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Hok Talk: MLB owners are showing their true colors

The narratives around current MLB-MLBPA negotiations don’t seem quite right.

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One person handing money to another
Money changes hands
Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Sea-faring ships have, for centuries, been required or at least expected to fly flags that tell any nearby observers various things about the ship. Perhaps the most easily understood of those flags is the one that indicates a ship’s home port of call. So a US ship will fly the stars and stripes and any other vessel within visual range can tell at a glance what country they call home. These flags are also known as “colors” and ships that fly under flags to which they have no right are known to be flying “false colors.” If such a ship were to lower the false flag and raise the correct flag that would be called “showing one’s true colors” and it’s something pirates might do to intimidate their prey after initially flying another flag to allow them to get close.

The idea of theft is one I intentionally invoked when I wrote the headline for this article. The pandemic has hit everyone hard, no doubt about it. Companies, in dire straits due to lost revenue, have been forced to lay people off. But MLB, despite being a collection of companies the least of which is still valued at 980 million dollars, is claiming to be in as dire financial straits as your local mom & pop restaurant. Some clubs have stepped up to the plate and promised to continue paying their minor league players and staff members. Others, such as the Oakland Athletics, have said that they will stop paying minor league baseball players in their system until at least next spring.

Now, you might be thinking, “Lots of companies are laying people off. It sucks for them, but this is nothing the rest of us aren’t also dealing with!” But that isn’t quite right. You see, even though the Athletics will not be paying those players for the remainder of the summer, they’re still under contract to the club. Which means they aren’t allowed to ply their trade anywhere else. It’s like if your employer laid you off from your job as an accountant but also told you that you weren’t legally allowed to go anywhere else and be an accountant

Beyond that, because of the Save America’s Pastime Act, they’re not even considered employees - they’re classified as seasonal apprentices so that teams can continue to pay them sub-minimum-wage. So they may not (and ordinarily definitely would not) be eligible for unemployment claims. They’re stuck between a rock and a hard place. At least the ones who are getting cut are allowed to look for work elsewhere.

But that’s not all

Max wrote some earlier this week about the proposed plan by MLB owners to cut player salaries even further. Yes, before we dig into this I want to be crystal clear about something, the Major League Baseball Player’s Association - and therefore the players themselves - have already agreed to a pay cut this season. During negotiations when it first became apparent that the start of the MLB season would have to be delayed, players agreed to only receive a pro-rated portion of their salaries. Which is to say that if the current most-talked-about plan were to be enacted, players would only make half of the money they were initially promised. That is a huge concession on their part that is largely being ignored by owners who are trying to pretend the players are currently being selfish.

It’s a sad reality that one of these two groups is going to have to take a further hit to their pocketbooks if baseball is going to be played again in 2020. Owners are going to have to absorb the losses of not being able to sell tickets or players will have to take a pay cut for owners to lose less/make more money. Perhaps you feel as if both sides should go jump in a lake because they’ve all got more money than you’ll ever see in your life. And I won’t pretend the MLB owners weren’t crafty in designing the second pay cut to take the most from the wealthiest players. But there is still one huge difference between these two groups: as ever, the players are the ones who will be putting themselves on the line.

Baseball team owners make money by virtue of owning the team. They literally must do nothing beyond put a team of any quality on the field and they will still profit, either the traditional way by earning more income than their expenses or by selling the team after it has accrued more value over time. Barring the complete collapse of the sport no MLB owner will walk away with less money than they started with, regardless of how much they may cry about spending more on a year-to-year basis than they bring in. Baseball players put their bodies on the line every time they go out to play. The only way they make money is by producing value for owners. But in 2020 that takes on am additional twist, because if baseball is played they assume all the usual risks of the sport and additionally the increased risk that they will contract COVID-19 which may cause long-term health problems for or kill even people healthy enough to be professional baseball players.

To summarize the issue, many in MLB ownership are currently trying to use public relations to get the general public mad at baseball players for refusing to take a second pay cut while assuming more risk of permanent injury or death than ever. Don’t be drawn in by this farce.

That being said, I would be remiss if I failed to point out that not all of the teams are participating in this. Among those are the hometown Royals who have sworn not only to pay their minor leaguers through what would have been the end of their season, but not to cut any of their minor league players even though they’d probably be justified in doing so because, in a normal year, they would have had to in order to make room for new prospects. They won’t even lay off or furlough any other team employees, either. For all I’ve worried that Dayton Moore might sometimes care too much or in the wrong way about character when drafting and signing players he and the ownership group led by John Sherman have shown what good character in powerful positions should do. We can be proud that the executive staff behind our favorite colors are doing at least the bare minimum for the most vulnerable members of their organization.

Honestly, the Royals finding a way to pay their staff and players shames every other team in both leagues. The Royals have the second least valuable franchise in the sport, their owners are in one of if not the weakest financial position of any ownership group in baseball since they just completed the purchase of the team over the off-season. If the Royals can pay their minor league players and staff members what excuse can the other 29 teams make? And yet, there will continue to be an outcry against alleged player greed if the season is further delayed or even canceled.

If you want to think that baseball players make more than they should I probably can’t change your mind. But don’t be fooled into thinking that the billionaires attempting to force their employees to bear the brunt of both the risk and financial impact during a pandemic are anything but disgusting pirates attempting to disguise their colors with designer clothes and PR spin teams.