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Will Players Be Willing to Stand Up For Themselves?

Posted by SD Buhr , 18 January 2019 · 1,033 views

So much is being written and debated concerning MLB ownership’s unwillingness to spend on free agency, whether the big ticket guys like Machado and Harper, or more middle of the pack veterans.

(This article was originally posted at Knuckleballsblog.com)

The players’ union obviously got completely dominated in the last couple of rounds of negotiations over the Collective Bargaining Agreement. Limits on amatuer player signing bonuses, limits on international player bonuses and a completely ineffective policy on artificially restricting service time are all evidence of just how impotent the MLBPA has been.

Now, everyone talks about how baseball is broken, because clubs “tank” and justify it with fans as an effective way to “rebuild.”

But can anyone really expect things to change? Given the history of players failing to agree to act in a unified manner, can we really expect to see much change in the next round of CBA negotiations? In fact, it may already be too late for players to get their acts together by the time the current agreement expires following the 2021 season. Players can’t just wait until parties are sitting at the negotiating table. If they do, they’ve already lost.

There’s a terrific article by Michael Baumann over at The Ringer that describes just how difficult it will be for the players to make any progress in the next CBA and why a work stoppage might be their only recourse. He argues that players need to immediately start publicly calling out their ownerships for non-competititve practices. Putting their case in front of the fans, however, is just the start.

“But it’s not enough for players to win over the fans—they have to present a united front within the union as well. Whether deliberately or through extremely fortuitous coincidence, MLB teams have put financial solidarity above the desire to compete. But players are routinely encouraged to go above and beyond the strict call of duty in order to gain an edge over their competitors. Being the self-motivated, hypercompetitive folks that they are, athletes usually oblige, by accepting team-friendly contracts, putting in extra hours training, or agreeing to wear biometric monitors and trading privacy for a perceived competitive edge.”

Similarly, ESPN’s Buster Olney published a New Years Eve article(behind ESPN paywall) that disclosed content of a memo that Buster Posey’s agent, Jeff Berry, has been distributing that outlines some actions that players should consider taking to bring attention to the players’ issues and prepare themselves (and fans) for the upcoming labor battle.

Among the suggestions are what are known as “work to rule” actions, including:
  • Players refusing to report earlier for Spring Training than the contractually mandated day of February 23.
  • Players refusing to participate in non-contractually mandated team events such as fan fests.
  • Players and agents not attending MLB’s Winter Meetings.
  • Players boycotting MLB-owned media outlets, such as MLB.com and the MLB Network.
Berry’s memo also proposes that players take a page out of the front offices’ playbook, by funding, “a comprehensive study that analytically supports recommended guidelines for player usage for the stated purpose of maximizing health and performance, maintaining/improving tools and athleticism, and mitigating age- and usage-related decline. Basically, a reverse-engineering of the aging curves and usage rates that teams are currently weaponizing against the players.”

In other words, stop letting teams get all the benefit of statistical analysis, especially when the result includes practices detrimental to the players, such as the service time maninpulation that the Minnesota Twins did with Byron Buxton in September when they decided not to promote him, thereby assuring they would benefit from an extra year of his services before he becomes a free agent.

Berry argued that, “Front offices are praised as ‘smart’ when working within the rules to extract maximum performance value for minimal monetary cost. Shouldn’t players also be ‘smart’ and likewise make calculated decisions within the rules to maintain and extend their maximum performance levels at maximum monetary values?”

Obviously Berry and the authors of these articles are right. The only way the owners and front offices will discontinue the offending practices will be if they are forced to. And they won’t be forced to by the players politely asking for change at the negotiating table in 2021.

The question is, will players unify enough between now and then to take actions such as those being suggested?

Can you imagine your favorite Twins players staying away from Twins Fest? The established players already no longer participate in the Twins Caravan, but what happens to the caravans if NO players agree to participate?

Would minor league players also agree to stand with their MLB counterparts and not participate in Twins Fest and the Caravans… even though the union they’d be asked to support has done absolutely nothing to improve the plight of minor leaguers (in fact, often giving away concessions on minor league pay and bonuses in order to get more favorable terms for big league players)?

In the past, it has been almost impossible to get superstars making $20 million a year, veterans trying to get a couple extra million dollars and young players still under club control to agree on any unified strategy. They fight amonst themselves and, even when they can agree, they’ve failed miserably at getting the fans behind them. (Hard to imagine boycotting fan fests would help in that area unless, as Berry suggests, they get together to hold similar player-organized events.)

