In this lockout, spare a thought for players whose careers won't end on their terms

The Rogers Centre. (Jon Blacker/CP)

Jon Lester has retired – Travis Snider, too – and as Major League Baseball works its way through a new collective bargaining agreement, I wonder how many more players have taken their last swing or tossed their last pitch.

Lester traced the decision to a whole lot of self-evaluation during the COVID-19 shutdown, rather than the fact he was one of the 140 or so players on Major League rosters in 2021 that are currently out of contract due to the lockout. Snider, the 14th pick overall in 2006 by the Toronto Blue Jays, just felt it was time a few weeks shy of his 34th birthday, after 358 minor league games since he last appeared in the Majors. God bless him.

Guys retire every year, of course. But as the clock winds down to spring training – one month from today is when you’d see pitchers and catchers start to report – and with 40 minor league teams having disappeared in the past two years as part of MLB’s re-structuring and takeover of its development system, this must be an uncomfortable time for older, fringe Major Leaguers without contracts. I wonder how many will get to leave on their terms, like Lester and Snider.

This stalemate will of course sort itself out and, when it’s all done, there will be a rush to sign free agents, make trades and take care of arbitration-eligible players and there will still be room for low-hanging fruit tickling somebody’s analytical fancy. In the meantime, teams are beavering away signing minor-league contracts.

But how does, say, a 32-year-old minor leaguer with a couple of kids decide where his best chance lies when he’s choosing between Major League teams with incomplete rosters? It would be tough if that perceived weakness in the middle infield at the big-league level or lack of defensive depth in the outfield suddenly changes because of a free-agent signing or trade after a mid-March start to spring training. There goes your big chance, buddy, and, hey, good luck finding another job.

Look: I’m not asking anybody to cry a river, but rather to remember that not everybody makes a million bucks a year playing this game. For some minor leaguers, just getting there can be a losing financial proposition (we all learned a lot this season about the pauper’s wages minor leaguers get paid) and when you do make it, you take home a pro-rated share of the minimum – minus taxes – based on the days you are on the active roster. The minimum in the current CBA was $570,500. It takes more players (especially pitchers) to get a season done than ever before and many of them ride the shuttle to and from the minors. It’s no fun being fungible.

The game’s ills will not be addressed to everybody’s satisfaction in this negotiation, and older free agents who have already seen their value diminished must surely be wondering if they won’t be left on the cutting room floor, as both sides seem to have grudgingly agreed their hands have been forced and it’s about getting more money to younger players sooner. A salary floor and increase in the minimum salary might be a bit of a saving grace, but there’s no sense ownership is willing to go down the latter road.

Baseball was a bitter game when it exited its last stoppage. Remember, the 1994 players strike did not end because of a negotiated settlement: Major Leaguers reported to camp under terms of their previous CBA after federal judge Sonia Sotomayor agreed the owners had used unfair labour practices. Some owners were upset that minor leaguers wouldn’t cross picket lines and report as replacement players.

There was retribution. And the general bitterness in the player ranks was evident when the Major League Baseball Players Association organized a mass free-agent camp in Homestead, Fla., providing rental cars and hotel rooms to the approximately 150 players who went through a camp overseen by long-time manager and coach Jackie Moore.

Players ran the gamut from guys who would never appears in the Majors again – including former Blue Jays coach Bruce Walton, who appeared in four games for the Colorado Rockies in 1994 and could only get a job pitching in independent baseball in 1995 - and guys with bigger pedigrees such as Vince Coleman, Andy Van Slyke, Todd Stottlemyre and Frank Viola. Dave Stewart received a call from his agent on the second day of camp and signed with the Oakland A’s for $1 million, more than two-thirds less than what he made in 1994 with the Blue Jays. Stewart appeared in just 16 more games in a splendid career.

It’s a different time, to be sure. Baseball players were out of work for eight months because of the strike, which started in August, 1994. Technology was a radar gun and stopwatch; now there is so much data and video and proprietary stuff that you’d have to think there’s a last chance for everybody out there, some place. But for a lot of guys, my guess is the clock will run out, either chronologically or economically. Cry a river? Nah. But for those of us who remember 1995, there’s nothing wrong with sparing a thought for those who won’t leave the game on their own terms, either.

The Blue Jays have a lot riding on Alek Manoah after his rookie season, and in an interview on Blair and Barker, The Podcast Manoah told us that despite the lockout he has been able to keep in touch with catchers Danny Jansen, Reese McGuire and Alejandro Kirk, while working out in a gym started by Manoah and his brother.

