NO TWO SIDES TO AN MLB.COM SELIG STORY

By Murray Chass

January 8, 2012

When I left The New York Times in 2008 after having written for the newspaper for 39 years, the first offer I received to continue writing came from a high-ranking Major League Baseball official who was in position to offer me a job as a columnist with MLB.com. My initial reaction was to say no, but some people urged me to reconsider and at least talk about and consider that possibility.

Accepting that offer would have turned out to be more economically lucrative than what I have done with this Web site the past three and a half years. But money isn’t everything. Writing for MLB.com just didn’t seem like the right thing to do.bud-selig-finger-225

How could I have gone to work for the organization I had spent my professional life covering? Wouldn’t I be compromising my professional ethics by accepting a salary from people I would be in position to criticize and question if necessary?

Working for MLB.com, could I even consider writing critically about Commissioner Bud Selig and the game he runs if such a thing became necessary, and surely it would? Would I just ignore things I saw and heard and pretend I didn’t see or hear them?

But I reconsidered the offer nevertheless, thought about it for a minute or two and came to the same conclusion I had initially, and here I am nearly 400 columns into this Web site. I don’t know how many of those columns I might not have been able to write for MLB.com, but there would have been more than a few.

At the end of each story or column that appears on MLB.com, it states, “This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.” If they are not subject to such scrutiny, it’s because MLB.com reporters and columnists know their limitations. They know the areas to avoid.

There is, on the other hand, a different kind of story, not a negative story to be avoided but a positive story to be written. The latest one caught my attention a couple of weeks ago.

“Selig shares praise of historic 2011 season,” the headline shouted.

This would be tantamount to having the doorman of Trump Tower in New York singing the praises of Donald Trump to passersby.

I am not being critical of the writer who wrote the column. His work reflected what his employer expects of him and pays him for. It’s the system I have a problem with.

To be sure, MLB.com serves a purpose, even for baseball writers, for whom it can serve as a 30-team research site in one location and a source of comprehensive statistics that are not mingled with WAR and VORP and all of those other metrics, as their advocates like to call them.

But then there are the self-congratulatory articles that can induce nausea. I guess we don’t have to read them, but they are there as propaganda for fans to see and be taken in by. Yes, baseball propaganda. I had never thought about it before this moment, but that’s what it is.

Here is a piece of propaganda from the Selig column. Referring to the new collective bargaining agreement that extends to two decades the labor peace between the owners and the players, the column says:

“Selig listed all the previous years in which labor strife resulted in stoppages of play. There was public bitterness between the parties then, accompanied by seemingly incessant sniping that only served to deflect attention from the game on the field and alienated the fans.”

Selig is then quoted:

“When I think about where we were in 1992, who would have thought that the grand old game could have 21 years of labor peace?

I was reminded of that when we had the conference call with the owners to ratify the CBA. It was so smooth. The owners were happy, they were pleased. There was a deal that dealt with our problems. It was fair and equitable. The vote was 30-0. The whole thing took a matter of minutes.”

The column allows Selig to speak as if he had been detached from all of the labor strife when, in fact, he was immersed in it; he was as responsible as anyone for it, more than most.

Selig Reinsdorf“When I think about where we were in 1992…?” This is where Selig was in 1992. With Jerry Reinsdorf of the Chicago White Sox, he was leading the effort to oust Fay Vincent as commissioner, working to get him out of the way so that the owners, led by Selig and Reinsdorf, could go after the union in the approaching labor negotiations without interference.

The owners wanted a cap on payrolls, and they were prepared to break the union to get it. Selig and Reinsdorf were the leaders of what I called the Great Lakes Gang, owners whose teams were in cities that bordered on or were geographically close to the Great Lakes.

Not that MLB.com would acknowledge it, but Selig was a common denominator in the labor strife that produced five strikes and three lockouts and preceded two decades of peace. When M.L.B.’s labor arm was the Player Relations Committee (P.R.C.), Selig was its long-time chairman.

