December 6, 2016
The new Collective Bargaining Agreement has been struck, though not yet fully articulated to the public. We know enough to make some firm statements, though, like these: Tony Clark, the successor to a weak union chief, was determined to be a stronger one, but turned out not to be good enough at the job for his strength or weakness to matter.
The MLBPA has faced an existential threat almost since its inception, and has had a constant need ever since then for a top executive with extensive legal training and experience, and a dogged, shrewd, relentless demeanor. In Marvin Miller, Donald Fehr, and Gene Orza, they had just that. Michael Weiner, by all accounts an exceptionally gracious, thoughtful, and competent man, nonetheless lacked the tenacity of his forebears and let the union down.
Clark simply lacks the high-level legal brilliance of those four men, and no efforts to reach out to a wider swath of his union membership for support, nor earnest desire to protect his constituents’ rights, could compensate for that shortcoming. The players got rogered but good. Wealth will flow into baseball at an ever faster rate over the next five years, but players will see a diminishing share of that wealth and it’s because they’re missing the kind of exceptional, transformational leadership that made them a match for the often repugnant, always ruthless efforts of the owners to keep every piece of the pie they could out of players’ reach.
When the negotiations for the next CBA begin in a few years, it can’t be Clark in the center seat on the players’ side of the table. His bungling of the exchange that led from an ownership proposal for an international draft to a low, hard cap on all international amateur spending makes clear that he’s outgunned at the bargaining table with Rob Manfred—a fact that should come as no surprise, since Manfred has been the owners’ top negotiator since Clark was an All-Star first baseman, and has been working for the league’s business arm since Clark was in high school.
Of course, if there were an obvious and easy alternative to Clark--if Weiner weren’t the final major name from the good old days when Fehr led a rout of the divided owners in the court proceedings around the 1994-95 strike--it’s unlikely that Clark ever would have gotten the job in the first place. A number of agents objected to Clark at the time of his promotion, and some of the same people (presumably) have voiced the same concerns in the wake of this bad deal. So here’s a thought: maybe an agent ought to take over the MLBPA.
It’s the natural thing, really. Labor lawyers from the old school are great, but this is now a highly specialized union with very specific interests to protect, and not even Weiner was in an especially good place to understand those circumstances for much of the time during which he led the union. Bud Selig engineered Fay Vincent’s ouster and took the job of acting commissioner so as to ensure that the commissioner could no longer go rogue. That role is now permanently the mouthpiece of the owners, no steward of the game and its fans, but rather, a spokesman, enforcer, and lobbyist for the interests of the billionaires who own MLB teams. The players need to turn the position of MLBPA executive director into the same blended gig.
From there, this is even more natural, though it would surely stir some shit: Scott Boras ought to be the new executive director. No one agrees with all of Boras’s ideas for improving baseball—not even Boras, which is precisely the point. He’s been an advocate for the rights of draftees and elite international talents for a long time, and a proponent of myriad changes over the years, all with an eye toward maximizing his clients’ earning potential.
He knows how to do business through the media when he needs to. He’s utterly unafraid to drop the gloves when a negotiating partner tries to push him around or wait him out. He has a fairly productive and positive relationship with a number of owners, even if plenty of people on that side of the industry ultimately hate him. Boras is a wartime consigliere only. The MLBPA probably won’t put him anywhere in its top decision-making structure, and shouldn’t, unless they’re ready to go to the mattresses. Here’s the thing, though: they need to be more ready to go to the mattresses next time.
The super-rich are getting super-richer all the time, because the much less rich are too content to accept the status quo, and even give a little back. It hurts the game. It creates complicated superstructures that makes it harder for fans to follow the game. It disincentivizes constant competitiveness. It makes all of us who buy tickets, t-shirts, and TV packages complicit in an exploitative industry. It separates the fan from the game they watch a little more all the time. It needs to change.
For 15 years, fearing the attendant backlash if they went on strike, the players have chosen to be liked by the public, instead of being respected and treated equitably by their employers. That, too, needs to change. Scott Boras might just be the guy for that job.