Jays leaders eager to talk labour issues after contentious off-season

Curtis Granderson. (Frank Gunn/CP)

DUNEDIN, Fla. — This past off-season, which is technically still ongoing, was one of the most troublesome, contentious, alarming winters MLB players have faced in some time. As MLB set a revenue record in 2017 for the 15th consecutive season — surpassing $10 billion — a robust group of talented players hit the free-agent market and found the salaries and contract terms they had seen their predecessors obtain were no longer being offered.

The off-season moved at a glacial pace. Some of the biggest names on the market did not sign deals until after spring training camps had opened. Many dependable veterans settled for deals far smaller than their peers signed in previous winters; many others were forced to settle for minor-league contracts. Dozens are still unsigned, and working out at an MLBPA organized camp in Florida, awaiting phone calls.

In a system that strictly limits earning potential for domestic amateurs through draft bonus pools, for foreign amateurs through international spending caps, for minor-leaguers who can expect to earn somewhere in the five figures and often less, for players early in their MLB careers through contract renewals, and for players with three-to-six years of MLB service time through arbitration, free agency was seen as the oasis a ballplayer was wandering the desert towards. Survive that meat grinder of a process — remember, most don’t — and you’ll finally be adequately compensated by a money-making machine that annually earns billions on your back. Literally — your name is on the back of the jersey.

But this winter, players found they weren’t being paid in free agency either. They found front offices asserting they had grown too intelligent to reward players for past, and that the aging curve had been inappropriately compensated over time. And those front offices said they had the data to prove it. As the demands of their highly-stressful profession have increased steadily over time, and the game has grown bigger than it’s ever been before, player salaries continued to be systematically suppressed

Some of baseball’s richest teams, perennial contenders due to their financial might, actively worked to lower payroll to avoid luxury tax penalties. Others in the middle turned to cheaper players earlier in their careers to fill major-league roster holes from within. Those at the bottom — as many as a dozen teams depending on how you slice it — appeared to be purposefully designing their teams to be less competitive, aiming to mimic the successful rebuilds run in recent years by the Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros.

Player unrest was widespread. Assertions of collusion were rampant. Work action, or a downright stoppage, was pondered publicly by many. A lot was going on.

So, considering that backdrop, it’s no surprise Blue Jays players were extremely eager to participate in, and engaged by, the club’s annual spring meeting with MLBPA leadership Saturday at Dunedin Stadium. Tony Clark, the union’s executive director, was of course there. As were two of the union’s special assistants: Bobby Bonilla and 1992 Blue Jays World Series winner Dave Winfield.

“This is one of the more senior teams that’s in the league. And you can tell by the conversations and engagement that you have with a group like this,” Clark said. “Their understanding, their appreciation for all the moving pieces of the game, on and off the field, is different than most.

“We’re seeing something this off-season that we haven’t seen in a very long time. As a result, players are engaged. Players are trying to appreciate why what is happening is happening, and are asking questions in that regard. We’ve seen that in every clubhouse and I anticipate seeing that moving forward. There’s no doubt in anybody’s mind that everyone’s attention is high against the backdrop of what everybody’s seen.”

Ben Nicholson-Smith is Sportsnet’s baseball editor. Arden Zwelling is a senior writer. Together, they bring you the most in-depth Blue Jays podcast in the league, covering off all the latest news with opinion and analysis, as well as interviews with other insiders and team members.

Following the meeting, a group of five Blue Jays — Curtis Granderson, Josh Donaldson, Kevin Pillar, John Axford, and Steve Pearce — stood side-by-side outside their clubhouse and spoke for more than 20 minutes with media about issues in the game. It was a strong display of solidarity from a player group that clearly feels they, and their peers across the game, have been embattled this off-season.

“Obviously, the state of the game has gone through a bunch of different things from when all of us started playing to where we sit now,” said Granderson, who serves on the union’s executive board as one of two elected player representatives. “Free agency is one. Making sure players’ rights are protected and taken care of. All the different things that we fought for. The history in that room, including Dave Winfield, Bobby Bonilla, and Tony Clark, went through so many different things to allow us the opportunities to be here today. And we’re trying to continue to preserve and maintain and fight for additional rights.”

The two-and-a-half hour meeting covered a broad range of topics, from the macro, such as free agency and arbitration, to the micro, such as merchandising, signing requests, and quality of life improvements. Granderson was obviously a strong voice in the meeting, as was Donaldson, who is a pending free agent. But so too was Pillar, who will serve as the Blue Jays union representative this year, and was vocal on several issues during the session.

It’s crucial for the health of the union that younger players, such as the 29-year-old Pillar, take a strong interest in its activities and place in the game. Strong leaders like Granderson won’t be playing baseball forever. And the 36-year-old is looking to pass the torch to Pillar, just as he had it passed to him by players like Clark, Winfield and Bonilla.