The P.R.C. devised the owners’ labor strategy and determined the issues its negotiators would pursue in the bargaining for new collective bargaining agreements. Considering that before 2002, negotiations routinely turned into work stoppages, Selig and his fellow strategists have to share the blame for the disruptive talks.

They also have to share blame for one of the ugliest labor developments in pre-peace days. Only months after a new labor agreement ended a brief August strike in 1985, management launched a new strategy to suppress salaries. What the owners couldn’t achieve in collective bargaining they would try to get through illegal practices aimed at deterring free agents from changing teams for exorbitant salaries.

Two arbitrators subsequently called it collusion, and the owners agreed to pay affected players $280 million.

Until Bill Giles, a former Phillies owner, authored a 2007 book about his life in baseball, no owner had ever admitted, at least not publicly, that the clubs engaged in collusion, acting in concert with each other against free agents in violation of the basic agreement.

One of those owners was Selig, colluding and never admitting it. The word collusion is not in any dictionary that sits on a book shelf in Selig’s office or home.

It was a low point in the history of baseball’s labor relations, but Selig never did anything to try to establish harmonious relations with the players by acknowledging that collusion was real.

In his book, Giles noted that collusion cost the owners $280 million and wrote candidly, “More importantly, the level of trust by the players of the owners was severely – and almost irrevocably – damaged.”Bill Giles 225

Vincent, who came into baseball post-collusion, was the first member of management to acknowledge the owners’ collusive game, and his honesty and candor led to his departure as commissioner.

MLB.com doesn’t post columns that deal with this nasty stuff. It has only praise for the commissioner.

Repeating a sentence from the MLB.com column praising him, “Selig listed all the previous years in which labor strife resulted in stoppages of play.” I would have been more impressed if the column had listed Selig’s responsibility in and for each of those strife-torn years. But of course it didn’t. Can’t make the boss look bad now, can we?

I am not suggesting that Selig doesn’t deserve praise for his and baseball’s accomplishments in his 19 years as commissioner. All you have to do is compare the state of baseball today with what it was midway through Bowie Kuhn’s 15-year tenure as commissioner.

Free agency entered baseball at that point, and the neanderthal Kuhn warned that it would be the ruination of the game. It wasn’t the only thing he was wrong about.

Selig, on the other hand, has been right about revenue sharing, interleague play, the three-division format in each league, wild cards, competitive balance, the MLB cable network, MLB.com. Selig has not been responsible for all of these developments, but they have all come into existence during his tenure as commissioner.

The game’s revenue, too, has soared from $1.2 billion to $7.5 billion during his tenure.

You’d think a man with Selig’s resume, not to mention his $22 million annual salary and use of a private plane, would be big enough to acknowledge that yes, I made some mistakes and if not for my misguided ideas on labor, maybe we could have reached $7.5 billion several years before we did.

And maybe someday, perhaps when he retires, whenever that is, Selig will be big enough to allow an MLB.com columnist to write the truth about collusion and his role in the labor wars.

By the way, this column was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

USING CONTRACT DETAILS FOOLISHLY

Big contracts have been around long enough that people who report on them and write headlines about them should understand them and be able to explain them sensibly. Unfortunately, that’s not so.

Albert Pujols Angels Intro 225Last week newspapers and Web sites reported details, courtesy of the Associated Press, of the 10-year contract Albert Pujols signed with the Angels last month. The headline in the Los Angeles Times read:

“Albert Pujols’ Angels deal official, could be worth $268.75 million”

Let’s look at that $268.75 million.

It includes $240 million in salaries over 10 years, $10 million from a post-career 10-year personal services contract, $10 million in milestone bonuses and $8.75 million in award bonuses.

Pujols could presumably earn a $3 million bonus by getting 3,000 hits – at age 32, he has 2,073. The $7 million bonus for 763 home runs (one more than Barry Bonds’ total) figures to be more difficult to attain. The first baseman has hit 445. He would have to average 32 homers a year during his 10-year Angels contract to get to 763 at the age of 41.

