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What will happen with player salaries? Contracts? Service time?


Last night the Associated Press reported that, among many other issues Major League Baseball and the MLBPA are dealing with at the moment, they are trying to figure out what to do about service time and scheduling and other logistical matters. While there are obviously more important matters facing the country at the moment, this stuff is pretty fascinating — and becomes pretty complicated — the more you think about it.

But let’s start easy. Will players be paid?

Players are not paid during spring training. They get per diems, but their contractually-specified salaries do not kick in until the season starts, which would’ve been Opening Day a week from now. I have not seen an official word on what will actually happen, but I am about 99.999% certain that players will not be paid.

It’s pretty straightforward, actually: the uniform player contract, which contains all of the boilerplate applicable to every player, specifically states that allows teams to suspend contracts during a “national emergency”:

President Trump declared the pandemic a national emergency on March 13, and Major League Baseball’s official statement suspending spring training and pushing back the start of the season specifically referenced the “national emergency.” If Trump hadn’t done that it would’ve been interesting to see if Rob Manfred could get an arbitrator to side with him and his ability to unilaterally declare a “national emergency,” but there’s no debating that we have one now, both legally and factually. The players will not be paid.

Service time is a bit more complicated. It’s possible that the league would argue that the “suspend the operation of the contract” language means that the passage of time, for contractual purposes, stops as well. That’d be pretty extreme. Of course we learned from the Associated Press last night that the union is suggesting that players should be given a full season of service time even if the season ends up getting canceled in its entirety. That’s the other extreme, but it’s an extreme that at least acknowledges that (a) the players aren’t getting any younger while the crisis goes on; and (b) payment, for most players, is directly tied to their age.

Playing this out against real life examples demonstrates how thorny this could get.

Take Kris Bryant, for instance. After losing a contentious arbitration over his service time, Bryant was to be entering his walk year in 2021 (he had sought for it to be after this season). If the entire season is canceled, and if Major League Baseball gets its way, Bryant will be controlled by the Cubs for yet another year, and he won’t hit free agency until he’s over 30. Talk about a massive swing in market value by virtue of (a) an arbitrator’s decision; and (b) a pandemic.

Or how about Mookie Betts? He’s also in his walk year, and because the Red Sox have decided to slash payroll, they traded him to Los Angeles. The Dodgers gave up a package of players for him. If 2020 counts as a season for service time purposes and Betts walks, the Dodgers gave up players for nothing in return. If it doesn’t count as a season, Betts’ free agency is pushed back, and he doesn’t hit free agency until he’s been in the bigs for eight years.

It’s not just the stars, of course. And it’s not the stars who will be hurt the most. They’re rich. Think about the guys who, because of a one-year delay, will fall short of ever reaching arbitration, which is the first time most players make real money. Think about the minor leaguers who don’t even get a shot because they have one more year on the odometer. Obviously the league and the union cannot negotiate the literal passage of time, but there are all manner of financial and contractual concerns that are tied to the passage of time which can play out differently depending on what the league and union agree to.

In the end, I suspect that we’ll see some agreement reached about what will constitute a “full season” for service time purposes, presuming at least some baseball is played in 2020. But how many games will that be?

Last week I wrote about shortened seasons of the past. The two most applicable ones would seem to be 1981, when the strike made the season into a 103-111 game affair (games played varied among teams), and 1994, when the season was stopped at between 112-117 games. Both of those were a “full season” for contractual purposes. Last night’s report said that MLB has suggested that anything below 130 games should only count for “proportional” service time, meaning that if Mookie Betts or someone like him played in a 125-game season, they wouldn’t hit free agency until after the 2021 season. You have to figure that’s a non-starter for the union.

Of course, like everything else in the world right now, we have no idea what’s really going to happen. It strikes me that MLB can withhold salary or stop service time, but it can’t do both. What actually happens, however, is a great unknown.

Today in Baseball History: The Yankees become The Yankees

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A couple of weeks ago I wrote about how the Cubs became the Cubs. In the course of that post I talked about how fluid and casual team nicknaming was in the early 20th century. Sometimes the press named a team, informally, and it stuck. Sometimes the team’s owner switched the name back and forth multiple times. It was sort of all over the place.

That was true, too, of baseball’s most storied and, let’s be honest, stuffy organization, the New York Yankees. Rather than proclaim, from on high, what their name — what their brand — would be, they got their name through the same haphazard way so many other teams did. But, on this date in 1913, they became the Yankees for good. Let’s talk about how they finally got there.

They didn’t start in New York, actually. They started in Baltimore, as the Orioles. But they weren’t even the original Baltimore Orioles. That ream was a National League club — led by John McGraw — that the National League contracted along with the Cleveland Spiders following the 1899 season. McGraw cooled his heels in St. Louis In 1900 but then, the following year, the upstart Western League, led by Ban Johnson, upgraded itself to self-proclaimed major league status and reformed as the American League. They put a team in Baltimore, called itself the Orioles and brought John McGraw back via the offering of an ownership stake.

Ban Johnson and McGraw didn’t get along too well and they were in pretty constant dispute. Johnson also didn’t think too much of Baltimore as an AL city and wanted to move the team to New York — Manhattan, specifically — to compete head-to-head with the New York Giants. McGraw, seeing the writing on the wall, but not wanting to let Johnson tell him where to go, left the Orioles in the middle of the 1902 season and joined the New York Giants as their manager and part-owner. Ever the pain-in-the butt, he gave his ownership interest in the Orioles to the Giants, which was a problem given that they were a member of the rival league which wanted to see the AL crushed and eliminated. Add that to the list of many AL-NL disagreements bubbling up at the time.

