cut payroll? Similarly, the notion that professional athletes were ‘overpaid’ was easy to refute by comparing them to movie stars or singers, or by simply blaming those who were doing the overpaying: the owners, themselves.
Thirty years ago, it would have been red meat for the media for a player to say what Granderson said at one point Saturday, when he noted that while players salaries were made public, ownerships profits weren’t. Back in the day, that would have been headlines, a call to war, as opposed to a rather benign, obvious statement.
The leadership of the MLBPA has gone from Marvin Miller to Fehr to Michael Weiner to Clark, the first non-lawyer and first former player to lead the union. Clark took pains to point out that he feels the same way his predecessors felt when they were asked about labour peace. "Any collective bargaining agreement is negotiated not to keep labour peace," Clark said. "It’s negotiated to have a fair and equitable deal." Think about what this group of players has seen: the dying embers of the steroid era and drug testing as a way of life, the death of the much-respected Weiner due to cancer, startling advances in technology and medicine and dramatic changes in marketing and media in a $10-billion industry, an industry-wide recognition that something must be done to address the scandalous ways some of their peers from Latin America are scouted and signed… and now a pronounced analytical shift in how teams value their labour. Maybe we’re in the middle of a new type of labour warfare or maybe their expectations have changed, in which case maybe ours should, too. I do know this, though: you can never go wrong finding common ground with the players. Trust me.