However, it’s the last $8.75 million that is really unrealistic. Granted, it’ part of the Pujols package, but to collect that total Pujols would have to perform on a superhuman level never seen nor even imagined in the game’s history.

In each of the 10 years of the contract he would have to be the league most valuable player, the World Series m.v.p. and the league championship series m.v.p. In addition he would have to win the Silver Slugger (for hitting) and Gold Glove (for fielding) awards, and he would have to be elected to or selected for the All-Star game.

Pujols certainly is capable of achieving those awards, some every year, some in some of the 10 years, but he’s not going to be the World Series m.v.p. every year (or A.L.C.S. m.v.p.) unless the Angels get to the World Series and A.L.C.S. every year, and that’s just not going to happen.

Why fantasize by adding up all of the possible bonuses and saying he could earn all of them? Isn’t it sufficient to say that the contract guarantees him $240 million in salaries and another $10 million in a personal services contract? Sounds like a lot of money to me.

The reports of the contract also said it was so complex it had to be executed in three different agreements – one covering the salaries, one the personal services deal and one the milestone bonuses. Pujols and the Angels might have signed three separate pieces of paper, but they are all part of the same contract.

Plenty of players have had personal services contracts, and at least one player, Alex Rodriguez of the Yankees, can earn bonuses based on milestone achievements.

Aside from the foolish and misleading reporting of the contract’s details, I have one problem with the contract. Isn’t $240 million in salaries enough to pay even a player of Pujols’ stature? If a club is paying him an average of $24 million a year, doesn’t it have reason to expect him to be the league m.v.p. every year and be on the All-Star team and win the Silver Slugger and Gold Glove awards? He has to be paid extra for achieving what he is already being paid for? Maybe he should have to give back some of his salary if he doesn’t attain those achievements.

Award bonuses were created years ago as a way of covering differences in what a club was offering and what a free agent wanted. Eventually they became routine supplements to contracts as agents asked for the bonuses and clubs said OK rather than risk losing a player.

In free agency’s infancy the contract Steve Stone signed with Baltimore included a provision saying the Orioles would pay him a $10,000 bonus if he won the Cy Young award. At the time he signed the contract Stone had a losing career record.

‘I think it was something my agent just threw in there,” Stone explained some time later. ”I don’t think he thought it was a serious proposal. I didn’t. A bonus for a winning season would have made more sense. It was like an insurance salesman telling you ‘We’ll give you $50,000 if an elephant falls on you’ because he knows darn well an elephant isn’t going to fall on you.”

An elephant fell on Stone in 1980. He had a 25-7 record and won the Cy Young award and a $10,000 bonus.

MORRIS UNLIKELY TO MAKE IT

Despite my long-time and unwavering support of Jack Morris’ candidacy for election to the Hall of Fame, I don’t expect to hear his name Monday when Jeff Idelson, the Hall’s president, makes his annual announcement. Barry Larkin’s name maybe, but Morris didn’t get enough votes a year ago to think he can make the big leap into the Hall this year.jack-morris-thumbnail

The pitcher made his best showing last year, receiving 53.5 percent of the 581 votes cast, but he fell 125 votes short of the 436 votes needed for election. That’s a lot of votes, too many, to make up in one year.

Morris’ failure in his 13th of 15 years on the writers’ ballot will make some fans happy. They would be the ones who study statistics but probably never saw Morris pitch. That is the problem with the advocates of sabremetrics. They see only the great god statistics, and nothing else matters.

Based on e-mail I have received from critics of Morris and me, the Hall of Fame should take the vote away from baseball writers and simply establish statistical guidelines for players’ election. The players over the line make it, those under don’t.

Such a system would eliminate what is perhaps the greatest debate in sports, but that wouldn’t bother the stats zealots. Their numbers tell them who should be in the Hall of Fame, and the writers would be wrong if they disagreed.

That system would also eliminate the aspect of the voting that they hate most. Their opinion doesn’t mean beans. The writers’ opinion means everything.

Comments? Please send email to comments@murraychass.com.