We are not witnessing the death of the Major League Baseball Players Association. But on the 50th anniversary of Curt Flood’s challenge on the reserve clause that opened the door for free agency, we are bystanders to its gelding.
It’s debatable who, if anybody, gets the blame for this. You might ask whether ‘blame’ is the right word since fans should be pleased when their team retains its stars and since baseball players are willingly accepting contract extensions in spite of it giving up hard-win turf from almost half a century of labour wars. And this has ramifications beyond baseball, since at least in North America it has been the MLBPA that has done most of the heavy theoretical and ideological lifting for its cousins in other sports; it is the MLBPA alone that has managed to fend off a salary cap. Because of its intransigence and unity, it is only the MLBPA that deserved the right to be called ‘the union’ whenever sports labour matters were discussed. Everybody else was an association – a particularly apt description for the NFLPA which has historically been nothing more than a lapdog for ownership.
The MLBPA is just another union being crushed right now by technology – in this case, analytics that have removed all emotion from contract negotiations – and by changing perspectives. Free agency used to be viewed as a right. For many players, it’s now a nuisance. In the past, whenever fans or observers would castigate players by asking: “C’mon, what’s the difference between $22 million and $25 million a year for five years, players would shrug and answer: ‘$15 million.’ Now the answer seems to be: ‘Yeah, you have a point, there.’”
It used to be that players and agents believed that jumping out of the trenches and fighting a good free-agent fight was important to raise everybody else’s salary, that something which would help future generations of players was worth doing. But the last collective bargaining agreement was all about guaranteeing an empty seat beside you on the team bus.
Indeed, the real story of this off-season wasn’t the sluggish free-agent market and the diminished return received by Bryce Harper. The real story is how potential market-setting players began delaying or in Trout’s case avoiding free agency. Think about it: in the past couple of weeks two of the games premier talents – Trout and Nolan Arenado who play every day – have essentially committed to spending their careers with one organization. The idea that Trout would be a life-long Angel is less shocking than the notion that Arenado would be with the Colorado Rockies for life after agreeing to an eight-year extension adding seven years and $234 million to his existing deal. It also includes an opt-out clause after 2021 that, if exercised, would see him leave $164 million on the table at the age of 30.
As Mark Feinsand of MLB.com notes, once this weekends extensions of Justin Verlander and Chris Sale are factored in, more than $1.5 billion in contract extensions have been given out to 21 players since the end of the World Series. As a result, much of the lustre has been removed from the next three or four free—agent periods, with the saving grace so far being the New York Mets inability to get Jacob deGrom signed (he is a free agent after two more seasons and has imposed a deadline of Opening Day to get a deal done this season) and the Boston Red Sox’s apparent reluctance to lock up Xander Bogearts (a free agent after next season) and Mookie Betts (free after 2020). And the off-season after the 2021 regular season could be a beast, too, with the likes of Kris Bryant (Scott Boras’ next big free agent) on the market. But after this winter, who knows what it will look like? Who knows whether a new CBA will have altered the landscape even more.
I don’t know if current MLBPA executive director Tony Clark could have done much to fend this off. Or, for that matter, whether the late Michael Weiner or undefeated labour champions such as Donald Fehr or Gene Orza could have done so, either. But as Washington Nationals reliever Sean Doolittle tweeted this spring:
“When there are so many ways for players to be exploited between the time they are drafted and the time they reach free agency, the security these deals offer can seem too good to pass up. Players who sign these deals aren’t part of the problem. The problem is the system.”
The question for players: how much of this was inevitable – almost demographic – and how much of it was the product of a fundamentally bad collective bargaining agreement? With negotiations on a new CBA starting much earlier than usual, I’d be scared that ownership believes the fear and confusion of the past two or three off-seasons means they’re in a position to deliver a mortal blow to all the work started by Marvin Miller and those brave souls decades ago. But then, maybe the players just don’t care any more, in which case I’m not certain we should, either.
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In which we Rays the roof … look for our security blanket … weight it out with Vlady, Jr., … and wonder if a couple years of rumours about Kevin Pillar aren’t about to come true …
• I probably shouldn’t write this, but what the hell: the Tampa Bay Rays will finish in second place in the American League East. You’ll have to wait until our gang’s picks are up on the website to see who’s first #raysup
• Marc Gasol is something the Raps haven’t had since they’ve become good: a big man who is a security blanket for his teammates, someone willing to come to a teammate when he loses his dribble or is being pressed, settle things down … then give the ball back #allin
• I’m with Brian Burke on this: the Flames’ Mark Giordano should get the Norris Trophy. His three points Saturday make him the fourth defenceman 35 or older with 70 points, joining Ray Bourque, Sergei Zubov and Nicklas Lidstrom, who did it twice #youngmansgame
• Know what’s really intriguing about the Kyle Dubas vs. Mike Babcock stuff: the silence of Leafs president Brendan Shanahan, who could end things once and for all #speaksvolumes?
• Weight? Service time? Piffle. The biggest flashpoint with Vladimir Guerrero Jr., will come when he wants something like the five-year, $43-million contract extension signed like another zero service-time guy, Eloy Jimenez of the White Sox #nevertooearlytoworry
• The Lightning are four wins away from the NHL single-season record of 62. They could tie it in Montreal on April 2 and break it two days later at Scotiabank Arena #lightningstrike
• The Giants’ interest in Kevin Pillar spans at least two off-seasons and with the organizations numbers showing Randal Grichuk is a better defensive centre-fielder, the Jays would be silly to not move Pillar for an arm #retool
David Samson is not everyone’s cup of tea – I hear you, Expos fans – but the former president of the Miami Marlins has become a must-follow on social media and from his work with CBS Sports because of his willingness to use the insight he gained sitting in all those meetings with other owners. We have analysts who can tell you what it’s like to be a player or a G.M. or manager but few who have sat in at the highest level of decision making. In that way, Samson is very much like the most interesting and unique British sports analyst there is: Simon Jordan of talkSPORT, who parlayed a fortune made in mobile phones into ownership of Crystal Palace, a club that bounced between Premier League and First Division in his 10 years as chairman (2000-2010) before cash-flow problems forced it into administration. I had a chance to have Samson on my show recently and he said two things in particular that stood out to me as we discussed the earth-shattering re-alignment we have seen in baseball’s off-season player market: first, that the most logical way to ensure Major League players get more money at a younger age and re-calibrate the games system of compensation is to dramatically increase the minimum salary (which would of course necessitate a significant quid pro quo from the players association) and, second, that as professional sports move closer to formal partnerships with legalized gambling it puts an added importance for ownership on labour peace. No games, no gambling … no revenue.
Jeff Blair hosts The Jeff Blair Show from 9 a.m.-11 a.m. and Baseball Central from 11 a.m.-Noon on Sportsnet 590/The Fan