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How greed is hurting baseball

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Posted: Friday, March 29, 2013 10:12 am

Major League Baseball’s Opening Day, Sunday, March 31, will feature an ESPN nationally televised game between the Houston Astros and the Texas Rangers. Over the last few years, the season’s opening and closing dates have become earlier and later.

If the 2012 World Series had gone the distance, the San Francisco Giants and the Detroit Tigers would have played into November. Baseball, once April to September, is now March through November. Longer seasons equal more money for owners.

At one time, Opening Day was a highly anticipated date for me, a lifelong fan. Now, the combination of outrageously overpaid but mediocre players and shamelessly greedy owners has completely turned me off. I’ve focused my attention on studying baseball history, a pastime more entertaining and rewarding than the actual game. When I want to see live baseball, I go to the local high school.

When it comes to pumping up their bottom line, Fortune 500 companies are pikers compared to baseball owners. Throughout history, owners have been notoriously stingy with their payrolls. In 1959 for example, the New York Yankees wanted to cut Mickey Mantle’s salary from $72,000 to $60,000. Granted Mantle had a substandard season (for him). But no player put more fans in Yankee Stadium than Mantle who was idolized nationwide.

Until free agency arrived in 1970, players supplemented their modest baseball earnings with off season jobs. Today, they have no need for part-time work. Under the terms of baseball’s latest collective bargaining agreement, players’ starting salary is $480,000; the average salary is $3.2 million, guaranteed with benefits and pension. Players are set for life.

And owners, millionaires to begin with, are even richer because of their baseball investments. The baseball industry is swimming in money; it earned $8 billion last year. In a classic case of the rich getting richer, unimaginable fortunes will soon be added to owners coffers through television’s largess.

Over the next 25 years, Fox will pay the Los Angeles Dodgers between $6 billion and $7 billion to televise its regular-season games. That's twice the previous record for local TV rights, quarter-billion dollars a year which averages out at $1.73 million a game.

For players and owners, then, it’s champagne, chartered personal jets and waterfront housing. But for office personnel the picture is starkly different.

According to ESPNNewYork.com, owners want to eliminate the non-uniformed staffs’ pensions. The consequences of eliminating the pension plan would affect much of the MLB family: the front office(but not upper echelon management who scratch each others’ backs with lucrative long term contracts), trainers, minor league staff and scouts. Some of those personnel, particularly on the minor league level and in amateur scouting, make less than $40,000 a year and rely on their retirement pensions.

Furthermore, pensions are part of the financial commitment an employer makes to a new hire and one of the reasons the employee agrees to the overall salary and benefits package. To renege on the pension after the fact is shameful especially since baseball is thriving.

MLB executive vice president Robert Manfred argues that abolishing the Non-Uniformed Personnel Pension Plan would give owners more flexibility to design their teams’ unique retirement packages. Manfred’s statement may be true on its face. But the revised plans would eliminate certain levels of employees and drastically cut back on benefits for others. Owners win; employees lose---big time.

Dr. Olivia S. Mitchell, executive director of the Pension Research Council at the Wharton School of Business, anticipates that the most likely outcome is that owners would “hard freeze” the plan, thus allowing no new accruals.

The next time you consider laying out $100 for a ticket in the left field bleachers, paying $10 for a flat beer and $35 to park, you might remember that you’re subsidizing an industry that squeezes its most modestly paid employees while they’re raking in fortunes.

Joe Guzzardi is a member of the Society for American Baseball Research and the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America. Contact him at guzzjoe@yahoo.com

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