This is not a statement about what will happen. This is a statement about what should be.
If major-league baseball teams, in sincere, non-colluding fashion, intend to be more rational in what they pay players past their prime — whether we’re talking about new deals for over-30 players, or the second half of 10-year contracts for 26-year-old superstars — then they need to be more fair in what they pay players in their prime.
You cannot justify a monopoly that imposes artificial limits on superstars who peak early — paying them less than 10 percent of their worth in many cases, paying them less than 1 percent of their worth in the case of a Mike Trout — and then deny them the opportunity to recoup those lost wages on the back end.
This injustice is exacerbated by the unconscionable, sub-minimum wage that nearly every ballplayer earns in the minor leagues, especially the overwhelming majority that don’t receive massive signing bonuses out of high school or college.
Teams do make a big investment in scouting and developing young ballplayers, and while it’s not exactly a free-market system, it’s not unreasonable for those teams to expect to retain exclusivity on these players for X number of years into their careers. However, the ability to renew a player’s contract without negotiation for the first three years of service, followed by the limitations imposed by an antiquated salary arbitration system for the next three years of service, has gone from an under-the-carpet inequity to a major stain on the sport.
Part of the problem, certainly, is that contracts are speculative. As long as a system pays for future performance instead of past performance, there will be a disconnect. It’s easy enough to understand the reluctance to commit millions upon millions of dollars to players for the years they are most likely to decline — easy enough to understand even as teams in markets big and small absolutely rake in money. I don’t go to sleep at night praying for owners to overspend, even if I know they can afford to.
It’s impossible, however, to morally justify franchise frugality when they are, unequivocally, stiffing and shafting players in their pre-free agent years. Yes, grown men, even if you think they are lucky to be paid anything to play a little boys’ game, should be paid according to their value. And by being among the best in the world in a multi-billion dollar industry, they have considerable value.
This is not a statement about what will happen. You can talk about leverage between owners and players all you want, speculate on how negotiations will progress and whisper fears about whether a strike or lockout will be necessary to solve the problem. As a parent of a student in the Los Angeles Unified School District (not to mention a citizen of the United States), I have recent history to tell me all I need to know about labor philosophy and reality.
This is a statement about what should be. Baseball should represent what’s right about our community and our country. And what’s obviously wrong today should not have to wait years to be fixed. If MLB teams intend to remain tight on the reins on the back end of player careers, they should loosen the reins on the front end.