Players Grieving, and Fans Should Too

The GM Winter Meetings have come and gone, and with it updated free agent signings and player trades, as well as the persistent rumors of more to come.  In between all these happenings, a couple of stories put a semi-damper on all the fun we baseball fans were having with every latest signing and trade.  What caught my attention with one of the news items that broke were pictures of Washington Nationals closer Jonathan Papelbon looking angry or having an expression of what can be described as “pouting face.”

The stories I refer to, if you were paying attention, involve the grievance filed by Papelbon against his team, along with those filed by Kris Bryant and Maikel Franco against their respective teams, the Chicago Cubs and the Philadelphia Phillies.  In the case of Papelbon, the grievance filed is over the loss of wages, specifically $300,000, while he served a four-game suspension at the end of last season.  In the case of both Bryant and Franco, the grievances filed are over the potential loss of wages, as they did not qualify for a full year of service time (172 days) last season.  They both fell just short, respectively 171 and 170 days.  Because they both did not qualify as playing one full season, they will not be eligible for free agency until 2021 instead of 2020.

The requirement of 172 days (out of the usually possible 183) in Major League Baseball’s current collective bargaining agreement (set to expire next year) allows teams a lot of wiggle room, especially at the beginning of the season, to delay a major league ready talent from debuting.  Bryant debuted a mere two weeks after Opening Day.  This wiggle room allows teams to potentially control a young player for 7 years, rather than the 6 years that the spirit of the CBA intended.  Bryant and Franco are arguing that their teams acted in bad faith and intentionally kept them from hitting the magic number of 172.

In regards to Papelbon, the current CBA allows teams to levy certain kinds of disciplinary punishments on their own players, but the language over financial penalties is pretty vague.  This cloudiness, it seems, opens up the possibility for a team’s front office to attach any fine or withhold any portion of salary for any player activity they deem inappropriate.  This inappropriate behavior, whether it is, let’s say, getting in a physical altercation with another teammate, as Papelbon did, or something as trivial as showing up late to practice is simply at the discretion of the team.

Although the suspension of Papelbon and the length of service time of Bryant and Franco are dissimilar in the particulars, all three cases reveal an attempt by ownership to offset some of the money spent towards escalating player salaries, going so far as to finding ways to void parts of a previously agreed upon salary contract.  With record contracts being handed out, it seems, daily during this Hot Stove season (think the $200 million contracts for pitchers David Price and Zack Greinke), it may be a little understandable that team front offices are looking to save wherever they can.  However, a closer look at the numbers reveals that baseball profits are up and players’ salaries are not keeping pace.

After peaking at about 56% in 2002, MLB player salaries have dropped to 38% of league revenues, which are at an all-time high.  In other words, as we fans have been charged more at the box office and at the concession stands, more and more of that money has been going towards ownership rather than the product on the field.  Throw in all the new revenue from recent television deals, teams look quite greedy (think Mr. Potter from It’s a Wonderful Life) as they keep players like Bryant from qualifying for full seasons, or levy fines and withhold player salaries for what they deem as inappropriate behavior, e.g. sporting a stache on the Yankees.

In the case of Papelbon, I find it interesting how the media portrayed the grievance story with featured images of a “pouting” pitcher, a player with opinion already set against him for his aggression towards teammate Bryce Harper.  Media focused on Papelbon rather than the merits of the case itself (do you think Papelbon really cared about the amount of money lost when he made more than $13 million last season), revealing an obvious attempt by MLB to leverage fan support.  Listening to casual fans complaining about the “ridiculous” salaries players have been earning this off-season, it may very well be a good strategy.

I recently heard from a co-worker, almost in an envious manner, that Greinke will be paid over $9,000 per pitch with his new contract if he replicates, pitch for pitch, what he did last season.  With the cost of tickets to attend a game (on average $29.94 in 2015), not to mention the price of a crappy domestic beer (just over $6) and a hot dog (just under $5), I would argue that players like Greinke may even deserve much more, and fan frustration should be directed towards those responsible for gouging them at the register: ownership.

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