With the year winding to a close, Baseball Prospectus is revisiting some of our favorite articles of the year. This was originally published on February 12, 2016.
It’s easy to underestimate how important baseball’s collective bargaining agreement is. I know how easy, because I’ve been doing it for years without even trying. The CBA has been mostly defined in my mind as “not a strike, yay.”
But not long ago, I was reading Sam Mann’s article in the William & Mary Law Review about baseball’s antitrust exemption, and specifically the irrelevance of it. Tucked into it is a paragraph that completely reframed this document that I occaaaaasionally think about:
When the National Labor Relations Board asserted jurisdiction over baseball in 1973, the MLB’s antitrust exemption faded in importance. The reason is that nearly all of MLB’s rules and policies are collectively bargained for with the Major League Baseball Players’ Association. An essential aspect of federal labor law is the nonstatutory labor exemption, which allows the league and its union to agree on governing rules in collective bargaining agreements. … In the labor context, Congress has determined that collectively bargained-for practices are generally beyond the scope of judicial antitrust review.
In other words: The CBA is the law. It does what Congress and the Supreme Court have each opted not to do, defining in clear and unbreakable ways what is and isn’t legal in this $9 billion industry. It’s also, in practice, the rule book for the modern game; you want the strike zone raised an inch, you don’t go to some on-high rules committee. You go to the collective bargaining process. For that matter, did you know that a pitcher can’t change the color of his glove mid-game? He can’t. It’s in the CBA.
This spring, the MLBPA and the owners will begin negotiating the next CBA. We will mostly follow it to make sure it turns out to be “not a strike, yay.” But its text will actually be much more significant than that. It will define the game in ways we will take for granted, and in ways that affect players and teams a great deal whether we notice them or not. These will probably go right past most of us if we don’t read it, or if we read it the way I typically do: A few times a year, I’ll refer to the CBA for something. Open it up, control+F, search for a keyword in my query, read what I need, and get out of there like Indy with a Sankara stone. I’ve never read it all the way through, so, as the current CBA sets to expire, I decided to. I had no idea what surprises I was in store for, though my expectations were raised when my eye caught one line on the 10th page of the table of contents:
Yeaaah. Let’s rock and roll.
1. If you read the CBA in full, certain themes emerge that reveal the nature of players’ desires.
Of course, everything in the CBA reflects the players’ desires, or the owners’ desires, but there’s an editing process to these negotiations; the players can’t bring up everything they might want, but those things that are most important to them. In the repetition of certain types of desires, we start to get a picture of the modern athlete and what matters to him.
If we were building a hierarchy of needs based on what gets the most attention in these agreements,
we’d probably replace physiological with “get that paper.” Safety would still be on the pyramid–both in terms of protecting player health and providing secure environments for their family members–but most likely a tier or two up (meaning “less basic.”) I’m not sure Love/Belonging would be there at all, but something like self-sovereignty, or basic human agency, might be, around the third tier. The highest, smallest tier would probably be something like leisure time—there's a bunch of stuff in here about prohibitions on doubleheaders, protection of home off-days, restrictions on night games before day games in certain circumstances, avoiding Sunday Night Baseball before the All-Star break, etc. But what I think would be second-biggest tier is what most interested me, and is probably best expressed as “be treated special.” Another, more specific way to express it would be “fly first-class.”
There are so many references to the way that a player must be transported from one part of the country to another. For instance, if a team is trying to sign a free agent, it can only require him to negotiate in person once—and the team must fly him there first-class. At the end of a season, they must fly him home, first-class. If they assign his contract during a season, they must fly him to the new assignment first-class—and, also, fly his wife first-class. If they terminate his contract, his parting gift is a first-class flight. If he’s rehabbing at the club’s spring training facilities—first-class flight, first-class hotel, and if his wife is with him a family-sized rental car. But what if there aren’t any first-class seats on the plane, you might ask. In such a case, the player gets two seats—technically, three seats for every two players—and the first-class meal. Team bus travel, by the way, isn't allowed for any trip longer than 200 miles.
Now, maybe the players asked for all this because they ran out of bigger things to ask for, but I don't think it's that simple. The history of baseball’s labor movement before Marvin Miller could basically be simplified down to this: The players saw themselves as highly skilled workers who deserved treatment commensurate with the value of their skills and their prestige in the field, and who merited the benefits of guild-like collectivism. The owners saw them—or, at least, framed them—as replaceable labor in a system that they, the capital, had created. As the president of the American Association once put it, “the woods are full of good ballplayers.” [i]
Obviously, this different way of viewing ballplayers was most relevant to the question of salaries and freedom of player movement, but it’s the subtext to any player gripe during that century, e.g. owners don’t care about our safety on the field, owners don’t care about our security among unruly fans, owners don’t care about how grueling the schedule is, owners don’t care about our wellbeing after our careers end, owners don’t care about us at all because they see us as totally nonspecial. A couple of the big wins in the first collective bargaining agreement: $12 per day in meal money during spring training, and moving expenses for players who were traded or sold. Not to downplay in any way the real, tangible benefits of those 12 dollars and those moving expenses, nor the real, tangible benefits of… getting an $85-a-day rental car, I guess. But as much as anything, these victories are acknowledgments that the players have a claim not just in how much money they get, but in how they are treated. The first-class everything is a mandate that owners must treat them as special, because in the field and in the market they are, whether the owners of the day believe them to be or not.
