COVID-19 (And Other News) Roundup: Across Baseball, Solidarity

This is the latest installment of a series in which the FanGraphs staff rounds up the latest developments regarding the COVID-19 virus’ effect on baseball.

Big Leaguers Step Up on Minor League Pay

Late last week, the Nationals announced that they would be lowering their minor league stipend from $400 to $300 per week. The move drew immediate criticism from minor leaguers, and from those on the big league club as well. Within hours, Nats major leaguers had pledged to make up the difference to those affected, as Sean Doolittle announced.

The optics, and indeed the factual basis, of these two countervailing reactions were terrible for the club. A $100 cut is necessarily a far bigger deal for a minor leaguer than the major league team as a whole, and the players’ instant support of their minor league teammates led to a public relations backlash against the team.

On Monday, in an internal memo, the team reversed their decision. Without issuing any public statement, they restored the stipend to its previous $400 level. While they didn’t address it, it stands to reason that the players’ swift solidarity and the strong reaction to the cuts played a role in their decision.

And the Nats big leaguers weren’t alone. David Price hasn’t yet thrown a regular-season pitch for the Dodgers. Given the current impasse on scheduling and pay, he may not appear at Chavez Ravine until 2021. But nonetheless, he’s surely a favorite of the team’s farmhands after pledging $1,000 to each Dodgers minor leaguer not on the 40-man roster.

Per the Los Angeles Times, that works out to $221,000. That’s not a world-changing amount for Price, who has earned nearly $200 million in his big league career. But that doesn’t make the money matter less to those players who’ll receive it, and being wealthy is certainly no guarantee of charity — Mark Walter, the principal owner of the consortium that owns the Dodgers, has a net worth of $3.2 billion, for example.

Price’s and the Nationals’ players moves strike me as not merely the right thing to do but also good PR. Teams have been vulnerable on the minor league pay (and amateur pay cap) front for quite some time, sometimes with the tacit approval of the MLBPA. This new tack suggests that the status quo may be changing. The treatment of minor leaguers within the fabulous money machine of Major League Baseball has always been an issue, and major league players moving the issue to the forefront is a key breakthrough.

Of note, the Nationals had already joined many other teams in releasing minor leaguers last week, slashing 40 minor leaguers from their rosters; the $100 cuts were simply further savings. Like several other teams, the Nationals left the stipends a month-to-month proposition; their decision for July will, presumably, consider the monetary benefits of saving $100 dollars many times over against the backlash they faced this time. With the cancelation of the minor league season a foregone if unofficial conclusion at this point, this decision will likely come up many times again before year’s end.

Scott Boras Commits to Paying Minor Leaguers

On Monday, agent Scott Boras announced that he would pay released minor leaguers he represents their expected 2020 salary. This gesture is more symbolic than economic — minor league wages are vanishingly small in any case, and Boras specializes in players who are unlikely to be released by the cuts.

But as a symbol, it’s tremendously effective. Boras is less wealthy than any individual club, and he also stands to receive zero return on his investment — minor leaguers who are cut, after all, don’t often sign lucrative contracts. It’s simply money that the players wouldn’t otherwise have and now do — money that comes directly from an agent who represents major leaguers. Owners have given up space in the public relations battle in their efforts to cut every possible cost, and now both players and agents are stepping into the opening.

Cubs Ownership Disputes Boras’s Claims

Scott Boras did more this week than compensate released minor leaguers. He also singled out the Cubs for their creative use of debt, which allowed them to show small net revenue while spending heavily on capital improvements that increased the value of the team. On Tuesday, principal owner Tom Ricketts pushed back on Boras’s claim.

Ricketts told ESPN’s Jesse Rogers that the money the team makes goes back into the team. Notably, that includes debt, which is the exact practice Boras described — take out a $100 million bond to build a new scoreboard worth $100 million, pay that off with $100 million in revenue, and the team could display zero net revenue while increasing franchise value by $100 million. Given that the owners, well, own the team, it’s hard to see that as anything other than a profit for the Ricketts.

