The deepening cold war between Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association has touched on topics ranging from shoes to minor league pay to free agency. What it hasn’t garnered as much attention are player benefits, such as pensions and healthcare.
There’s a popular misconception that any professional baseball player who spends even one day on a major league roster will receive free health care for life. In reality, that’s not true. Instead, what one day of service gives you is the right to buy into a healthcare plan, which isn’t really the same as free, comprehensive coverage. A player’s eligibility for health and pension benefits is tiered, and depends on how much time the player spent on a major league roster, how much service time he accrued, and can even be a matter of which years he played, as different benefits are available to different eras of players. Different plans carry different co-pays and have varying coverage maximums.
In other words, this isn’t that dissimilar from any other employer-based health insurance system. But playing baseball isn’t like other employment, and that can lead to trouble for former players.
Patty Hilton is a real baseball widow–her late husband, Dave, died in September 2017. An infielder for the San Diego Padres, he also served as first base coach for the Milwaukee Brewers.
At a time when a vested retiree can earn up to $220,000, and when the average Major League Baseball (MLB) salary is $4.52 million, Patty Hilton doesn’t receive a plug nickel from MLB.
Because of the archaic rules the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) — the union representing current players — agreed to, when Hilton coached, only four baseball coaches on an MLB team were permitted to accrue service credit.
Hilton was also one of the 641 retirees who didn’t receive an MLB pension as a player because of vesting requirement changes that occurred in 1980. At the time, the threshold was four years to be vested, but the union was offered the opportunity to give its members the following deal: one game day of service credit to buy into the league’s umbrella health insurance plan, and 43 game days of service for a pension.
The MLBPA just forgot to request retroactive coverage for all the men like Hilton.
In fact, in years past, the league and union have sought to have the federal government subsidize player benefits, with repeated attempts to pass the “Create Jobs & Save Benefits Act.” That bill, which would have required taxpayers to assume the Plan’s liabilities, failed each time. More recently, plan benefits have been better. But even in the last CBA, while some coverages increased, others were actually reduced.
For high-end and mid-tier players who bank millions of dollars during their careers, that’s not really a problem. For bubble players – the up-and-down guys like backup catchers and swingmen and utility infielders – and their families, the difference can have dire consequences.
Take Micah Bowie. The southpaw tossed 156 big league innings between 1999 and 2008, often missing bats at an elite level in the upper minors but never quite replicating that form in The Show. And even though he saw the big leagues in parts of six seasons, he accrued in total less than four years of big league service time. That didn’t stop him from getting hurt. Back in 2010, after he retired, Bowie opened up to Richard Oliver about his career and his new Bowie Baseball Academy.
“I’ve gone through most every injury that you can go through as a pitcher,” said Bowie, 35. “I know how to find out how to fix it, and how to come back and pitch on the major-league level. I want to take those things that guarantee you take the hurt away.”
Pitching is an unnatural activity. Eno Sarris said it best back is 2012: “Every pitch is bad for you.” How bad? This bad. And research suggests that Eno was right: the more you pitch, the more likely you are to get injured. Of course, not all injuries are created equal. When we think of pitchers, we often think of arm and shoulder ailments, but hurlers suffer from a myriad of other injuries. And as it turned out, Bowie’s journey through injuries and pain was just beginning. During his career, Bowie suffered a back injury that eventually began causing him chronic pain, as he told Forbes’ Ryan Davis.
“I actually started to have back issues very early, probably back in ’94 or ’95 with the Braves,” said Bowie. “You get muscle relaxers, you get treatment. I really worked on my core. Over the years, there was a ton of weight-lifting involved to keep up. The back thing just got worse and worse throughout.”