He can’t wait to get into camp with newly signed Kevin Gausman. The two have already talked and Manoah is intrigued by adapting some of Gausman’s thinking and usage of his split-fingered pitch.

“He’s a really cool guy who’s laid back but loves to work hard and get at it,” Manoah said of his new teammate. “We already had some conversations about me stalking that split change in spring training.”

Umm … should we just insert a head-exploding emoji, here?

“The changeup is one of the pitches I’ve been developing the past few years and I continue to think it has room to get better,” said Manoah. “Obviously, Gaus throws one of the best changes or split changes in the league, so to be able to learn from him – even if I don’t change the grip, but about his release point or how he lets it go or what he’s thinking when he’s throwing it … anything like that I will be able to put it together with my change-up and make it a masterpiece.”

The Blue Jays are developing a bit of a ‘thing’ for the splitter at the Major League level. It will be fun to see how far this goes.

Funny how things stick with you. When I started covering baseball in Montreal for The Gazette, Keith Hernandez was in the twilight of his Major League career – finishing off his run with the New York Mets before a victory lap with Cleveland – and immediately became one of my favourite interviews. Our paths crossed irregularly – spring training a couple of times, the usual beat reporter/visiting player stuff a few other times. But Hernandez was always thoughtful and giving of his time and, frankly, a whole lot of fun to be around or run into in a bar (hey … it was Montreal.)

So, it’s cool to see that the Mets will retire his uniform No. 17 this season, as the team begins the necessary politicking for his Hall of Fame case through the Era Committee process. Hernandez fell off the writers ballot in 2004 after nine years, never getting more than 10.8 per cent in any year despite 11 consecutive Gold Gloves, a pair of World Series rings, a batting title and an MVP Award. If only we’d known (or cared) then that in terms of WAR he was a better player than Hall of Famers Tony Perez, Orlando Cepeda and George Sisler and that his wRC+ (weighted runs created) was 31 per cent better than the league average while he played. Eddie Murray can’t say that.

Hernandez was very much a ballplayer for his time on and off the field: acknowledging in the Pittsburgh drug trials that he used cocaine heavily. In fact, one of my favourite stories involving St. Louis Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog’s go-go Cardinals teams of the mid-80s was his admission in an interview that his team – including Hernandez - would be so out of control when it visited Montreal that he eventually decided to fly the Cards into the city on the day of the first game of series, instead of following the last game in the previous city. The 1980s, man. How did we ever make it through?

At any rate, while it is trendy to crap on the Hall of Fame’s committee process, there’s something re-assuring seeing the process open the Hall to the likes of Gil Hodges and Ted Simmons. They make it better by their presence. So would Keith Hernandez.

It’s a shame that baseball’s labour cloud has taken away from a winter that has seen steps forward being taken in the inclusion of women in the game. The New York Yankees will have a woman, Rachel Balkovec, managing their Single-A affiliate, making her the first woman to manage a team in affiliated baseball. In fact, in 2022, there will be at least 10 women working as on-field coaches across Major and Minor League teams, not including positions such as strength and conditioning or mental health coaches.

This winter also saw Genevieve Beacom pitch professionally in the Australian League. Look: MLB still has far too many institutional impediments to inclusivity. It’s still often too much a matter of who you know and it’s like anything else: real inclusivity happens when everybody can get fired and re-hired and fired again and re-cycled regardless of race or gender – to “fail forward,” as San Francisco Giants manager Gabe Kapler told me in an interview last fall, explaining his desire to increase focus on diversity.

In the meantime, here’s a suggestion for commissioner Rob Manfred and his army of advisors to focus on identifying, training, and bringing women umpires to the Majors. Baseball has had women umpire spring training games – although it was 19 years between Pam Postema and Ria Cortesio working games, and Postema ended up suing after the Triple-A alliance cancelled her contract. This was something that Bud Selig’s predecessors, A. Bartlett Giamatti and Fay Vincent, talked about in the late '80s, when the umpires had a union led by feisty lawyer Richie Phillips. It was basically a closed shop.

It’s time. Women officiate in the NBA, world soccer, and the NFL. Front office and behind the scenes work is swell but on-field visibility matters, too.


Jeff Blair hosts Blair & Barker The Podcast. When the CBA gets done, he and Barker will be live on Sportsnet 590/The Fan from 10-Noon ET and in the summer from 5-7 ET. They will also host Blue Jays Talk post-game.



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