It was all solved, for the most part, after the 1902 season when the AL and NL entered into what amounted to a peace treaty. They stopped the widespread practice of teams poaching each other’s players and settled various ownership and territorial disputes like the one between the Giants and the Orioles. Finally, as a part of that agreement, the NL agreed to let Johnson to move the Orioles to New York for the 1903 season. What the Giants would not permit, however, is the new AL club to play in the Polo Grounds, so they had to find a new ballpark.

The New York club hastily constructed a new wooden park seating about 16,000 fans on the west side of Broadway between 165th and 168th streets. It was originally called American League Park and housed The New York Americans Baseball Club. The place would eventually be nicknamed Hilltop Park because of its relatively high elevation compared to the rest of Manhattan. The Americans eventually came to be called the Highlanders. For years most people believed that that was solely because they played on literal high land, but more recent research reveals that it was at least in part a play on the last name of the team’s president, Joe Gordon, combined with a reference to the famous British military unit, the Gordon Highlanders. Either way, the Highlanders they were throughout the oughts.

The Polo Grounds was devastated by a fire in 1911 and needed to be rebuilt. Despite their past disagreements, the Highlanders generously allowed the Giants to share their home at Hilltop Park while the Polo Grounds were being rebuilt. McGraw and his club remembered this kindness two years later when they allowed the Highlanders, who were looking for a new place to play given that Hilltop Park was already falling apart, to move into the rebuilt Polo Grounds.

By then the whole “Gordon Highlanders” thing was no longer as amusing as it had initially been. Between that and the team literally abandoning the high ground between 165th and 168th streets, the name “Highlanders” was not really apt. As noted above, teams often had a lot of nicknames, and the Highlander’s third name — apart from that and “Americans” — was the “Yankees.” With a new home in 1913, the club decided to formally adopt it. They played their first game as The New York Yankees on April 10, 1913. 107 years ago today. They lost to Walter Johnson and the Washington Senators (Americans? Nationals? It was confusing!) 2-1.

What’s a “Yankee” anyway?

In the 19th and early 20th century it referred broadly to residents of New England those descended from the original English settlers of the region. This is how Mark Twain used the word in his novel “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.” During the Civil War it was used broadly to anyone from up north and, when not referring to the baseball team, is still used that way today. But where did the word actually come from?

Most people who think they have an idea about it are wrong. It’s often told that the word “Yankee” is an anglicization of any number of Native American words — like “eankke” or “y’an-gee” or some such — with the story often having it be an honorary term bestowed by Native American warriors on European settlers who fought bravely. Not surprisingly, linguists have debunked that self-serving notion. There is no evidence for it at all, actually.

The best accepted theory, among linguists and historians anyway, is that it’s of Dutch origin. Sometimes used as a term of derision toward Dutch colonists after England took possession of what is now New York or, possibly, a term of derision used by Dutch colonists in New Amsterdam toward English colonists in neighboring Connecticut. From Wikipedia:

Michael Quinion and Patrick Hanks argue that the term comes from the Dutch name Janke, a diminutive form of Jan (John) which would be Anglicized as “Yankee” due to the Dutch pronunciation of J as the English Y. Quinion and Hanks posit that it was “used as a nickname for a Dutch-speaking American in colonial times” and could have grown to include non-Dutch colonists, as well. Alternatively, the Dutch given names Jan and Kees have long been common, and the two are sometimes combined into a single name (e.g., Jan Kees de Jager). Its Anglicized spelling Yankee could, in this way, have been used to mock Dutch colonists. The chosen name Jan Kees may have been partly inspired by a dialectal rendition of Jan Kaas (“John Cheese”), the generic nickname that Southern Dutch used for Dutch people living in the North.

The Online Etymology Dictionary gives its origin as around 1683, when English colonists used it insultingly in reference to Dutch colonists (especially freebooters). Linguist Jan de Vries notes that there was mention of a pirate named Dutch Yanky in the 17th century. The Life and Adventures of Sir Launcelot Greaves (1760) contains the passage, “Haul forward thy chair again, take thy berth, and proceed with thy story in a direct course, without yawing like a Dutch yanky.” According to this theory, Dutch settlers of New Amsterdam started using the term against the English colonists of neighboring Connecticut.

That’s a lot to take in, but know that the name “Yankees” can, basically, be traced back to people calling each other names. Which, with all due respect to my Yankee fan friends, I must say is not the most inappropriate baseball team name out there.


Also today in baseball history:


1947: Jackie Robinson becomes the first African-American in the modern major leagues when the Dodgers purchase his contract from Montreal. He’ll make his big league debut five days later.

1962: Dodger Stadium opens in Chavez Ravine in Los Angeles. The Dodgers lose to the Reds 6-3.

1962: The Houston Colt .45s play the first major league game in Texas, beating the Chicago Cubs 11-2.  Of note:

1964: With the Mets having moved to Shea Stadium, demolition begins on the Polo Grounds to clear the way for a housing project.

1971: Veterans Stadium in Philly sees its first game ever played. The Phillies beat Montreal 4-1.

1973: Kansas City’s new Royals Stadium — now Kauffman Stadium — debuts as the Royals beat the Rangers 12-1.

1981:  In his first game for Chicago, Carlton Fisk hits a three-run home run in the eighth inning to lead the White Sox to a 5-3 victory over his his old team, the Red Sox, at Fenway Park.

1989: Ken Griffey, Jr. hits his first major league home run in Seattle’s 6-5 win over the White Sox.