Grab all you can: MLB’s sorry lesson in economics

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CLEARWATER, FLORIDA – MAY 20: A sign announces that Phillies Florida Operations and Spectrum Field, spring training home of the Philadelphia Phillies, have been shut down on May 20, 2020 in Clearwater, Florida. The Major League Baseball season remains postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Years ago, I did a Proustian questionnaire with Blue Jays players at spring training.

This was getting-to-know-you sort of stuff – “What’s your definition of happiness?” “What kind of car do you drive?”

I was doing one of these things with Toronto’s then-first baseman, Lyle Overbay. Generally speaking, ballplayers are the prickliest athletes to deal with. Overbay was at the opposite end of that spectrum – gentle and guileless.

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But even his patience was being tested as we pounded our way through this thing. By the end, he was only half-listening and answering without thinking too hard.

“If you had to live with one teammate, who would it be and why?”

Overbay looked around the room, trying to lock onto someone.

“Vernon [Wells],” Overbay said.

“Okay. And why?”

Overbay had his head back in his locker and was busily arranging something: “Because Vernon’s rich.”

Wells was rich. He’d just signed a deal that averaged US$18-million a year.

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Overbay was making US$7-million that season. Somehow, that did not qualify him as “rich.”

Whenever the interconnected topics of baseball and money come up, I remember that conversation. It encapsulated how much of a financial Twilight Zone ballplayers live in.

Just about every big-time sports league in the world is in some stage of reopening.

The NHL and its union are close to agreeing to a one-off, 24-team tournament. With the backing of its own players’ association, the NBA has asked Disney World in Orlando about its availability as a basketball superhub. It doesn’t seem like anyone in the NFL – from the general managers to the guys who carry the down markers – even considered a shutdown.

But Major League Baseball is nowhere. No one has agreed on a thing. All they’ve done is bicker about money.

The owners would like the players to share revenues rather than take their agreed-upon paycheques. The players would rather eat rocks.

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One official, speaking to ESPN’s Jeff Passan, said, “Everything is going to happen next week,” suggesting that’s the deadline for a deal.

That’s not helpful. There’s no need for everything to be decided in a week. Historically, trying to shotgun the players into doing what management wants hasn’t worked out so well.

The problem isn’t logistics. If basketball – with its players dressed in beach wear and rubbing up sweatily on each other – can figure out a COVID-19 plan, baseball has no issues.

The problem is economics.

The NBA (and, to a lesser extent, the NHL and NFL) has made its employees partners in the business. If owners do well, players do well. Finances are transparent.

If he’s any good, a basketball player gets rich quickly. If he’s a top pick, he starts off earning huge money. If he comes into the league through the backdoor, he doesn’t have to wait long.

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Two years ago, Pascal Siakam of the Toronto Raptors was a minor-leaguer with occasional call-ups to the bigs. Next year, he’ll make US$29-million.

By comparison, baseball players are in open conflict with their bosses. Finances are opaque. No one has any idea what the owners – especially ones with cable operations who do broadcast deals with themselves – are really making.

Players have to wait an age before they can cash in – four years for arbitration; seven for free agency. One study showed the average major-league career lasts less than six years.

This disconnect between the game’s rich (those who’ve held on long enough to grab the prize in free agency) and “poor” has created a grab-all-you-can mentality.

This is how you get someone such as Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Blake Snell giving an interview on the topic of remuneration so tone-deaf it ought to have come with subtitles.

“Bro, I’m risking my life,” Snell said. So’s the lady who bags his groceries, but you don’t see her complaining about making in a year what Snell makes in a day.

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Snell’s irrational valuing of his job is a function of comparison. Two years ago, he won the American League Cy Young Award and made US$573,000, close to the major-league minimum.

Boston’s Rick Porcello had a 5.52 ERA. Essentially, he was throwing volleyballs at the plate. He made US$21-million last year.

Outside of one remarkable season, Porcello’s never been that great. But he is consistent. He started young and has weathered the gauntlet long enough to get seriously paid.

If you owned a car dealership, one supposes you could run it this way. Paying one salesperson 40 times what you paid another to be half as productive. But I’ll guarantee you it would not be a fun car dealership to work at.

Now, the car dealership is shut down. All the salespeople are being given the opportunity to veto its reopening. Is it a surprise that some – the undervalued, the over-performers, the grudge-holders – aren’t feeling all that co-operative?

Other sports have skimmed over these problems because there is some sense in those leagues that things are consistent, if not always fair. If you perform, you will be paid. You will be paid about as much as someone who is about your age and about as good as you.

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MLB, with its goofy free-agency structure and tendency to graduate players at wildly different ages, has none of this rationality.

You’ll have a 31-year-old star making far less than a 29-year-old journeyman. The star’s mistake was not maturing into his spot until he was in his mid-20s, or being stuck in the minors behind a guy who played his position, or getting injured at the wrong time.

Now he’s looking over at the owners – ones who bought a club for a few hundred million that is now worth several billion – and thinking, “You’re not getting me coming and going.”

If there is no baseball in 2020, this is why.

Though they are all rich by any reasonable measure, many players do not feel that way.

The system they helped create is not fair.

This is their (self-destructive) way of rebelling against it.

We all know how often that sort of thing works out.