If players can’t – or won’t – do what’s necessary between now and 2021 to lay the groundwork for a more balanced negotiation with owners, it’s difficult to imagine the next CBA being anything significantly more competition-encouraging than the current version.

But if the players won’t do what’s obviously necessary to improve their situations, it will be hard to feel too sorry for them when they end up stuck with another half-decade or more of similarly one-sided business practices by owners.

The players have themselves to blame for the ownership practices they find offensive because they allowed their union to be steamrolled. If they allow it again, it will just reinforce how individually selfish and short-sighted they are and they’ll deserve exactly what they get.

  • rukavina, Riverbrian and dbminn like this

The thing that sticks in my craw about free agency is that before ANY player makes it through 6 or 7 years to make it to free agency, they have already made at least several million dollars even under today's rules. It makes it real difficult for me to feel any real sympathy for any player who thinks they are being mistreated.

That being said, I certainly don't have a problem with anybody getting as much as they can, and using any means available to them to enhance their value.

I don't, however, agree that driving a wedge between the players and management, much less between players and the fans, is in anybody's best interest.

I know player agents, of course, would not ever agree that many players in years past may have been overpaid. And now since the front offices have tools available to them to more precisely determine what a player's value is going forward, the are able to adhere to contracts with more favorable terms. While many contracts in the past worked out to be of acceptable value, we all know that many put teams in positions where they were unable to be competitive because of albatross contracts. We have had a few of those right here in Minnesota (think Phil Hughes, Joe Mauer, Ricky Nolasco, many more). But think about other such deals, like Josh Hamilton, Albert Pujols, Alex Rodriquez, Prince Fielder, Jacoby Ellsbury, Jason Hayward, Yu Darvish and the list goes on. Do you really blame management for their caution.

I think in today's environment, more players may find benefit in negotiating long term extentions while they are in the productive years of their contracts and still under team control, thus locking in bigger pay days early, then be willing to accept what the market bears when they hit the market in maybe their early 30's, instead of maybe at 29 or 30.

Another market force at work here is that there seems to be an abundance of very productive young players coming through the pipeline right now. Is that maybe because modern analytics has made teams more productive in preparing their young players?

The players I really have empathy for are the ones that will end up without a contract at all. And there will be many.


I failed to fully elaborate about what I see as limiting current teams from being fully competitive because of albatross contracts. We have the Los Angelos Angels, Texas Rangers, Detroit Tigers, Minnesota Twins, Baltimore Orioles, New York Mets, Philadelphia Phillies, Miami Marlins, Cincinnati Reds, Chicago Cubs, Arizona Diamondbacks, San Francisco Giants, and even the Dodgers are all either currently or very recently curtailed competitively because of very large unproductive contracts they carry on the books. All those unproductive contracts restrict what is available to teams to pay other players. 

Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts.


I agree that it's hard to generate sympathy for millionaire players. But when the "other side" is billionaire owners, I think we can throw the whole, "who do you sympathize with?" question out the window. It's not about who you sympathize with, it's merely about how you believe the growing revenue stream should be divided between ownership and labor.


There's a good case to be made that labor has done a poor job of assuring their side continues to get its fair share. But that's because their side has sucked at presenting a unified front and being willing to take a firm stand. If/when that changes, the status quo may change. 


I'm not going to hold my breath, however.

I don't know that we need to sympathize with either. Nor do we need to demonize or be jealous of either the players or owners. 

Lost in all these discussions on how the players are going to make the FA situation return to the days of yesteryear, on how ineffective their union was, and how to make the next CBA an advancement for players salaries, working conditions, and security is one overriding fact. Unions are dead. If they aren't, they are on life support, and a hand is on the plug. This isn't coming from some anti Union guy,I had 13 years vested in a national union, before circumstances caused me to become self employed. That worked for me, it doesn't for everyone. Anti union comes from many areas. Shareholders in public companies being the worst, then management, and some sides of the political spectrum. But the oddest, most confusing and the most damaging anti union mentality comes from the workers who would benefit from union representation. Union workers who want the benefits but don't want to pay the dues. Workers who vote in elections against representation and their economic security. Workers who vote for right to work political candidates. But, back to baseball. If the current majority opinion in the country holds, that being that unions are not needed to represent the average worker, then I see no path for the union representing MLB players to win any significant changes. The average fan has little sympathy for a player making more money in a week, than he will make in his life. His appreciation of a unique athletic talent doesn't extend that far. See Mauer, Joe! Thus, trying to get a public to sympathize with MLBPA's effort to improve the players lot, when said public Isn't interested in collective bargaining to improve their own seems something past a daunting task. Without the backing of the fans and public, it's likely an impossible one.
    • beckmt likes this
Jan 19 2019 07:43 AM
Maybe the players should have different unions based on service time? I work for the state of Minnesota and we have multiple unions at the same department. If the newer players and minor league players had their own unions then they might receive better representation at the end of the day.