2. There are brief glimpses of the BIG issues that each side is holding on to for the day things get really ugly.
For players, it’s a shorter season. The CBA specifies that the season is 162 games. The only reference to the possibility of a shorter one goes like this:
“During any negotiations between the Parties on the subject of a renewal of or successor to this Agreement, the Clubs agree that any proposal made by the Association to reduce the number of championship season games shall not be resisted on the ground of commitments made by the Clubs in local television and radio contracts.”
It’s so specific. What makes this stand out isn’t that the players are dwelling on the length of the season—though, it’s important to remember, the owners’ essentially unilateral decision to increase the season from 154 games to 162 was, a decade later, still a source of tension between players and owners during early CBA negotiations. Rather, what makes it stand out is how it is otherwise never mentioned. It’s like, imagine you and your husband are deciding where to go on vacation.
You: How about someplace warm?
You: I was thinking more like Greece.
Him: I’ve always wanted to go to Greece. Maybe Italy?
You: Or Belize.
Him: Or Singapore.
You: The South of France.
Him: San Diego.
You: Puerto Vallarta.
Him: I refuse under any circumstances to go to Duluth. How about Buenos Aires?
You’d probably want to know what happened in Duluth, right? Why are we talking about Duluth all of a sudden? I think you’d better tell me about Duluth, honey.
For the owners, the one-time-one-time-only mention is contraction, in which the owners agree not to undertake “any centralized effort to reduce the number of Major League Clubs” during the years covered by this CBA but, in an attachment, state their position that they don’t actually have to get the players’ approval to do so in the future: “The Players Association has consistently maintained that a centralized effort by the Office of the Commissioner and/or the Clubs to reduce the number of Major League Clubs is a mandatory subject of bargaining under the National Labor Relations Act. The Clubs, on the other hand, have consistently taken the position that such action is a permissive subject.” Italics mine. In other words, as I read that: We’re happy to negotiate with you on this, until we actually have a disagreement.
3. Every player who does an initial physical examination has to tell his new club whether he is missing his eyes.
It’s right there in the medical questionnaire!
Also, on the same form, every player who signs a contract has to tell his team whether he has ever had a sexually transmitted disease. Baseball couldn’t keep its anonymous steroids tests secret, so for the next few decades I’ll be watching with great interest to see whether it can keep this implied database of ballplayers’ STDs from being leaked to Deadspin.
4. The Home Run Derby (and, to a lesser extent, the All-Star Game) agreements are like a bizarro CBA within the CBA.
As noted already, it is nothing for players to demand that Clubs spend thousands of dollars on them every time they have to travel. Further, the CBA makes clear that there are few things players value more than a day off, and few things they dread more than an extra assignment. In the context of the rest of the CBA, the Home Run Derby—even more than the All-Star Game, which at least has the benefit of history and network broadcast propping it up—would seem like the sort of thing that players would go to the mat to fight. If you’d asked me to guess what sort of concessions the players would get for appearing in it, based on the rest of the CBA, I’d have guessed… oh, they’d be paid $50,000 apiece, along with right of refusal to appear in the All-Star Game, first-class travel home and to the next regular season game, and maybe a $250,000 prize for winning it, and $100,000 for finishing second, and travel for up to eight guests, and a rule that only half the participants can have Super-Two-or-more service time, and I’m not sure what else but more. Here’s what they get:
Each player elected or selected as a participant in the Home Run Derby and who attends the event shall receive the following: (a) six complimentary tickets to the All-Star Game and Home Run Derby for use by player guests (players may request fewer complimentary tickets and players may purchase additional tickets for guests in accordance with past practice); (b) first-class air transportation for himself and two guests (to the extent that such expenses are actually incurred); (c) first-class hotel accommodations for himself and two guests (up to two rooms, if necessary) for a maximum of three days; (d) the applicable in-season meal and tip allowance for three days; (e) a $1,000 cash stipend; (f) a gift from the player’s League; and (g) merchandise that is made available by Major League Baseball’s business partners.
