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The end of 2021 approaches, which means another year of this labor-focused newsletter has wrapped up. It was an eventful year, for both major- and minor-league players, and the goal of this particular column, as always, is to remind you of the year that was. Let’s get right to it — each paragraph represents a month, and I’ll highlight a few pieces from all 12 of them.
The year began with optimism in some corners that the Joe Biden administration could make moves that would help minor-league baseball players out financially. Like for everyone else, that’s… not how the year went. As usual, it’s not cynicism if I’m right. Not everything we’re looking back at from a year ago is depressing, though: it was in mid-January that we learned that some Hall of Fame voters wanted to revoke their votes for Curt Schilling, and devotees know how much I like to laugh at that guy. The Atlanta Braves should have become the Atlanta Hammers, but it seems pretty clear that they have no intention of doing something like that, even though we’re now entering the era of the Cleveland Guardians.
February kicked off with Nolan Arenado being traded away in the middle of his long-term extension with the Rockies, which was always going to be the result of that deal. Speaking of extensions, Fernando Tatis Jr. received a huge one, and it felt wrong: but that’s why it was so obviously right. Mariners’ executive Kevin Mather closed out the month for us by resigning after video of him bragging about manipulating service time leaked, and it was all a reminder that his resignation meant little when the cultural and structural issues of the league remained.
I’m of the opinion, and have been for some time now, that the Players Association not only needs to fight for a higher league-minimum salary, but that they need to see it jump up in a truly significant way. Tripling the current one is where I’ve landed, and there is even historical precedent, too, as I pointed out in early March. Months before there was officially word of a set free agency age proposed during bargaining, I wrote about how it’s not a solution because it doesn’t address the actual problems at hand: an obsession with cheap players. Before the month closed out, I answered a reader question about whether it was ethical to attend MLB or MiLB games, given everything shady the league was up to.
This will come up again, but back in April, I wrote about how MLB should be paying for player housing in the minors. It seemed like a potential longshot then, since some teams weren’t even paying for the hotels of minor-league players or their meals at the alternate sites. Mid-April, by the way, was when MLB and the MLBPA began to discuss the expiring collective bargaining agreement. I was pretty sure even then we’d be talking about all of these issues in 2022, as well, and, well, look at the time. April closed out with concern that commissioner Rob Manfred was letting gambling decide MLB’s direction.
May kicked off with the discovery that the minor-league housing situation was even worse than realized. The MLBPA finally filed a grievance over the length of the 2020 season — we should remember that this is floating around out there. It wouldn’t cost all that much for MLB to pay its minor-league players a living wage and for their housing — we’re still waiting for the first part, even if MLB eventually agreed about the second. One minor-league team was really hoping that you didn’t know how sources work. Love to have our intelligence insulted.
Man, what a year for terrible behavior by minor-league teams. June began with something fishy going on with the A’s apology for the “meals” they served their players. There were players out there who could not afford their hotels even after the 2021 pay increase, who were sleeping in locker rooms and in their cars at home games because it was the only way they actually made money. Luckily, advocating for minor leaguers works.
Taxes were one more reason you can’t trust MLB’s owners and their crying poor. The Cleveland Guardians name change (well, name announcement) happened in July — long overdue, yes, but it is nice to see that gear floating around the internet already, yeah? Speaking of racists, July is also when we learned that Curt Schilling would not be removed from his final Hall of Fame ballot as he had demanded. That’s a shame, mostly because I didn’t want to have to go through this whole ordeal again, but on the other hand, see my earlier point about how I like to laugh at that guy.
In August, I pointed out that “will they keep Shohei Ohtani?” was the question to ask about the Angels, not “can they?” I also wrote about the history of trading cards and player likenesses that parallelled the initial funding of the MLBPA’s offices, shortly after MLB, the NFL, and NBA got together for a new trading card deal with Fanatics. Collective bargaining leaks finally began to spring in August, and I discussed why MLB would have proposed a salary floor in response. I closed out the month by taking a look at how obvious it was that some teams just wanted to push the question of minor-league housing off into the future where they wouldn’t have to think about it anymore.
September began with Oracle Park concessions workers voting to authorize a strike, as they demanded hazard pay, a long overdue raise, as well as better — and enforced — COVID-19 protocols at the Giants’ stadium. Marvin Miller made it into Cooperstown, and yet, Curt Flood remains outside its walls. I wrote a reminder of why we were seeing leaks from collective bargaining, as well as some context to what those MLB proposals were really saying. Thom Brennaman was not owed another big-league broadcasting job in September, and not now, either. The Phillies reportedly reprimanded their minor-league players for wearing solidarity wristbands during the season’s final weekend. For the love of God, do not try to rehabilitate Jeff Luhnow. Don’t worry, September wasn’t all depressing: the Oracle Park workers ended up winning a seriously improved contract, thanks to the leverage of a strike threat.
October had me wondering if maybe things were changing in the MiLB labor landscape, and for the better. A few days later, MLB announced that they would mandate housing assistance for minor-league players. There were reasons to be concerned about the mandate, yes, but I tried to address some of that. Not only did we not get Atlanta Hammers, but we also got a postseason full of the Tomahawk Chop.
November opened with the discovery that Steve Cohen’s brazen tweet about drafted players as investment properties was going to be used in a class action suit against MLB. I talked about how MLB’s odd pay-for-WAR proposal had no chance of working in the players’ favor without revenue-scaling. Paying for housing was a net good, yes, but MiLB’s players still need to be paid more, and more often: their uniform contract literally says that they have work expectations during times where they are not being paid. This should have gone without saying, but please don’t listen to Rob Manfred about the nature of labor disputes.
December opened with a lockout, but also me writing about how MLB’s lacking luxury tax increase proposal was a reminder that bargaining thresholds instead of scaling these items to revenue was a problem. If the PA is forced to choose between earlier free agency and earlier arbitration eligibility, the latter is the only answer. We should probably get used to the idea of an expanded postseason, because it’s a bargaining chip for the PA. I closed out December and 2021 — well, besides with this round-up, anyway — by addressing Manfred’s attempt at revisionist history regarding 1994 and MLB’s “mistake” of not locking the players out when the CBA expired.
Sitting down to actually consider how much I write in a given year is always kind of alarming: I published over 90 labor newsletters, another 145 video game newsletters (ah, the difference in being able to write whenever on a topic vs. having to wait for something to react to), 27 features for Baseball Prospectus, and two for Defector — one on video games, the other on labor — in 2021. I won’t include the video game stuff here in this little coda, but I’ll share my relevant freelance links below. Some of these are subscription-only, but hey, at least my newsletter isn’t. See y’all next year.
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