Evan Drellich of NBC Sports Boston has published a terrific in-depth column on the current labor issues between the players’ union and management. Those issues, of course, have been well-documented here and have played a big role in an historically slow and stagnant free agent market. Some of the factors include the most recent collective bargaining agreement, the ubiquity of analytics, and certain teams’ dedication to tanking.
Drellich spoke to Gene Orza, former counsel and chief operating officer for the MLB Players Association. Orza was known for being rather abrasive during negotiations, which didn’t make him very popular with ownership. And that was kind of the point. Orza said, “If I have one criticism of the Players Association, and I don’t mean it as a criticism. I would like to see it be less interested in being liked, and more interested in not caring what people think of it.” He added, “My job is not to be liked. My job was never to be liked.”
Orza also wants the union to help the players realize they’re all in this together.
The [union’s] real success is not Don or Marvin, or any individual or any series of individuals. It was the cultivation of the concept of the ability to rely upon each other that made the Players Association as strong as it was, and hopefully still is.
It is true that all players are in this together. So if you make foreign players more attractive, because you’re putting the screws to them by saying they have to be 25 years old before they can become free agents? Guess what, clubs are going to go out and hire more under-25 foreign players. And guess who’s going to get screwed by that? The players who otherwise wouldn’t have been screwed, had they protected the foreign players.
That’s why a very strong guardianship of that principle has to be part of the ethos of the Players Association. It has to be constantly reminding players: Veterans and rookies. Foreigners and Americans. Young and old. Fat and skinny. Glasses and Ted Williams’ eye sight. You’re all in the same boat. You may not like it, you may not even believe it. But I’m telling you, this is how we have to conduct ourselves, and I’m telling you history bears it out. You are all better off when you realize you’re not in different boats. You’re all in the same one.
That’s a really important point and it’s one the union will hopefully take to heart. It’s their job to help educate the players on the issues facing them, explaining why selling out one leg of the table will lead to instability over time. The best thing ownership could ever ask for is infighting — or, in this case, preferential treatment — among players. As teachers in West Virginia have shown us recently, a strong and cohesive unit can create meaningful change.
To take Orza’s point one step further, all workers in America are also in the same boat as professional athletes. I have made this point frequently here and it’s among my least popular opinions. But athletes are laborers just as the fry cook, the eighth grade algebra teacher, and the roofer are laborers. Many focus on the fact that athletes take home much larger salaries, but that’s only true for several reasons: the sports and recreation industry is enormous, the owners within this industry are public figures who happen to have incredible wealth, and the union has fought tooth and nail to get the athletes the pay they deserve. If you, whether you’re an IT professional or an Uber driver, had a union that would fight for you the way the MLBPA fights for its players, you might be in a more comfortable position in life. I’m not trying to say that a strong union is the only thing between someone in a data entry position just barely covering rent and being able to afford a Maserati. Rather, all workers should have unions going to war for them against management just like baseball players.
Comedian Chris Rock put it more succinctly in his 2004 stand-up special Never Scared, detailing the difference between being rich and being wealthy. “[Shaquille O’Neal] is rich, but the white man who signs his check is wealthy.”
For myriad reasons, fans have always sided with ownership on labor issues. But a labor victory for the players is also a victory for labor across the country. All baseball players should be pulling in the same direction, but so too should the fans.