A thousand bucks and a shwag bag! They call it a “stipend,” even. And if they’re in the All-Star game already, as most are, all the rest of the "perks"—the travel, etc.—is already covered. (All-Stars also get $1,000 and the bag full of, I’m guessing, Cialis and Scott’s Turf Builder lawn food.) The Players Association also gets “at least one minute” during the Derby broadcast to talk about the MLBPA trust, their charity arm. And, because this is the level of detail that the CBA sometimes goes into, “The Player interviewed [about the MLBPA trust] will also be offered the opportunity to continue the discussion.”
Meanwhile, the means of picking the Derby teams are completely lawyered over. The league must ask the union for consent when it chooses the captains, though the union must not “unreasonably” withhold consent. The league may not contact possible captains until this consent is given. Then
The Office of the Commissioner and the Players Association will conduct a joint call with each captain to discuss the factors that the captain should consider when selecting his teammates, including current season home run leaders; prior success in the Home Run Derby; the location of the game; whether the player has been, or is likely to be, selected as an All-Star; the player’s home run totals in prior seasons; recent milestone achievements by the player; and the player’s popularity.
Yup. The commissioner is expressly granted the right to give the captain instructions in a task that every blogger among us has managed to pull off with nothing more than a WordPress login and an irrational desire to see Barry Bonds hit batting practice dingers at age 50. After that, the captain gets the final say—unless the league and the union think the captain is acting like a turd, in which case the commissioner can overrule him. Anyway, if “first-class airfare” is the players’ surprisingly high priority, I guess the Derby (and, to a lesser extent, the All-Star Game) is their surprisingly low one, as they allow the commissioner uncharacteristically broad rights to micromanage and they demand uncharacteristically light compensation in return.
5. The revenue sharing and competitive balance sections are so dense.
It’s the Deuteronomy of this document. Almost impossible to dissect or stay awake through, with countless sections on how to calculate salary, how to calculate payroll, how to determine market size, etc. These sections go for 42 of the 145 pages in the main body, plus a number of attached letters in the supplemental materials (which double the length of the document). Which basically makes the point for us that this is the most important terrain in negotiations over what this sport in this era really is. I suspect that 50 years from now we’ll refer to this as the Revenue Sharing Era, and books will be written about how it affected every facet of the game. I will not be the one writing these future books, because good heavens do I want to avoid ever reading and parsing those 42 pages again.
6. The level of detail is sometimes spectacular.
Like, they don’t just have to provide player parking spaces; they must provide, “to the extent practical, van parking spaces for players.” If a player is put on waivers, at the end of the waiver period “the Player may make a collect telephone call to the Club to determine whether his contract has been claimed.” The order of presentations in arbitration hearings is specified. The size of logos on catchers gear. If a rehabbing player lives less than 50 miles from his rehab site, but “that residence is unavailable as a result of a sublease commitment, the Player shall be entitled to hotel accommodations.” “If a Player on a visiting Club receives medical treatment from the home Club’s trainer, a copy of any written medical evaluation shall be provided to the Player.” Which, all of these lead one to assume that these situations all actually came up once, and presumably weren’t able to be addressed by those involved without clear direction from a previous collective bargaining agreement. The sublease situation, the charge for the long distance call, all of it happened and everybody freaked out without a legal guide to follow.
7. I did not know these things.
Retired players aren’t allowed to come out of retirement and join a team in August or September. I did not know that. The postseason shares are voted on by a team before the postseason. I did not know that. The manager (and only the manager) is allowed to address the team before the postseason shares are voted on. I did not know that. A club can carry 24 players if it wants to. I did not know that. (It may not carry 23 or fewer.) A player can’t change his shoes once he has begun running the bases. I did not know that. Players must be provided two uniforms (but not shoes!), and must return the uniforms when they leave the team. I did not know any of those three things. A player may not change jersey numbers midseason unless he agrees to buy all the remaining jerseys with the old number on them. I did not know that. The MLBPA and the owners share the cost of translating documents into Spanish. I did not know that. Players have a right to a second opinion on anything the team doctor says, and first-class travel to get that second opinion, but it must be from a doctor on the team-provided list of second-opinion doctors. If the player wants a second (or third) opinion from a different doctor, he must pay for it (and the first-class travel) himself. I did not know that. Players must, with the implementation of this most recent CBA, submit to oral health exams. I did not know that.
8. The way these people sign off letters.
· Bud Selig: Sincerely,
· Michael Weiner, executive director of the MLBPA: Sincerely,
· David M. Prouty, Chief Labor Counsel of the MLBPA: Very truly yours,
· Rob Manfred, Executive vice President, MLB: Even split between Very truly yours and Sincerely
· Daniel R. Halem, General Counsel–Labor, MLB: Very truly yours nine times, Sincerely seven times.
Despite careful study I have deduced no pattern that explains why Manfred and Halem choose what they do for each situation.
All in all, I give this CBA four stars out of five. I recommend it especially for diehard fans of the genre, though I’ll caution that it’s more bathroom reading than a real page-turner. I am hopeful there will be a sequel.