The Test of Leadership
“Management is doing things right,” the late management guru Peter Drucker once said. “Leadership is doing the right things.”
I was reminded of that sage phrase after being emailed recently by Wanda Burbach, the wife of former New York Yankee pitcher, Bill Burbach. Born in 1947, in Dickeyville., Wisconsin, Burbach played parts of three seasons with the Bronx Bombers, in 1969, 1970 and 1971. All told, he got into 37 games for the club, making 28 starts. With a 6-11 record and two complete games to his credit, including one shutout, Burbach hurled 160 2/3 innings and posted a lifetime Earned Run Average of 4.48.
Mrs. Burbach, who now resides in Tennessee with her husband, contacted me because she wanted me to know that she and her husband appreciated the fact that my recently released book told the story about the 874 inactive, non-vested retired ballplayers, including Bill, who are without pensions and health insurance, all because neither Major League Baseball (MLB) nor the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) want to retroactively amend the vesting requirement that conferred instant pension eligibility on every ballplayer who’s had even a day’s worth of service credit in the big leagues since 1980.
Currently without health insurance, Burbach suffers from chronic pulmonary obstructive disorder (CPOD). His wife, who is two years older than him, must continue working as a result.
This issue has been largely ignored by the mainstream media for three decades. But the Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association (MLBPAA) has also largely ignored it. The question is, why?
Only recently, largely as a result of the efforts of four men who serve on the association’s Major League Alumni Services Committee — Craig Skok, the former hurler for the Atlanta Braves and Boston Red Sox; David Clyde, the former pitcher for the Texas Rangers and Cleveland Indians, Gary Neibauer, the former Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies hurler, and Eddie Robinson, the former general manager of the Texas Rangers and Atlanta Braves — has the MLBPAA even acknowledged that there was a problem. However, their response, to date, has been underwhelming.
What have they done? They had a face-to-face meeting last October in Manhattan at the Park Avenue offices of MLB and later sent out a letter to the 874 affected players advising them that Rob Manfred, the Vice-President of Labor Relations for the league, and Michael Weiner, the president of the union, are committed to addressing this issue during the next round of collective bargaining negotiations. The current collective bargaining agreement between the league and the players is set to expire in December 2011.
But being committed to addressing this issue and actually doing something for these men are two completely different things. As Manfred himself told me, “We committed to having the issue on the table, we did not commit to a particular outcome. The solution to this issue could take many forms and I am not prepared to comment further.”
Reliable sources within the MLAS Committee have told me that an agreement to disburse life annuities to these men based on years of service credit could come as early as the end of this year. For example, if the player had less than one year of service credit, he might be rewarded with $3,000 for life. If he had between one and two years, he might receive $6,000. If he had played between two to three years, he might get annual payments totaling $9,000, and if he played between three to four years, he could receive as much as $12,000 per year.
While disbursing such payments to these men would be better than the status quo, it’s a drop in the bucket given the scale of the game’s economy. Baseball, as I’m sure you know, is a reported $6.3 billion industry. Heck, the average player today makes $3.29 million; even the 25th man who rides the pines receives a minimum salary of $425,000.
Also, these proposed payments wouldn’t include medical benefits or survivor benefits to loved ones or designated beneficiaries. And remember, since they’re life annuities, they’d stop when the player passes. So how’s that going to help Wanda Burbach? While I’m sure the Burbachs — and a lot of other couples in this country– would love to receive an extra $6,000 to $9,000 per year, it pales in comparison to what Bill could get if these players were actually restored back into pension coverage.
So you would think that the MLBPAA Board of Directors, which presumably is supposed to advocate for men like Bill Burbach, would be all over this, making forceful statements in support of their affected members. But you’d be wrong. All you hear out of Colorado Springs, Colorado, where the association is based, is the sound of crickets. Unbelievably, the group has never formally voted to urge both MLB and the union to do right by these retired players.
Why do you suppose that is? Well, one possible explanation might be found in the composition of the MLBPAA Board. Individuals like Sandy Alderson, the Chief Executive Officer of the San Diego Padres who was formerly Executive Vice-President of Operations for Major League Baseball; Joe Garagiola, Jr., the former general manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks who is now Senior Vice-President of Operations for Major League Baseball and Steve Rogers, the special assistant to the executive director of the players union, all serve on that board. Do they really have Bill Burbach’s best interests at heart?
What’s worse, although Brooks Robinson, the legendary Hall of Famer from Little Rock, Arkansas, is president of the Board of Directors of the MLBPAA, he has never publicly commented about this situation either, in spite of the fact that four of the players affected by this situation hail from Little Rock, just like the “Human Vacuum Cleaner.”
Born in 1950, 60-year-old Mike Beard was a pitcher who compiled a 4-2 won-loss record playing parts of four seasons with the Atlanta Braves from 1974 through 1977. In 74 career games, he posted a 3.74 Earned Run Average (ERA).
A fellow hurler, 72-year-old Aubrey Gatewood, played parts of three seasons with the California Angels, from 1963 through 1965, as well as three games with the Atlanta Braves in 1970. All told, in 68 games, he had a lifetime won-loss record of 8-9; he posted a 2.78 ERA during his career.
Leon McFadden was a reserve infielder for the Houston Astros from 1968 through 1970. A lifetime .215 hitter, he appeared in a total of 62 games, getting 26 hits in 121 career at bats.
Similarly, over parts of three seasons, outfielder Aaron Pointer got into a total of 40 games in the big leagues, getting 21 hits in 101 plate appearances. Now 68, he played his entire career with the Houston Colt.45s / Astros, in 1963, 1966 and 1967.
Brooks, did you know that four of your fellow Arkansas natives are getting hosed? And if you did, why haven’t you helped them?
The whole sad situation, to paraphrase Yul Brynner, “is a puzzlement.” So, since I don’t have the answers, here are the names of the people for you to contact at the Association, if you’re so inclined:
Geoff C. Hixson, the chief operating officer of the group, can be contacted at email@example.com. HisÂ phone number is 719-477-1670, x110.
Dan Foster is the executive director of the association, and his email is firstname.lastname@example.org; alternatively, his direct number isÂ 719-477-1870, x112.
If you’d rather write, here’s the alumni association’s address:
Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association
1631 Mesa Avenue
Copper Building, Suite D
Colorado Springs, CO 80906
One final thought — during the Spanish-American War, Theodore Roosevelt, then an Assistant Secretary of the United States Navy, described President William McKinley as having “no more backbone than a chocolate eclair” for his refusal to send troops into Havana. Roosevelt subsequently resigned his cabinet post to form the Rough Riders cavalry.
I have no idea whether the executive leadership of the Alumni Association loves chocolate eclairs or not. But as for me, I enjoy a just dessert with a little more bite in it. Something that Wanda and Bill Burbach can really sink their teeth into.
(Gladstone’s book, A Bitter Cup of Coffee; How MLB & The Players Association Threw 874 Retirees A Curve, was published by Word Association Publishers in April. To order it, please contact the publisher directly at 1-800-827-7903)