“I had conversations with guys who were sitting in there for the first time and they were unaware of some of the information that we discussed,” Pillar said. “The next CBA is due in five years — some of these guys standing here might not be involved. So, it’s on us as younger players to get involved and learn from these older guys.

“Especially after today, I think you’re going to see a lot more involvement from the younger players, knowing that the future’s in their hands.”

Changes to the game in an effort to affect pace of play was also a primary issue discussed Saturday. Rob Manfred has made pace of play a focal point of his tenure as MLB commissioner, and, following a series of proposals rejected by the union, has threatened to unilaterally impose changes, which he has the power to do under the current CBA.

The main sticking point for both sides has been the implementation of a pitch clock, which has been a feature in minor-league games — it’s set at 20 seconds — since the beginning of the 2015 season. The league believes it will shorten the length of games. Many players believe it heightens the risk of injury for pitchers and position players alike.

“Everyone wants to see the game finish up at a relatively decent time,” Granderson said. “But how do we do that? We can go out there and just play. Just let us go out there and continue to play and things will take care of themselves. You start implementing rules that affect him as a hitter, and affect him as a pitcher, and affect us defensively, then all of a sudden you start putting a health issue in play. And the results of the game start to be changed.”

While games are longer than ever, the speed of action in the 2018 game is undoubtedly higher than in the past, as pitch and exit velocities have climbed year over year. That means the risk of injury is, too. Granderson also made note of the sheer physical difference between today’s players and those from the past, asking, “How many pitchers were that tall back in the day?” as he motioned to the 6-foot-5 Axford.

Players also question how much of an effect a strict limit on the time between pitches would have on the length of games. Last season, the average time between pitches for major-league starters was 23.6 seconds. And only 25 starters who pitched at least 100 innings averaged longer than 25. Relievers were generally slower, but not significantly, averaging 25.3 seconds between pitches. Of course, relievers also pitch far less than starters, and in much more stressful situations.

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Although it’s discussed less, extensive commercial breaks between innings contribute to the growing length of games, as well. And players don’t receive a share of the revenue from that. One potential solution floated by a Blue Jays player was to mimic other leagues such as the NFL by shortening commercial breaks and having advertising displayed on a split screen, with the ad on one side and the field of play on the other, while action resumes.

“You have to really look at the real issues. Is it pitchers taking too much time between pitches?” Donaldson asked. “I think what fans who are watching TV don’t realize is for someone who’s on defence, we’re waiting for the TV to get turned on half the time, so we can play the game. That’s an extra 30 seconds. Nobody’s talking about that.”

Some believe an MLB pitch clock is inevitable. But it won’t happen this year, after the league and players reached agreement on a series of other pace of play initiatives for 2018. Starting this season, teams will be limited to six mound visits per game, excluding pitching changes. If a game goes extra innings, teams will be afforded one additional visit per inning.

Also, MLB has reduced the length of time between innings during regular season games to two minutes and five seconds during locally televised contests and two minutes and 25 seconds during nationally televised games. In the postseason, between-innings time will extend to two minutes and 55 seconds.

More than anything, players want to be play a substantial role in the process of addressing pace of play. You get the sense that any unilaterally implemented changes by the league could result in a strong player revolt.

“The players need to be more involved in making these decisions,” Donaldson said. “Now you can just change the game, and in five years the game of baseball might not look like the game of baseball. Is that what we’re trying to accomplish? If it is, I think that a large part of your audience isn’t going to appreciate that.”

So, yes, a lot was discussed Saturday. And that’s because today’s game has a lot of issues. A big one for the players, as they battle for rights and privileges going forward, will be mere messaging — winning over public perception. It’s easy for many fans, blinded by the sticker shock of professional athlete salaries, to side against the players. They’re paid millions to play a game. Public sympathy will not come easily. Never mind the fact owners are earning far more.

But the labour issues that are affecting the players currently are quite similar to those that affect the greater population, whether they’re steelworkers, nurses, or educators. What’s happening in baseball is merely a macrocosm of what happens across society. It’s an extremely scaled example of North American capitalism and economy. As a business continues to generate more revenue, lining the pockets of ownership and management in the process, the wages of those without whom none of it would be possible deserve to increase, in turn.

“A lot of people forget that we’re human beings before we’re players,” Granderson said. “It’s very interesting that every opening day every one of our salaries are public knowledge. But not what the teams bring in. Not what the teams have been earning over the past year. Not what they plan to make at the end of that season. They’re just as much of a public figure as we are. All the jerseys and everything have the Blue Jays logo on it first, and then our name on the back second. So, information like that, I think, can put some things into perspective.

“But it’s never public knowledge. It’s never put out there. Everything is always on [the players’] side of it. And rightfully so. We’re the ones out there playing. But, if that’s going to be the case, then we also should get treated fairly.”

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