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Tony Clark says teams’ failure to sign free agents “threatens the very integrity of the game”


As spring training gets closer and closer, nearly 100 free agents remain unsigned, including several that were expected to land big paydays this offseason. As the weeks have worn on, player discontent has grown palpable, exhibiting itself via various statements from agents which, increasingly, have taken on an antagonistic tone with respect to Major League Baseball and its clubs.

Earlier this offseason multiple agents issued statements lamenting clubs’ seeming disinterest in fielding competitive teams, as evidenced by their lack of offseason activity. Major League Baseball, its clubs and their supporters have countered that it’s a slow market because it’s a weak market, and that players have unrealistic salary expectations. Some have suggested that there is collusion afoot while others have, quite correctly in our view, noted that the current collective bargaining agreement is a poor one for players, creating disincentives for teams to sign free agents.

Things have gotten downright ugly of late. Last week a prominent agent suggested that players may stage a boycott of spring training. That talk was contradicted by the Major League Baseball Players’ Association, which has been cautious in its language about the market thus far, suggesting that not everyone on the players’ side of things is in agreement about where things stand.

Today, however, the union made its boldest statement yet on the matter, with its Executive Director, Tony Clark, releasing a statement saying that teams, via their unwillingness to sign players, are in a “race to the bottom” that represents “a fundamental breach of trust between a team and its fans” that “threatens the integrity of the game.” His whole statement is reproduced below. Major League Baseball responded, once again, that agents are to blame for misreading the market.

Whether one agrees or disagrees with Clark’s statement — there is truth to it, though I presume a lot of fans disagree about the state of their trust with respect to the club for which they cheer — it’s worth asking what this statement accomplishes.

On one level, it can be read a supportive of players who are increasingly frustrated. In this it echoes the words of Scott Boras on the matter a couple of months ago, and most of what Boras says publicly should be read as addressing the concerns of his clients. Clark has a lot of unsettled members in his union, and may be trying to communicate to them that he feels their pain. One wonders if Clark is a couple of months behind the curve on reading his membership’s anger, though. As we said, last week agents were talking about wildcat strikes. Going with what Boras was saying in November and December may not be enough to quell the dissatisfaction.

On another level it can be seen as a P.R. move aimed at fans, trying to rally them to pressure teams into signing free agents. If that’s the case, I feel like Clark is misreading fans pretty badly.

Every fan wants their team to get better, and lots of fans can look to a single player who they wish their GM would sign. I suspect it’s the small minority of fans, however, who think that there is a problem with the market as a whole. Fans almost always view these matters through the lens of owners. They think, in the aggregate, players are overpaid and ask for unreasonable deals. They can, on the one hand, wish that J.D. Martinez was in their team’s lineup but, at the same time, say “the players are a bunch of spoiled babies!” Expecting them to get on board with a message that says “the owners are harming the integrity of the game” seems like a pretty major stretch.

It also seems like a pretty irrelevant aim. Benefits for players are won in negotiations, not in the court of public opinion. The players have almost always been the bad guys to the majority of fans and have won almost all of the things they’ve won on the labor front while taking positions most fans found to be super unpopular. Union leadership was always even more hated than the players. The union would always like fans to back them, of course, but the idea that Marvin Miller or Don Fehr would spend extra effort to consciously rally fans is rather silly.

Whatever Clark is up to here, he has a pretty big job ahead of him. He has to keep an angry and, I suspect, divided membership happy. He has to explain to them why the market is the way it is. If he wants to keep the players’ confidence as he does so, he has to do it without admitting that a lot of the reason the market is the way it is is because of the missteps of union leadership. And, of course, he has to figure out a way to fix it all, both around the edges over the next couple of years, and in a fundamental way as the union starts to plan, communicate, educate and organize before the next Collective Bargaining Agreement sessions begin in a few years.

Good luck, Tony. You’re gonna need it.

Here’s Clark’s statement:

Here’s the league’s statement in response:

“Our Clubs are committed to putting a winning product on the field for their fans. Owners own teams for one reason: they want to win. In Baseball, it has always been true that Clubs go through cyclical, multi-year strategies directed at winning.

“It is common at this point in the calendar to have large numbers of free agents unsigned. What is uncommon is to have some of the best free agents sitting unsigned even though they have substantial offers, some in nine figures. It is the responsibility of players’ agents to value their clients in a constantly changing free agent market based on factors such as positional demand, advanced analytics, and the impact of the new Basic Agreement.  To lay responsibility on the Clubs for the failure of some agents to accurately assess the market is unfair, unwarranted, and inflammatory.”

Minor League Baseball teams sold over $70 million in merchandise in 2017

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Every so often here, we discuss the criminally low pay of Minor League Baseball players. Most of them make less than $7,500 a year, which includes the regular season as well as spring training, playoffs, and offseason training. The abysmal pay forces minor leaguers to eat unhealthy food, live in cramped quarters, and forego consistent, quality sleep, among other things.

What makes this situation worse is that Minor League Baseball is a huge money-maker for their parent teams in Major League Baseball. Josh Norris of Baseball America reported yesterday that Minor League Baseball teams sold $70.8 million in merchandise in 2017. That represented a 3.6 percent increase over the previous record set in 2016. This is just merchandise. Now think about concession and ticket sales.

Minor League Baseball COO Brian Earle said, “Minor League Baseball team names and logos continue to be among the most popular in all of professional sports, and our teams have made promoting their brand a priority for their respective organizations. The teams have done a tremendous job of using their team marks and logos to build an identity that is appealing to fans not just locally, but in some cases, globally as well.”

You may recall that Major League Baseball had been lobbying Congress to pass legislation exempting minor league players from the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. Doing so classified baseball players as seasonal workers, which means they are not entitled to minimum wage and overtime pay. That legislation passed earlier this year. Minor League Baseball generates profits hand over fist and it is now legally protected from having to share that with the labor that produced it.

Many points of divergence led us to this point, but the question is how do we change it? Minor leaguers are routinely taken advantage of because they don’t have a union. Compare the minors in baseball to the minors in hockey, where minor leaguers have a union. As SB Nation’s Marc Normandin pointed out last month, the minimum salary for American Hockey League players is $45,000 and the average salary is $118,000. They receive a playoff share of around $20,000, and receive health insurance that covers themselves as well as their families. Furthermore, the minor league hockey players’ per diem is $74, about three times as much as minor league baseball players’ per diem of $25.

Major League Baseball and its 30 teams have shown no inclination towards treating minor league players simply out of moral obligation or good will, so the minor leaguers need union coverage to force their conditions to improve. This could be as simple as the MLBPA expanding its coverage to the minor leagues because, after all, some minor leaguers do become major leaguers, right? Or the minor leaguers could themselves create a union. It’s easy to say, but tougher to do, which is why they still don’t have a union.

At any rate, every fan of baseball should be enraged when they read that Minor League Baseball keeps setting records year after year when it comes to selling hats and t-shirts, then refuses to share any of that wealth with the labor responsible for it. It’s morally reprehensible.