As Major League Baseball and the players’ association geared up for a long-anticipated negotiation on a new collective bargaining agreement, the battle figured to remain underground for at least a few weeks into the long slog to the Dec. 1 expiration of the current deal.
Nobody could have anticipated the first shot might be fired by a relatively unknown Seattle Mariners club president.
Yet, now that Kevin Mather’s comments largely confirming that the Mariners did and will work to suppress the service time of its young players are disseminated, major league players are sufficiently emboldened to point out a practice that has, among other factors, served as a drag on salaries even as the industry enjoys record revenues.
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Mather is no longer the Mariners’ president and CEO, resigning under pressure Monday. Yet Mather nor the Mariners are hardly viewed as an anomaly in utilizing a salary-suppressing move that has delayed free agency for All-Stars like Kris Bryant and George Springer in recent years.
He was only foolish enough to discuss it publicly – and players are eager to respond.
“I think it’s bad faith,” says Yankees ace Gerrit Cole, the team’s union representative and a member of the MLB Players’ Assn’s executive council. “Every player should wake up and read the news on the guy with the Mariners. Those conversations are being had in a lot of clubs, unfortunately. That’s the way a lot of clubs are acting.
“I don’t know if there’s a rule that’s going to be able to fix that because someone would probably just find a way around that rule. But as an industry, I’d like to see us move past that. That’s just not productive for anyone.”
The totality of Mather’s comments – from his chiding of foreign-born players for their English skills and use of translators, to calling franchise cornerstone Kyle Seager “overpaid” and expressing disdain for players who did not agree to team-friendly multiyear deals – got him fired, according to Mariners chairman John Stanton.
In a broader sense, Mather bad-mouthing his employees goes to another concern: How can MLB properly market the game if its overlords speak ill of them, publicly or privately?
“This guy’s talking about players that are making him money,” says Cole, who defeated the Houston Astros in a 2019 arbitration hearing, and signed a nine-year, $324 million contract with the Yankees 10 months later. “The product is the people that he’s talking poorly about.
“It’s just…it’s tired, man. And I think players are over it and if they haven’t been awakened to that type of behavior, that’s what goes on.”
A view of the Chicago Cubs' spring training stadium. (Photo: Allan Henry, USA TODAY Sports)
Cole cited another of his colleagues’ concerns – similar, proprietary algorithms that serve to depress salaries of less-expensive veteran players or cost them jobs altogether. It’s part of an economic system that seemed to work well for both sides for decades – player salaries, both average and top-of-the-scale, annually rose, and franchise values soared from hundreds of millions to multiple billions of dollars.
Yet, even before the pandemic hit, the average salary dipped for a third consecutive year, even as industry revenue neared $11 billion. As franchises gleaned significant value from young, minimum-salary players, they were suddenly getting pinched on the back end.
That’s why service-time suppression – which essentially forces players to complete seven seasons, rather than six – is even more of an inflammatory issue.
And it’s why the players are, in an odd way, relieved Mather spoke ill of them. He helped bring the players’ argument – one they rarely win in the court of public opinion – out of the abstract and into the discourse.
“Man, I’m actually happy he came out and said that,” Twins third baseman Josh Donaldson said Tuesday. “It gives fans (a chance) to understand why some of our positions are why they are. The players are portrayed to be bad guys in a lot of these situations, but if we don’t fight for certain things, they get taken away.
“(Mather) brings light to the situation at hand. Fans don’t care about us players if we’re arguing about millions of dollars and owners are making billions of dollars. And I get it. if I was working a 9-to-5, that wouldn’t be my concern either.
“It will give them more insight into hey, when we do stand our ground, this is why we’re doing it.”
Both Cole and Donaldson did not possess – or at least weren’t willing to share – a roadmap to remedy the situation. The players’ association enjoyed almost boundless gains as it fought through eight work stoppages and the advent of free agency.
Yet owners managed to spin incremental gains in the past two negotiations into leverage in contract negotiations, inspiring players to vow for significant changes in the next round of bargaining.
While they have not yet divulged specifics on how to achieve it, the first ask is fairly simple.
“There’s not a higher league than Major League Baseball,” says Donaldson. “This is it. This is the top of the line. The best players should be playing here. That’s not always the case.”
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