Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Marvin Miller. Difference maker

Sadly, Marvin Miller has passed away at the age of 95. Most will remember him as being the driving force behind revolutionary changes in Major League Baseball. Things are a lot different now than they were before Miller arrived on the scene. Some of those changes were long overdue and very much justified, yet in hindsight one is left to wonder if perhaps Miller's original good intentions didn't wind up opening a sort of Pandora's box, from which there appears to be no return. Let's look at some positives and negatives that have came about.

Before the 1960's not only pro baseball, but basketball, football, and hockey were basically caucasian plantations with the owners as the slave-masters. While the owners were raking in the big bucks, the most highly skilled athletes in the world in their various sports were toiling away for chump change. No benefits, no retirement plan, no nothing. Good grief, even the "star" athletes had to supplement their income in the off-season by doing such things as selling used cars -- just to make ends meet for them and their families. That was wrong. It was a fertile ground well deserving of a union seed to be planted and grow. Miller did that. Conversely, these days many pro athletes make more money PER GAME than a lot of "normal" people make over the course of their lifetimes. That's wrong too.

Major league baseball had long held the "reserve clause" over the players. Basically, that meant that even after a player had completed his existing contract, he was still owned by his team for another year. Play for them or don't play at all. Even if they sat out the required year, which the owners knew they couldn't afford to do, no other owner would touch them anyway. Though the term "collusion" wouldn't come about until much later, perhaps that's where it had it's origins. In other words, players didn't even have the right to migrate to other plantations. In hindsight, objective minds would deem that as ludicrous and grossly unfair, but that's the way it was. After years of hard-nosed negotiating, which culminated in a federal court decison, the ridiculous reserve clause was finally struck down.

Miller was behind all that. That cracked the door to "free agency" as we now know it. The down side? Free agency as we now know it. It's out of control. Players have no allegiance to anything these days except the almighty dollar. Hundreds of millions of them. They don't sell used cars in the off-season anymore. Some might very well own a fleet of dealerships serving up luxury models. Something is very wrong with that as well.

In days of yore, there was no such thing as salary arbitration. The owner made an offer and the player had two choices. Take it, or go find another job -- except there aren't any other jobs available in your line of work (insert patronizing sneer and a puff on a big cigar). That was wrong. Finally the slave-masters agreed to a primitive form of arbitration. Both sides could take their cases and plead them to -- the Commissioner of baseball. The Commish was hired by the owners to represent their interests in the first place, so guess which side won those cases? That was wrong too. Marvin Miller was the driving force in getting such salary disputes decided by an impartial arbitrator, which both sides had to approve in the first place. He/she would weigh the arguments of both sides and make a ruling. Few could dispute the fairness of such a procedure.

The down side? That eventually led to hideous creatures rising up from the bowels of hell which terrorize the sports world to this day. I believe the politically correct term for them in modern times is "agents". Sure, the owners always had lawyers and CPAs to look after their money. And yes, it was inherently unfair that their sharks would be talking contract terms with a player, who might have brought his wife or father-in-law along to help represent them, but the pendulum seems to have swung the opposite way somewhere along the line. Now it's the owners getting fleeced. In the end, it's hard to say who's right and who's wrong. Agents can be a despicable bunch but, after all, none of those insane contracts happen unless the owners agree to them. Let's call that one wrong both ways.

Here's what I know. Many moons ago, when I had a job flipping burgers as a high school kid -- with a rattletrap old 1965 Pontiac Tempest as my first car -- I could afford to go to games once in a while. And along with a girl dumb enough to date me -- I did. Lots of them. I saw the Lions when they still played at Tiger Stadium, the Pistons when they played at Cobo Hall, the Red Wings at Olympia, and of course the Detroit Tigers themselves many times. Why? Because even a kid making $1.35 an hour could afford it and it was a good time.

If I REALLY wanted to impress my date, I might even splurge for "box seats" at Tiger Stadium. They were only about 4 bucks a pop, parking was free down the block, and even a couple hot dogs, ice creams, and cokes were manageable on my meager budget. To boot, the players were friendly and would often give autographs and chat with the fans in the box seats before the game. That sometimes had a way of paying dividends with a date later on, but I won't get into that here. Those were all good things.

All that's gone now. No kid will ever know the special atmosphere of Olympia where the Wings played. Nor Cobo Hall watching the Pistons. They now reside in the Palace. The Lions moved to the Silverdome, which now sits vacant, and eventually back to Detroit. Even Tiger stadium is gone, to be replaced by Ford Field, which is right across the street from Comerica Park, where the Tigers currently play.

Guess what? Short of robbing a bank on the way to a game, there's no way a kid flipping burgers at a fast food joint can afford to go to any of it. Further, even if he got away with the bank heist -- which is definitely not recommended -- and was able to get the best seats in the house -- most of the players couldn't cares less about being fan friendly. They're to busy thinking about their next endorsements. And that's just wrong on several levels.

So indeed, may he rest in peace, Marvin Miller was a difference maker and he righted some wrongs.

Yet, in fairness, perhaps in some ways, he was also the original seed that blossomed and ran amok to create the ever-spreading briar patch we currently know as the world of professional sports. Owners still make a ton of money of course, because if nothing else, they're paid billions by the TV people for the rights to broadcast the games. Players have not only been emancipated from slavery, but make obscene salaries, and will gladly endorse seemingly any product, regardless of how ridiculous it is, as long as there's a major cha-ching that goes along with it.

And what are we fans stuck with? Outrageous ticket prices, $6 nasty hot dogs, and $8 a cup for watered down beer. Then you can take them over to the self-serve "condiment" table. If the mustard comes out yellow, the ketchup red, and the relish isn't moving, then you're having a good day. The onions are usually like a Stephen King novel. One never knows what will happen, but they can sometimes wind up being the cause of recurrent nightmares. Ice cream and a souvenir or two for your sweetie? Most people can't afford that, unless they're willing to skip two house payments instead of just one.

These are the demons we sports fans have to currently cope with. Again, to his credit, Marvin Miller accomplished some things that were long overdue.

Yet, yours truly doubts even Miller could have foreseen the possible long term effects of the Pandora's box he dared to pry open. The lid of that box will never be put back in place. But perhaps some year soon somebody will figure out a way to at least put a screen over it, to at least slow down the flow a bit of what's flooding out of it.

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