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Strike in 1994-95 ended several careers

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Sports strikes are not like, say, factory strikes or grocery store strikes. There are not constant picket lines, mostly because there are no customers or — usually — potential replacement workers who need to be informed that they should not cross the line. As such, when the 1994-95 baseball strike hit, a lot of players had a lot of time on their hands.

Some of them, like veteran Mike Gallego, then of the New York Yankees, got regular jobs. Really. As Jim Caple of ESPN wrote several years ago, Gallego took a job stocking shelves at K-Mart. Most players went home or went fishing, waiting for the their union reps to call and tell them that the strike was over. Some of them liked it so much that they never came back.

Bo Jackson had been diminished by injury by then, but he was an above-average hitter for the California Angels in 1994. While he was a free agent heading into 1995, given how tremendous an athlete he was he might’ve hung on as a left fielder or DH as he entered his age-32 season. But then a funny thing happened when the strike hit. The longer he stayed at home in the summer and fall of 1994, the more he liked it. On April 3, 1995 he announced his retirement from pro sports.

A similar story unfolded with Dave Henderson. The 14-year veteran was clearly nearing the end of his career, but the strike hastened it. Here’s what he told Bob Nightengale of USA Today a few years ago about his thought process in 1994-95:

“They should never, ever let a baseball player have the summer off. As a baseball player that was my first summer off. Ever. And I liked it. Once I got introduced to the thing they call Labor Day, and had a family barbecue and everything, I said, ‘Hell with it, I’m not going back.’

Other players — such as Harold Reynolds, trying to make the Colorado Rockies in the spring of 1995 — were cut and left the game due to having gotten too out of shape during the extra-long offseason. Other players said they were simply disillusioned by the strike and lost their love of the game as a result. Hall of Famer Rich Gossage and  1989 World Series MVP Dave Stewart are two of them. 1984 Cy Young Award winner Rick Sutcliffe likewise said that the strike is why he retired.

Which may or may not be true. Or, at the very least, may or may not be fully true. There’s no reason to doubt that Henderson enjoyed his Labor Day barbecue and there’s no reason to doubt that Gossage, Stewart and Sutcliffe all grew disillusioned with the labor strife. Indeed, Gossage probably had more reason to be disillusioned than anyone, as he was one of only two players — along with Charlie Hough — who played during every single work stoppage in baseball history, beginning with the 1972 strike and enduring through the three other strikes and two owner-led lockouts.

Still, a baseball case could be made that none of them would’ve found work in 1995. They were in the twilight of their careers. Gearing up for a new season in ones late 30s or early 40s is probably hard enough. Imagine how hard it is when you haven’t played since the previous August. If you can get a job, that is. In this way, the strike, I suspect, gave a lot of guys cover to say they were leaving the game on their own terms rather than have the game, as it almost always does otherwise, tell them that they’re no longer good enough or young enough to hack it.

But no matter the details of any individual player’s case, it’s undeniable that the strike led to a ton of players to call it quits, whether they hung up it up in 1994 after the season was canceled or announced they weren’t coming back in early 1995 when the strike ended. Indeed, the most famous athlete to announce he’d no longer play baseball after 1994 did so in early 1995. And he wasn’t even a major leaguer. His statement was short and to the point as well. It came in a faxed press release:

I’m back.

With that, Michael Jordan returned the basketball and the Chicago Bulls. Both he and White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf said later that, had the strike not occurred, he would’ve tried to play one more season in the minor leagues to see if he couldn’t get some traction behind his nascent baseball career.

Which, I suppose, is literally the only good thing that came out of the 1994-95 strike.

 

MLB execs go to bat in favor of shrinking minor leagues

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Tim Brown of Yahoo Sports published an article this morning in which he quotes several executives of MLB teams, including Diamondbacks GM Mike Hazen and Blue Jays president and CEO Mark Shapiro, defending the league’s proposal to cut 42 minor league baseball teams.

We first learned of the idea about a month ago. The proposal was widely panned, even drawing scorn from Congress as more than 100 members of Congress — including Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren — signed a letter condemning the league. In the time since, MLB has spent considerable time defending itself amid the public scrutiny. MLB also got into a bickering match with Minor League Baseball.

To generally sum up what was said in Brown’s column: the GMs echoed what MLB previously said in defensive of its proposal, which is that cutting 42 minor league teams (mostly in short-season and rookie ball) would free up more money to pay players more and improve their working conditions, including food and travel as well as facility conditions.

It is hypocritical for the league and team executives to express concern for the salaries and the quality of life for minor league players. After all, Major League Baseball spent millions of dollars lobbying Congress in order for language in the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 to be amended. Doing so allowed the league to classify minor leaguers as seasonal workers and thus not owed things like a minimum wage and overtime pay, among other worker protections. This all happened because MLB is the defendant in a class-action lawsuit, originated by Aaron Senne and several other former minor league players, alleging that the league violated state and federal minimum wage laws with minor league players.

Shapiro is not a fan of Sanders’ constant harping on the league’s proposal. Shapiro said, “I’m never going to go toe-to-toe with him on domestic policy. But I will go toe-to-toe with Bernie Sanders on professional baseball.” As Brown explains, Shapiro is among those who believes that having a smaller minor league system would allow his organization to offer greater focus to each player remaining within that system. With the increased focus, the team would be better able to develop major league-caliber prospects. As we know, teams love prospects because their salaries are artificially depressed for the first six years of their careers.

One anonymous GM harped on the fact that “minor league baseball is not a moneymaker.” It didn’t sound like he was complaining; rather, simply recognizing how their parent teams view the situation. Another anonymous GM, however, said that the 42 teams are on the chopping block “for a reason.” He added, “I’m guessing that reason isn’t because they had overwhelmingly positive gate turnouts or that their facilities were in good shape. I think that’s been the criteria.”

As I pointed out last month, there are two teams that, at minimum, disprove the shabby-facility talking point. The Lowell Spinners (short-season) have had multiple renovations done in recent years. Team owner Dave Heller called his team’s stadium “arguably the best facility in the New York-Penn League.” The Quad Cities River Bandits, as another example, have earned awards from BallparkDigest.com for “Best Ballpark Improvement” and finished in third place as recently as two seasons ago for “Best View in the Minors.”

As for attendance, BallparkDigest has the 2019 numbers for all 160 teams here. The four Double-A teams on the chopping block — the Binghamton Rumble Ponies, Chattanooga Lookouts, Erie SeaWolves, and Jackson Generals — ranked 91st, 74th, 80th, and 130th, respectively. Only one of those teams is significantly below the 50th percentile. Furthermore, one of the High-A teams on the list, the Frederick Keys, ranked 57th in attendance this past season, close to being in the top one-third of the entire minor league system.

The arguments are obviously facile. We should expect nothing less, however, as these execs do the bidding of their team’s ownership. Their jobs necessitate developing players efficiently and thoroughly. Chopping 42 minor league teams would have the double benefit to them of helping reduce overhead so the owners can report higher profits, as well as making their system run more efficiently (or so they think). So be it if thousands of jobs in towns across the U.S. get slashed in the process. So be it if small towns lose a central focus of their local economies and cultures. So be it if baseball becomes significantly less accessible across the nation.