Walking the Union Line

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Ever since unions were created in the early 1900’s, people have been banding together to ensure fair wages, working conditions and expectations. Baseball is no different. Low pay, hazardous working conditions and unrealistic expectations in addition to owners basically believing that they owned the players led to the Major League Baseball Players’ Association being formed in principle in 1965 and reaching their first Collective Bargaining Agreement in 1968. Since then, working conditions, pay and the overall quality of life for all players involved have improved (not to mention baseball’s as a whole as well).

The players believe in the ability of the union to get done what it needs to and they believe that through solidarity, they will be able to achieve somewhat even ground in what could very easily be the equivalent of one man attempting to climb Mt Everest. Curt Flood’s challenge of the reserve clause in 1968 is evidence of this. It took until two others (Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally) received an arbitrator’s judgment in 1975 to eliminate that clause. Seven years of fighting before free agency was even possible. I’d call that a bit of an uphill battle.

Now, bring that to current day. Players receive multimillion dollar contracts, endorsement deals, etc etc etc. Is the union still relevant? Joey Votto must think so. We all know that he is a grounded individual, but in a recent interview at Redsfest, he was quoted as saying “I’m not going to disrespect the people ahead of me that paved the way for those types of earnings and the people behind me that expect a certain amount or fair value…” You can read the rest of that article on the Cincinnati Reds site here. One of the most grounded professional athletes in any sport, who in the same interview basically said that they don’t care about money, they just want to play baseball – is toting the line. So now, instead of the players being owned by the teams, they’re owned by the union.

So, what does this hold for the future of baseball?

As it goes with any relationship, when one side has too much power, the other will revolt. Several small market teams will never be able to compete – with rare perfect storm like exceptions – as long as the bigger market teams are able to spend, in some cases, as much as ten times as much on players’ salaries. The union was created for the right reason. There needed to be equality in baseball. There also needs to be baseball for the MLBPA to continue its relevancy in the marketplace. If the union continues to gain power and the teams are unable to forge long term strategies as a result, baseball will simply be a game of musical chairs with chance leading the charge more than winning as a team.

From the other side of the argument though, the organizations must have the willingness to share revenues with its players because they’re who everyone is going to see. Make the games fan friendly instead of wallet friendly for the organization only. The last time I took my kids (3 and 5 at the time) to a Reds game, I spent over $300 for a family of four to drive two hours, sit in the seats in foul territory of left field, eat a hot dog and have a drink each and get one souvenir each. If the goal is to get higher ratings on Fox Sports Ohio, my friends you have done it, but if the goal is to fill the seats and have a great crowd for the players, then you have some work to do. By the way, the average attendance for home games last season was 25,128. Capacity at GABP is 42,271 meaning that only 59% of the seats were filled on any given night.

As is with any relationship, both sides need to do some work or else 1994 may not be too far away from happening again. Of course there is always the possibility of another scenario, the fans may just stop coming.