The Elephant in the Room

The Elephant in the Room

The great South African cleric and anti-apartheid activist Desmond Tutu once said that “if you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.

“If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality,” he continued.
For the past 12 years, I have been attempting to get justice for retired, pensionless baseball players who clearly don’t appreciate the fact that they have been forsaken by both Major League Baseball (MLB) and the union representing current players, the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA). Through no fault of their own, these men were victimized by a vesting rules change that occurred during the 1980 Memorial Day Weekend.
At the time, retirees such as Orange County, California’s Dick Baney, a pitcher who played for the expansion Seattle Pilots and the Cincinnati Reds, needed to accrue four years of service credit; that was what anyone who played between 1947 – 1979 needed to be eligible for the pension plan.
But during that weekend, the vesting requirement was lowered to one game day to be eligible to buy into the league’s health insurance plan and just 43 game days on an active MLB roster for a pension. As a result, the maximum allowable pension a retired MLB player who is vested can make is currently $230,000.
However, the union failed to request that this sweetheart of a deal be made retroactive for the men like Baney.
Consequently, since April 2011, all Baney and 613 others receive are non-qualified retirement payments based on the following formula: for every 43 game days of service, he gets $625. And not only is that payment before taxes are taken out, but it doesn’t get passed on to a widow, child, or other designated beneficiary.
So when the 74-year-old Baney, who has suffered strokes and has had more than his fair share of orthopedic operations since hanging up his spikes, goes to that great pitcher’s mound in the sky, neither his wife, Brenda nor his two sons will get anything.
Mind you, it took the league and union 31 years just to agree to throw the senior citizens this bone.
Despite having a pension and welfare fund that one post-1980 player recently told me is valued at nearly $4.5 billion, the MLBPA has been loath to divvy up more of the collective pie. Consequently, many of the impacted retirees are filing for bankruptcies at advanced ages, having their homes foreclosed on, and are so poor and sickly they cannot afford adequate health insurance coverage.
The union is clearly the elephant in the room. And the men like Baney are the mice.
This elephant also has a lousy memory. It has forgotten that unions are supposed to take care of the hard-working men and women it represents. And while the MLBPA doesn’t owe retirees what is legally called the duty of fair representation, the union once did represent these men, all of whom paid union dues.
Surely that should count for more than the peanuts they’ve been thrown by this elephant.
 
MLB – which doesn’t have to negotiate about this issue in collective bargaining – is in a position to help all these men if it really wanted to. The league recently announced that its revenue was up 325 percent from 1992 and that it has made $500 million since 2015. What’s more, the average value of each of the 30 clubs is up 19 percent from 2016, to $1.54 billion.
 
And the players? The average player made $4.47 million two seasons ago. The minimum salary goes up to $565,000 this year.
It is anathema to me why the MLBPA doesn’t want to share more of its wealth with these non-vested men. Sure, they don’t have to. But considering that many of these players stood on picket lines, went without paychecks, and frequently endured labor stoppages all so that a Gerritt Cole, Anthony Rendon, and Stephen Strassburg could benefit from free agency and command $950 million in contracts in 2019. I would think they’d want to do more than just throw the mice the little scraps of cheese they’ve been doling out.
 
People have often asked me why I keep at this fight. I could say that it’s because I’m a sucker for David versus Goliath stories, or that I was heavily influenced by two classic books while growing up: Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables and Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote.
But it really just comes down to this: “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustices,” said the late Elie Wiesel. “But there must never be a time when we fail to protest.”
Even if you’re not a baseball fan, now is that time.
A freelance magazine writer, Douglas J. Gladstone is also the author of two books, including “A Bitter Cup of Coffee; How MLB & The Players’ Association Threw 874 Retirees a Curve.”

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