It used to be that for all the victories they won at the bargaining table, Major League Baseball’s biggest stars could never win in the court of public opinion.
For the past few years, it has been a lose-lose for the game’s greats, seeing their golden goose of free agency wither before their eyes while still wearing the label of, and stop me if you’ve heard this, “millionaires playing a kid’s game.”
Now, backed into a corner by a cadre of owners and lawyers and MLB officials who figure they might as well try to pawn off pandemic-related losses on their labor force, the players found the right message.
And they found the right messenger.
The message: Open your books and prove to us – and the baseball-viewing public – just how much money you’re losing.
The messenger: Max Scherzer, the man who started the last baseball game that mattered – Game 7 of the World Series – just days after he could barely extract himself from bed due to a raging neck injury.
MLB’s latest offer to the union to resume play in the midst of COVID-19 – a sliding scale of pay cuts that would hit the biggest earners the most – was about as subtle as one of Scherzer’s stomps around the mound. On paper, it was designed to make major leaguers look just like you and me and the MLB front-office employees asked to sacrifice amid a pandemic – protect the most vulnerable among us, and ask the longest-tenured and best-paid workers to give up more.
Within the context of a half-century of negotiations between MLB and the Players’ Association, the overtones were undeniable: Make the highest-paid superstars with cartoonish salaries look greedy for turning it down.
MAD MAX: No justification to accept second pay cut
MLB'S PROPOSAL: Plan includes sliding pay scale for players
For those of us old enough to remember the 1994-95 strike/lockout, it was enough to turn a stomach. There was no World Series that year, images of October glory instead replaced by the grim expressions of Don Fehr and Richard Ravitch and Bud Selig, Tom Glavine and David Cone in polo shirts instead of uniforms trying to explain why baseball had gone away.
Max Scherzer looks onto the field during the 2019 NLCS. (Photo: Tommy Gilligan, USA TODAY Sports)
This time, the circumstances are different: The players did not walk out. Baseball was taken away from them, and all of us, and returning to the field requires not just an already agreed-upon 50% pay cut to reflect a shortened season, but significant health risks, too.
So after MLB’s latest proposal landed – “Red rover, red rover, send another poison pill over” – the union retrenched and handed the ball to its ace, a three-time Cy Young Award winner and member of its eight-player executive committee.
Perhaps no player is more respected for his competitive integrity. Fewer are better-versed in the economics of the game. And no one knows better than Scherzer his own true value, turning down a $144 million contract offer from the Tigers just before his 2014 free-agent season, and then signing a $210 million deal with the Washington Nationals.
To his devastating fastball, slider and changeup repertoire, add the late-night salvo.
“After discussing the latest developments with the rest of the players there’s no need to engage with MLB in any further compensation reductions,” Scherzer tweeted. “We have previously negotiated a pay cut in the version of prorated salaries, and there’s no justification to accept a 2nd pay cut based upon the current information the union has received.
“I’m glad to hear other players voicing the same viewpoint. MLB’s economic strategy would completely change if all documentation were to become public information.”
Within the confines of the medium, Scherzer hit every high note with a message that might even resonate with the "I'd play for free" crowd:
The union will not be broken, and in fact is unified from top earner down to minimum-wage rookie.
We are already accepting a pay cut.
The owners will lose money, too, but can easily absorb it, and we know they are unwilling to prove it.
Scherzer’s tweet to some seemed to portend a nuclear winter for baseball. Not so much: He stated clearly where the players stood and why it mattered. Got that out of the way quickly, eh?
So what now? Well, it may be incumbent on the MLBPA to give the owners something, anything, that feels like a concession. Both sides know they can’t survive mutually assured destruction. So maybe they offer to defer some salary (not that the owners want to accrue debt, either) to ensure their lifetime earnings are protected while offering management’s cash flow a life raft.
The sausage will get made. That process gets much easier once each side has its house in order.
Surely, there is rancor within the ranks. But with one pitch, Scherzer showed that the center will hold, and that the owners certainly know where to find the players.
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