Let’s be blunt: this offseason mess is mostly the MLBPA’s fault. A year ago players and owners averted a strike with an 11th-hour agreement on a new CBA. Labor catastrophe narrowly averted! Now, suddenly, players are furious that they aren’t getting their fair share of the pie. Why, Tony Clark has even issued a strongly worded letter! On a percentage basis, they’re pretty much right: owners are on track to keep a higher share of profits than ever, and payroll looks to decline for the first time in a while—or perhaps end up stagnant. Either way, it’s a far cry from the 6-7% gains in payroll per year that players have become accustomed to.
In light of this, the MLBPA’s vision for negotiations in last year’s CBA was colossally short-sighted. Go read what they were looking out for: bus seats, travel perks, and creature comforts for the players. These are all great! Unfortunately, the players completely missed the forest for the trees. This offseason has been a long time in coming, and competent Union representation should have been agitating against it for quite a while—and absolutely should have taken steps to cut it off. Unfortunately for them, MLB had no such failure and keenly understood how to target their negotiating, led by murderous labor lawyer robot Rob Manfred.
Let’s look at where we were a year ago. The Cubs? The Cubs tanked for years at the beginning of the Epstein era, then won the World Series just two months before the new CBA came into effect. The Astros? Far ahead of their projected schedule en route to fulfilling the SI cover prophecy—a prophecy issued because of the same tanking strategy. The anger over tanking isn’t new, either: people cried loud and long about the Astros ruining baseball. Recently? The White Sox, Twins, Braves, Padres, Phillies, and Reds all made no serious attempt to be competitive in the 2016 season. Those teams spent an average of a whopping $16.58mm in free agency that offseason (mostly driven by the Braves), and on the merits, spending that money really only hurt them by driving them to lower draft spots. The trend towards this offseason was readily evident for a long time, but especially 14 months ago when this CBA was finalized.
Moreover, baseball writers and the Twitterati have spent years mocking free agent megadeals: BJ Upton, Ryan Howard, Pablo Sandoval, Hanley Ramirez, and Albert Pujols (and oh my, I could go on) all got contracts that were and are widely panned as ridiculous uses of money. And now, strangely, we’re all mad that owners took our advice, and no one will give JD Martinez or Eric Hosmer seven or eight years.
So here we are. Brodie van Wegenen is threatening a strike of 1,200 alpha males in a statement with overtones of “Jake Arrieta is going to stuff Hal Steinbrenner in a locker if we don’t get our way.”
The hot takes about greedy owners are flowing freely on twitter; our pets’ heads are falling off. Meanwhile, what were Tony Clark and the Union leadership focused on last December? Chefs in the clubhouse; more off-days; more seats on spring training buses. The owners were shocked at how little players suddenly cared about money.
The MLBPA has a real problem here, and it’s not going to go away under current leadership—because it’s leadership’s fault. We can crack all the jokes that we’d like about Rob Manfred, pace-of-play-obsessed-white-bread-Harvard-educated lab robot, but he was preparing to do this job in college. His undergraduate degree came courtesy of Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations; he worked for one of the elite labor and employment law firms in the country for 15 years (representing Major League Baseball for 11 of those years); tack on another 16 years inside MLB as their lead internal labor negotiator for that entire timespan. If you built a labor lawyer to run negotiations for MLB, it would look exactly like Rob Manfred.
Who runs the MLBPA? Tony Clark. Tony Clark, who retired as a player in 2009; who wasn’t hired by MLBPA in any capacity until 2010; who three short years later—four years after retiring—was unanimously elected Executive Director of the MLBPA. It’s unclear if Clark has yet completed an undergraduate degree.
Tony Clark is, by all accounts, a fine man and beloved by all players. He’s worked to represent player labor interests throughout his career as a player; if Jerry Dipoto was a saber nerd during his time as a player, Tony Clark was a labor nerd. He is absolutely someone who should be on the team for the Union. Someone with the character and reputation to earn players’ trust is a criticial role, and it is clear he has that in spades.
These are, no doubt, some of the qualities that led to his unanimous election as Executive Director—but putting him up to lead a team against Rob Manfred is begging for the exact outcome we’ve seen in the last three months. I struggle to think of a better term than incomprehensible. Your lawyer (or labor representative) does not need to be and probably should not be your friend or the person you like most. They need to be the most effective advocate possible, and in this instance, to possess the experience and vision necessary to predict the difficult to foresee consequences of a labor agreement. You can complain about owners’ greed all you want, but that wasn’t new in the 2016 negotiations, and somehow prior iterations never left the players in quite the mess they’re in now.
The MLBPA is stuck. They have no meaningful leverage; they negotiated this deal a year ago and can’t really credibly claim it’s anything but their own fault. An illegal strike now would crush them in the court of public opinion—a court that already generally favors ownership. With four years to go, they can’t do much more than put their heads down and soldier on, hoping that this offseason is at least in part due to a weak 2018 class paired with an otherworldly 2019 class. In the meantime, I suggest moving Tony Clark to a player liaison position and hiring new representation. Call me.