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A warning to MLB from former Commissioner Fay Vincent

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Baseball moguls had better be careful what they wish for.

Former MLB Commissioner Francis T. “Fay” Vincent in 1991
Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

Francis T. “Fay” Vincent took over as Commissioner of Major League Baseball after the untimely passing of Bart Giamatti in August 1989.

In hindsight, Vincent was really the last real commissioner of the game, as noted in this 1992 New York Times article. Owners forced him out, and here are some of the reasons:

They believed he had been too accommodating with the baseball player’s union, and would be again in future labor negotiations. His decisions on such issues as expansion revenue and National League realignment managed to anger one or more owners who felt the decisions adversely affected their ball clubs.

Well, how about that. A commissioner who cared about all aspects of the game, including players. No one held the title of “commissioner” in MLB again until 1998; Brewers owner Bud Selig was elected by the other owners as “Chairman of the Executive Council of Major League Baseball” and the owners basically at that time began running the game in their own interest. Despite Selig being officially named Commissioner in 1998 and Rob Manfred currently holding that title, these men haven’t generally acted in the “best interests of baseball” as we had come to understand that under previous Commissioners.

I tell you all this history because Fay Vincent spoke out recently to Bob Klapisch of NJ Advance Media:

Reached by phone this week by NJ Advance Media at his home in Vero Beach, Florida, Vincent lashed out at the owners for trying to divide the players.

“It cannot be done. It’s the same thing I told the owners in 1994 (before the strike) “if you shut the game down, you’re going to war with the union and that union cannot be broken,” Vincent said. “It looks like it’s 1994 all over again. I don’t think anyone has learned their lesson.”

Sad to say, I think Vincent is correct. Instead of focusing on the issues necessary to get a baseball season started in 2020 in the wake of the novel coronavirus pandemic, baseball owners appear to be approaching the current stalemate from the viewpoint of a collective-bargaining agreement negotiation. Vincent referred to the 1994 stoppage, which went into 1995 — and owners at that time were preparing to have a season with replacement players until they were stopped by federal Judge Sonia Sotomayor, who ordered play to begin:

Sotomayor, an ardent New York Yankees fan, issued an injunction against baseball team owners in 1995 for alleged violations of the National Labor Relations Act. The owners had sought to end the existing free agency and salary arbitration systems and imposed a lock-out against players as negotiations crumbled. The ruling ended the strike, which had begun on Aug. 12, 1994 and ended up cancelling the World Series that season.

I don’t know where we’re headed with the current dispute, and I don’t know if a court could do what Sotomayor, now a Supreme Court justice, did 25 years ago.

At ESPN.com, Buster Olney made a suggestion that’s somewhat in line with what I posted here last Friday:

Maybe a season of 81 games — a number of significance, because it’s exactly half of the regular schedule — with a very high percentage of the players’ prorated salary. Maybe not 100%, but something that represents a legitimate good-faith proffer.

That all sounds good — and maybe some of that money could be deferred, which would help owners with what they claim to be cash-flow problems.

But then Olney continues with what most national writers have done recently — taking ownership’s side:

The fact is that the teams are losing gobs of money this year, same as a lot of businesses, and so maybe the players could swap some short-term salary concessions for some artificial mechanisms through which next winter’s free-agent class can be protected (at least a little) from the looming financial regression.

Nonsense. While it is certainly true that teams are losing “gobs of money” this year, almost all baseball ownership groups are headed by folks who have other gobs of money by which they could cover some of the losses. Here’s what Tom Ricketts said about this last week:

“The league itself does not make a lot of cash. I think there is a perception that we hoard cash and we take money out and it’s all sitting in a pile we’ve collected over the years. Well, it isn’t. Because no one anticipated a pandemic. No one expects to have to draw down on the reserves from the past. Every team has to figure out a way to plug the hole.”

“No one expects to draw down on the reserves from the past.” That’s certainly true, and in normal times no one would look at teams and say: “Hey, you’re sitting on all this money from the past, spend it now!” But we are not in normal times. Maybe now, an extraordinary time in baseball and human history, is the time to draw on those reserves to save the game, instead of playing hardball and trying to balance the budgets on the backs of the players.

Beyond all that, I’m almost 900 words into this article and I haven’t even talked about the health crisis that still affects our country and the world. This New York Daily News article suggests that MLB hasn’t been talking about it much, either:

On June 2, MLB told the News that “each of our Clubs already has contacted their local or county officials where appropriate or will do so shortly after a second draft of the protocols is completed,” further clarifying that their safety protocols were delivered to individuals designated by the governor in every state with a baseball team.

Yet, of the 28 city and county health departments that the News contacted prior to June 2, only five confirmed any interaction with MLB or the local team in their jurisdiction regarding health and safety measures, and only four reported they received MLB’s health and safety protocol from the league or club.

Since MLB’s June 2 claim, three health departments — Cobb County (Braves), Detroit (Tigers) and Minneapolis (Twins) — have reconfirmed that neither MLB nor their respective teams have contacted them to discuss plans.

So we’re in a pandemic that could, after thousands of people protested over the last week, cause further spikes in COVID-19 transmission, and MLB isn’t even talking to local authorities about whether and how to resume play in their jurisdictions?

That doesn’t seem like a good thing, not at all.

A week ago Friday, Jayson Stark of The Athletic posted an article with the provocative title:

Stark: Memo to baseball — Don’t drive off this cliff!

And yet, in a week when we should have been anticipating the return of baseball with Spring Training 2.0, it appears that they’re doing exactly that. Stark thinks this is so important that he’s tweeting out a link to his article every day:

Please, MLB owners. There’s a way to save the game. Yes, it involves spending some more money. You have it. For the sake of all of us who love baseball, do it. Before you kill the game driving off that cliff.