December 3, 2023

Is the MLBPA Losing Sight of its Mission?

February 19, 2019 by · 1 Comment 

When Marvin Miller worked with a committed corps of Major League players to create the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, the players both individually and collectively were truly a disadvantaged group. A few well-known players got big paydays, but almost every player held an off-season job to support his family. They struggled to gain a minimal level of job job security and there was no viable pension for the long years after their playing days were done.

The mention of the MLBPA brings back those halcyon days, but they are a too much a fading memory. The modern MLBPA, under the direction of former player Tony Clark, seems lost. “Lost” is when you haven’t a clue where you are going and Tony Clark’s bickering with management over the plight of the remaining crop of free agents is, in effect, leading his union around in circles. Whether Scott Boras can get 10-year deals for Manny Machado and Bryce Harper is not a labor issue and their lack of economic leverage does not arise from the shortfalls of the current Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), despite the protests of those who wish to make it so.

Clark is getting encouragement from the oddest places. Baseball writers, many of whom belong to the Writers Guild of America, may feel compelled to support Clark and the players out of labor solidarity, which is laudable, even if at odds with common sense. The Washington Post article linked to above, is a fine example of saying nothing in a 1,000 word essay.  The stated concern is that lower tier teams are opting out of the free agent market and driving free agent salaries down. What part of the last two decades did the writer sleep through? The actions of small market teams is neither collusive nor surprising; it is just basic economics 101 that all of the writers took somewhere during their undergraduate course work.

For example, the latest rumors have Bryce Harper earning approximately $31 million annually for ten years and playing in Philadelphia. Knowing what is true and what is Scott Boras blowing smoke, is difficult to read, but assume for the moment the salary figure is accurate. A $31 million annual salary for a single player would represent roughly 30 percent of overall payroll for most teams and makes no economic sense. It would severely constrict their ability to pursue talent in the international market or other less pricey options for building a team.

After the run on the bank that occurred in the first decades after free agency was granted in 1975, the dust has settled to find all Major League teams more focused on player development once again. Those that do it well thrive and those that do not struggle to compete. Even for the super rich baseball owners, there is an economic equation that revolves around available revenues. There are rich teams with lucrative television contracts and poor teams without them. What is galling to Boras, Harper and their lot is that the Red Sox, Yankees, Dodgers and Cubs–who sit atop the payroll pyramid–have opted to refocus their revenue on player development to more of an extent than in the past. They are opting out of bidding on anything but a small number of free agents to augment their development systems.

In colloquial terms: they have eschewed the remaining Boras clients for sound economic reasons and those bad boys are pissed.

Regardless, the more important issue is why Tony Clark is even involved for a second in this debate. Why the richest teams are not interested in Machado and Harper should not be a concern for Tony Clark. His clients are the union as a whole and the concerns of a small group of wealthy players was never what motivated Marvin Miller. Scott Boras could care less what the average ball player’s issues are. His milieu is at the top end and he has more in common with baseball’s ownership than its players for the most part. Which is why it is so discouraging to see Tony Clark carrying water for Scott Boras like the nerdy team manager for the high school varsity.

The real battle in baseball is very close to that of the country as a whole. The very rich dominate the discussion. For all his warts, Bud Selig pushed back against that trend with remarkable success. The rich are chafing under the regime Selig put in place and want to undo it. But the most vocal opponents are Boras and his clients who are the ones most harmed by it. Bryce Harper would be in pin stripes already if there were no competitive balance tax. It is unclear, however, whether the Yankees want to return to the days when Steinbrenner could spend without concern for any downside. And even if they do, it is doubtful they have the votes among the owners to overturn the current system completely.

When unions represent the hungry and desperate, the members will come together for a common goal that is easily understood. There is little hunger to be found among MLBPA members today and its leadership is off tilting at windmills. With a new CBA to be negotiated in the next few years, it is discouraging to see such confusion. It is doubtful the players could sustain a strike the way they did under Miller and Fehr around a set of very basic issues. But it is easy to see Boras blowing enough smoke to make his issues look like those of the average player.

Tony Clark might do well to emulate the master and visit the training camps this spring to find out what the real issues are for the average player. That is where he will find the basic mission of the union, not in the latest press release from Scott Boras.


One Response to “Is the MLBPA Losing Sight of its Mission?”
  1. MICHAEL HOBAN says:

    Absolutely excellent article.

    Mike Hoban

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