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January 17, 2003

Breaking Balls

The Problem With Mini-Camps

by Derek Zumsteg

After any article in which I include a toss-off reference to politics, like calling our president "President-by-court-order," I get a lot of email that says, essentially, that I shouldn't talk about politics. For those of you in this group, I'm going to get to baseball here in about four paragraphs.

The best one so far ran like this:

I'm a devoted fan of Baseball Prospectus and I regularly read your column. I have purchased the Prospectus every year since '99. I am also probably one of hundreds of people who are writing in response to your comment about President Bush.

My complaint is that I don't read the Prospectus for political commentary. If anything, I read the Prospectus to get away from political rhetoric for a while. It's somehow comforting to know that people from all points along the political spectrum can share a common love of baseball and engage in a debate about the game that results in opposing camps that political divergences wouldn't anticipate, or that people from all points along the political spectrum can come together in your forum and share, for example, a common admiration of Billy Beane.

-- Michael Martin

I don't think this is possible. Baseball is steeped in politics. The issues of tax burden and allocation: is it right to build a stadium for a team, and what good (if any) does it for the city? Labor relations and the roles of unions in the modern economy. Our Canadian readers are probably aware of the economic problems created by two floating currencies, one dramatically weaker. Baseball coverage in this country is driven by companies that together have a billion-dollar motivation to sway public opinion one direction in labor negotiations, an issue that arises from the way our country has allowed media interests to consolidate into a few giant companies and prevent meaningful dialogue on issues.

It even runs onto the field: Our society's disgraceful notions of race kept the players white, for instance. Labor issues affect whether games get played at all.

Which brings me to my next point: baseball has had a new Collective Bargaining Agreement for what, a couple months, and the owners have already broken it. Why do people wonder why labor relations are so awful in baseball?

There's a section of the CBA that talks about when players can be asked to come to Spring Training. In the last CBA, it looked like this:

Article XIV -- Spring Training Conditions

A. Reporting
No player shall be required to report for spring training workouts more than thirty-three (33) days prior to the start of the championship season, provided that:

(1) injured Players, pitchers, and catchers may be invited to attend Spring Training workouts no earlier than forty-five (45) days prior to the start of the championship season; and

(2) all other Players may be invited to attend Spring Training workouts no earlier than forty (40) days prior to the start of the championship season.

There's no evidence that any of this section changed, though I haven't gotten my grubby mitts on a new copy to confirm this with my own eyes.

It's a particularly clear section of the CBA, and there are teams that are violating it already. The Pirates are running a mini-camp with about 35 people. The Pirates have said it's strictly voluntary. And yet Lloyd McClendon said some things to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that indicate it's voluntary only if you're a slacker who doesn't really want to play for the club:

"One thing we use this for is as a measuring stick to gauge the health of our players. It shows the commitment of our players. It shows they are excited to come down early and let us take a look at them."

Among other comments. The Mets are doing this, too, as is the Rangers' John Hart, checkbook manager of the Rangers, who was quoted in the Dallas Morning News as saying: "We don't have any hard numbers of which players are planning to come in early, but it's being strongly, strongly encouraged."

Mini-camps may or may not be useful. McClendon's description of his mini-camp as a happy fun summer camp where all the players go fishing and play golf doesn't matter, though. It doesn't matter if you call them mini-camps or Happy Fun Team Building Excursions. They're prohibited by the CBA. You're not allowed to ask players to come out this early.

It doesn't matter if players show up early or not either. If I, just hypothetically, played sports - say, I ran cross-country, for purposes of this example - in high school and we were prohibited from having team practices before a certain date, we might have had a tradition that in late summer we'd get the team together for informal practices. Just the team, you know. We'd go on a run and, hey, check that out, there's the coach, also out running at the same time on the same route, and he might offer a suggestion on where we might go running that day, and how hard. That's pretty close to being a violation of the rule designed to protect me. But if that's what it took to get on the team, as a student I'd be out there running if I wanted to compete.

It's the same deal here - the players who are exploited by these teams are those who are on the margins. The players who aren't showing up to the Pirates' mini-camp are guys like Brian Giles and Jason Kendall--players with guaranteed contracts who don't depend on the favor of management to be playing. The people being strong-armed to show up are the people closest to the average fans, the guys with an invite and no contracts, who don't make that much money, risking injury by playing games they shouldn't be playing. And if they get injured, that's it - no contract, no pay, and no awesome medical care for their recovery.

This is why there's a section in the CBA that prohibits this. And yet there are teams that have ignored this, and will almost certainly have a labor grievance filed against them. If they wanted to put on mini-camps, they should have put that clause in the agreement. Teams agreed to these terms, and to ignore them immediately demonstrates how little the owners have moved toward forging a new and productive partnership with the players.

This is part of why we have labor strife. It's not only about the larger issues, like salary caps. It's about the thousand little cuts owners inflict throughout the season, trying to screw players at every turn, trying to find ways to betray the spirit of an agreement they freely entered into. There was some hope after a strike was averted that things were going to change, and so far we've seen nothing to bolster that hope.

Pitchers and catchers report (legally) in a month.

Derek Zumsteg is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.

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Prospectus Q&A: Dr. Ch... (01/16)
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Breaking Balls: The La... (01/09)
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Breaking Balls: The Th... (01/23)
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Under The Knife: The S... (01/18)

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