Great input, all. Some interesting points.


I think one problem is that today's players are woefully unaware of what their predecessors went through. Ask a player today what the "reserve clause" is/was and how come it is no longer in their contracts. I wonder how many could give you an accurate answer.


When the minimum wage for a union member is in excess of a half million dollars per season, it's understandable, I suppose, that they are more willing to just complain about things their bosses do that piss them off than to actually do something about it which could put them at risk of losing that money, even for a few weeks.


So, I suspect they'll just go on complaining about the people they work for (which, after all, isn't much different than what 99% of fans who are not self-employed do, too.)

problem here is the players and the agents.Owners keep asking for a hard salary cap as abargining tool for concessions elsewhere.Players need to force a minimum spend on the owners to force owners who are just raking in profits to make their teams more competitive by spending money.Say 100,000,000 is the minimum (new TV contracts will make this amount seem small) (and this may include taxes and benefits).Maybe reduce FA to 5 years (even though this will hurt small market teams) or end the manipulation of service time.  

Biggest issue is there are three types of players, stars andsuperstars, who want big money without caring what it does to the team, midlevel who make good money, but a lot of them are paid more than they are worth, and the fillin-ins, your basic replacement level players who seldom make much (in relative terms), and the minute they make more that a couple of million are usually the first cuts if a younger player is close to as good.

I do not know how to handle this, but the owners can easly play groups off against one another, plus the new statistical data which is traceing player decline to the 31 - 33 age range instead of older.

This is not counting the minor leaguers who at the lower level get a raw deal or many who want to go forward having to play in independent leagues for peanuts. 

Maybe you have to get a higher luxury tax factor to prevent teams with large markets from just ignoring the tax andbuying the better players.Otherwise maybe go back to 16 teams, force all teams to spend like 250,000,000 a year andendthis charade. 

    • SD Buhr likes this

Well written article. I agree it's the players own fault that things have started to trend against them in recent years. But it should also be noted, the unfavorable trends started from a point at which the MLB Players union had the best deal...and was arguable the most powerful union, not only in professional sports, but that ever existed in any business.


Unfortunately for the 'top' major-league players, things won't get materially better any time soon. The only solution for the rank and file is a floor on salaries. That will never happen without a firmer ceiling. Add to that the minor league dilemma. Revenues are very unlikely to grow sufficiently to provide BOTH a materially bigger chunk for the Major leaguers AND a bigger chunk for the minor leaguers. And the major leaguers are going to lose that PR battle all day long.


Also, any negotiating approach leveraging arguments that players deploy tools for "maximizing health and performance, maintaining/improving tools and athleticism, and mitigating age- and usage-related decline"....this is a losing strategy from the start. Such tactics will only rationalize shorter seasons and/or more players on a roster. In either case, it will result in LESS money in the individual player's pocket, not more.

I think the owners and commissioner will make concessions only if the game becomes more entertaining.  They have accumulated so much leverage through metrics and exploiting the controlled period of a player's career.  The result is that the players are younger and contracts are shorter.  This, in turn, has led to fewer balls in play and imo, a less enjoyable product.


I think the players will need a work stoppage of some length but it's difficult to imagine much concession unless the owners are convinced the sport is in trouble.

The players simply didn't see it coming. 


They were fine with the structure as long as Ricky Nolasco got 48 million and Ricky Nolasco got 48 million for years upon years.  


Then the number guys came along and noticed that the league minimum guys were just as productive as the Ricky Nolasco types being paid 48 million and they just stopped doing it and they stopped collectively as a group and this activated the trap door in the CBA that was always there. 


Now that number guys are consistently refusing to pay longer term contracts to players in their 30's... the players are going to be forced to fight back by demanding that they reach free agency earlier.


It will be a battle between the owners and players for control of the 27 year old. I side with my front office within the framework of the current agreement because it was agreed upon... but I side with the players for a much better future agreement on their behalf. 


If I were the commissioner... I'd tell the owners to throw some free agent bones out there to keep the peace. That isn't happening... the owners are squeezing on the front end and now the back end. Therefore the players have no choice but to band together and fight back. 


It will be ugly.