That non-denial aside, Ricketts also reiterated his desire to play games this year. “There are scenarios where not playing at all can be a better financial option, but we’re not looking at that,” he said. “We want to play… We just want to get back on the field in a way that doesn’t make this season financially worse for us.” Diamondbacks owner Ken Kendrick was far less committed to season; he told an Arizona sports radio station that the owners would flatly refuse any plan that included games in November. He referenced player safety in his statement, but didn’t elaborate; as the players themselves have proposed playing into November, further clarification is likely needed. Capping the number of games played already feels like a foregone conclusion, but the league’s steadfast opposition to extra games makes the decision even more likely.

NBA Announces Regular Season Schedule

Per Adrian Wojnarowski, the NBA will have an eight-game seeding round in Orlando for each of the 22 teams involved:

With this scheduling decision, the league is firmly accepting the weirdness of a COVID-shortened season and creating a new structure based on these new constraints. With baseball considering a 50-game season, similar novel and untraditional ideas will likely be needed as well. Our Dan Szymborski suggested a tournament instead of a 50-game season, and something more like the basketball model (brief seeding and then a long tournament) seems like an interesting option.

Former Players Speak About George Floyd Protests

The Athletic convened a roundtable of former big leaguers to discuss the experience of coexisting with teammates while living with social injustice. Doug Glanville moderated a panel that featured LaTroy Hawkins, Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard, Dontrelle Willis, and Torii Hunter.

The conversation is worth reading in its entirety, but I found the discussion of the league’s unspoken disapproval of players discussing racism particularly illuminating, and disturbing. Of Gary Sheffield, Hunter said: “He probably got kicked out of baseball a little earlier than he should have been. And you see those things, it’s kind of like a harness. If you do it to him, you’re going to do it to me. So, I had better be careful what I say.”

Unsurprisingly, the group finds it easier to speak out about racism and issues of injustice now than they did in their playing days. Excerpts dull the poignancy of their discussion — please just read it. It’s heartbreaking, and yet at the same time unsurprising, to see the cumulative psychological and physical toll dealing with racism takes on these players who have been in the public eye their entire lives.

Current Players Show Solidarity

That enforced silence the previous generation mentioned appears to be changing, however. For proof, look no further than the players who have spoken out in solidarity with protestors and those who want justice for George Floyd. It’s an outpouring across the league, among both Black and non-Black players, on a scale much larger than what we’ve seen before in baseball.

Justin Turner spoke out. James Paxton and Gleyber Torres echoed the sentiment. Taijuan Walker discussed the importance of specifically saying “black lives matter” instead of “all lives matter.” Shed Long Jr. discussed the pain and fear of Black parents. Jack Flaherty posted extensively in support of Black Lives Matter and the protests. Alex Bregman chimed in. Marcus Stroman continued his long-standing anti-racism advocacy. Andrew McCutchen spoke out. Blake Snell said something. So did Lucas Giolito. So did Yu Darvish.

This is an incomplete list. Baseball Prospectus’ Shakeia Taylor has compiled more players who made statements of unity and support. But even an incomplete list, in juxtaposition with the implied ban on social activism that older players like Hunter felt, is a rare sign of hope for change in a sport that has historically resisted it with every fiber of its being.

Monte Harrison Challenges MLB’s Silence

Marlins prospect Monte Harrison wrote a pointed letter criticizing the league’s silence in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.

As of Tuesday night, every other major professional sports league had spoken out — some eloquently, some clumsily — in support of the generic issue of racial justice and equality. Baseball’s silence hadn’t gone unnoticed — at The Athletic, Marc Carig compared the league’s silence now to its yearly trumpeting of Jackie Robinson.

Today, the league issued a message across its social media platforms. As statements go, it’s lukewarm — a call to generic action with the stated goal of “engaging our communities to invoke change.” Loose usage of the word invoke aside, it doesn’t promise anything or mention any concrete actions. It is, however, a statement, and the league’s silence to this point spoke volumes. This shouldn’t be the last word on the matter — honestly, it’s too generic to be appropriate as the first word — but hopefully the league’s action, even in such a limited way, presages future further change.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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Psychic... Powerless...
2 years ago

In the wake of the Joe Ricketts email scandal, Tom Ricketts said that his father is not racist. At that moment, he lost all credibility. There is simply no reason to believe anything he says.