874 Retired Ballplayers Are Gulping Bitter Cups of Coffee
In the final episode of M*A*S*H, the pompous doctor portrayed by actor David Ogden Stiers gets a sendoff thatâ€™s arguably one of the most indelible images in television history. After seven seasons of â€œMajor Charles Emerson Winchesterâ€ trumpeting his own self-importance, breeding and surgical skills, this upper-crust scion of a prominent Boston family leaves Korea on a garbage truck.
Such irony is not lost on Ernie Fazio, a former major league ballplayer who has spent the better part of the last three decades working in the refuse business. For, like someone taking out the trash, Fazio thinks he has been unfairly tossed out of the game.
Fazio and 873 other ex-big leaguers who played during the years 1947 -1979 believe they are now part of baseballâ€™s garbage heap because they are being denied pensions as a result of the failure of both Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association to retroactively amend the vesting requirement change that granted instant pension eligibility to ballplayers in 1980. Prior to that year, ballplayers had to have four years service credit to earn an annuity and medical benefits. Since 1980, however, all you have needed is one day of service credit for health insurance and 43 days of service credit for a pension.
I was reminded of the irony of Fazioâ€™s situation when Michael Weiner, the executive director of the players union, recently threatened to file a collusion grievance charging owners with conspiring against free agent baseball players last winter. â€œWe will determine in the coming weeks what our response to the market will be, whether that response will be a legal one or whether our response will be at the bargaining table,” Weiner said in an interview with the Associated Press. “We do have concerns and in one fashion or another we will respond.”
That the union representing current ballplayers is crying foul about their financial plight is downright comical. After all, todayâ€™s player is reportedly making, on average, $3.27 million a season. Why canâ€™t Fazio and Company receive some compensation, as well?
Should Fazio and the rest of the retirees receive an annuity down the road, itâ€™s going to be too late for Jay D. Schlueter. The Phoenix native and Scottsdale resident died on May 13, 2010 and, according to his widow, Gayle, he always bemoaned the fact that the national pastime turned its back on him when he needed it the most. Thatâ€™s because, if anyone could have used the medical benefit coverage that a pension provided, it was the 61-year-old Schlueter, who suffered from ataxia, a neurological disease which impairs coordination.
A product of Arizona State University, Schlueter was an outfielder who made it to the big leagues with the Houston Astros in 1971. All told, in seven career games, he got one hit in three plate appearances. Besides his widow, he is survived by three children and four grandchildren.
Retroactively amending the vesting requirement of baseballâ€™s pension plan is certainly doable. â€œUnder the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, it is perfectly permissible to make an amendment retroactive even if it then vests those who were previously unvested,â€ says attorney Ronald Dean.
Does the union want to help these men? â€œThe common bond that unites all unions is that they are supposed to look after their dues paying members,â€ says Daniel R. Marburger, an Associate Professor of Economics at Arkansas State University. â€œThe rank and file in labor unions want to make as much money for themselves as possible, even if itâ€™s at the expense of the exploited.â€
True, but there are some who also subscribe to what I call The Three Musketeers philosophy, namely, all for one and one for all. â€œCurrent players should continue to fight for greater retirement and health benefits for former athletes, not just for recent retirees,â€ wrote Marc Eisenberg, author of the Money Players Blog. â€œAll professional athletes should keep in mind that they will be active, voting members of the Players Association for just a few years, but they will be retired players for decades.â€
That sounds nice but, in doing the research for my new book, I learned that the league is going to soon ask each of the 30 teams to increase their annual pension contributions from $157 million to more than $210 million. And, although Weiner is supposedly committed to discussing the plight of these 874 men during the next collective bargaining negotiations, that doesnâ€™t guarantee anything. As David Clyde, the former Texas Ranger and Cleveland Indian pitcher, told me, â€œour item would be the first that gets thrown out of those negotiations if the economy keeps tanking,â€ he said. â€œIt doesnâ€™t take a village idiot to figure that out.â€
No it doesnâ€™t. As a result of the downturn, Age Wave reports that most people believe their retirement will need to be postponed an average of 3.6 years. But baseball players arenâ€™t most people, since their life expectancy has reportedly been found to be higher than that of, not only the general population, but that of players from the three other major league sports, as well. According to Social Sciences Quarterly, compared to the average 20-year-old U.S. male, a MLB player can expect almost five additional years of life.
That might be the cruelest irony of all. For, as Tom Hanks discovered in The Green Mile, living longer isnâ€™t always a good thing. Thatâ€™s especially true for all those pre-1980, non-vested players who still need to work, if only because of the lousy economy.
(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)