Eventually, Bowie was faced with a choice: spinal fusion, or the implantation of a spinal-cord stimulator. He chose the latter, and that’s when things took an almost deadly turn. From the Washington Post’s Dave Sheinin:
Not long after [the surgery], he says, the small generator implanted in his abdomen to power the stimulator detached and migrated, wreaking havoc on Bowie’s insides. His diaphragm, the sheet of muscle that contracts to draw air into the lungs, was punctured, causing a cascade of maladies.
“It left a scar through my right lung,” he says, “and my intestines went through my left lung.”
He had one surgery to remove the scar tissue from his left lung, another to repair the right lung and another to reattach his diaphragm. But even then, he needed three liters of oxygen per minute to aid his breathing.
Bowie is now largely unable to walk, let alone work.
The resulting damage within Bowie’s body was catastrophic. He now has use of just eight percent of his lungs, which requires him to be on oxygen. He’s unable to go up and down stairs in his home, much less exercise, and treatment has turned into a full-time job of its own. That has been extremely hard on his family, both mentally and financially. Bowie estimates that his medical treatment now costs them around $25,000-30,000 per year.
Bowie was 20 days shy of accumulating four years of service time on a major league roster. The problem is that to apply for disability or full health benefits under the plan for major league players, Bowie needed four full years of major league service time. And so, in 2017, Bowie’s application for disability benefits was denied. Then his appeal was denied again a year later. The disability benefits would have paid Bowie, at most, $6,000 per month.
“I was told they didn’t even look at it. The lawyer said they could deny it, and so they denied it,” said Bowie. “They didn’t even look at it. That’s one of the reasons I’ve spoken up. That’s my life they were holding in their hands, about 2,000 pages of stuff I sent them. And they told me to stop sending them stuff, that if they needed anything they’d tell me. That was my life, and my future right there.”
A spokesman for the union declined my request for comment on Bowie’s situation, citing privacy considerations. Bowie has stayed involved in baseball, most recently as part of a tribute to the 2002 Athletics’ pitching staff.
Now, if the rules say Bowie doesn’t qualify, then he doesn’t. The problem is less that the MLBPA mishandled Bowie’s situation, and more that the union negotiated and agreed to a collective bargaining agreement that allows for this kind of situation to occur. (It also underscores a potentially serious consequence of service time manipulation – there isn’t evidence that that fate is what befell Bowie, but his case also shows how every day can count.) The MLBPA has consistently negotiated benefits and pension plans that leave large groups of players out of benefit eligibility. The latest example of this, I’d argue, is excluding from eligibility players who were injured or disabled as a result of their baseball careers, but who didn’t spend enough time in the major leagues to have those injuries and disabilities covered.
The Plan itself is solvent enough to make this modest expansion. According to some reports, MLB’s Benefit Plan has $2.7 billion available for distribution to eligible recipients.
During the period April, 2015 through March, 2016, the Plan was funded by $211 million in contributions. During the same period, the Plan had income of $195 million. Net appreciation in the fair value of investments was $145 million. Benefit payments to members, their dependents and beneficiaries totaled $246 million.
It’s also not as though team contributions to the benefit plan are lackluster. In the 2007 CBA, teams’ collective contributions to player benefit plans averaged $154 million annually; in the 2016 CBA, that number increased to $200 million per year.
There appears to be enough money to pay to players in Bowie’s situation. Bowie, for instance, is asking for 0.0003% of the Plan’s annual contributions to be paid as his annual disability. Pushing for increased benefit eligibility for those injured or disabled in the course of their careers wouldn’t tax the Benefits Plan past its means, and it wouldn’t require a significant additional outlay by teams. But it would be a way for the union to make sure that its past members receive the care they need after a career spent punishing their bodies. And at the end of the day, protecting their most vulnerable members is supposed to be one reason why unions exist.
Sheryl Ring is a litigation attorney and General Counsel at Open Communities, a non-profit legal aid agency in the Chicago suburbs. You can reach her on twitter at @Ring_Sheryl. The opinions expressed here are solely the author's. This post is intended for informational purposes only and is not intended as legal advice.