There are no balls, no strikes, no outs, and no innings. We’re in a whole new dead-ball era as Major League Baseball, like the entire sports world, is mired in a dead halt hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic. But that doesn’t mean we can’t talk about the national pastime to try to pass the time, so here’s a three up, three down pack of thoughts:
1. I recently touched base with Hall of Fame manager and former Red Sox vice president/special assistant Tony La Russa, currently sequestered in Arizona. A confidant of deposed Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski, La Russa initially stayed on after Dombrowski was ousted in September, but left in November for a senior adviser role with the Los Angeles Angels, putting him closer to his Northern California home.
La Russa offered heartfelt words and fond memories of his two seasons working for the Sox and principal owner John Henry (the Globe’s owner). However, he wanted to clear the air on one of the murky reasons provided for Dombrowski’s removal — that he was insular and not inclusive, relying on pals La Russa and Frank Wren, former senior vice president/player personnel.
“That was really an inaccurate and unfair portrayal,” said La Russa. "I’ll swear on my children and my animals.
"I was there. I challenged that before I left. I'm telling you, man, 180 degrees the opposite of that, man. He's too inclusive. Frank would say, man, you're too inclusive.
"I know if right now you put a questionnaire out there and people could answer anonymously, there’s no doubt that 98 or 99 percent would say he was really great to work for and totally inclusive.
“I think that what happened at the end was it was really tough to figure out how to move on with the record he had. I think it was as simple as John and [chairman] Tom [Werner] said at some point you want to go in a different direction. They wanted to go with Chaim [Bloom]. It shouldn’t be one or the other.
"Dave did a great job, and they decided to go in a different direction. That’s OK. That’s their right.”
La Russa doesn’t think the 63-year-old Dombrowski, who won three consecutive division titles and a World Series in Boston but saddled the Sox with bad contracts and a pair of velvet luxury-tax handcuffs for 2020, is done building baseball teams.
“Most of the baseball world knows the kind of personality that he has and his style,” La Russa said. “And his style is one of inclusiveness, not exclusiveness. That burned a lot of us that that wasn’t corrected and was repeated.
"At some point, he’ll be back in the game, because he has as much experience and talent as anybody out there. He’s still young and has got tons of energy.”
But La Russa wanted to make it clear he loved his time in the Red Sox organization and holds the people in it in high regard.
"I had two really good years there," said La Russa. "I have people I still communicate with often there. I hope we're playing sometime this year because I was looking forward to seeing them.
“I do think they’re going in the right direction for what they did after Dave. I think they had the right to move on too, and they’re smart. They wanted to go in a different direction. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
2. The Players Association must recognize the fine line between cooperation during a crisis and capitulation before a collective bargaining agreement fight. MLB’s CBA expires following the 2021 season.
In late March, the MLBPA and MLB reached an agreement on coronavirus-related contingencies. The players agreed that if the season were canceled, owners would be on the hook for only $170 million in advance payments out of the estimated $4.5 billion in salaries. The MLBPA also allowed the draft to be trimmed from 40 rounds to as few as five this season and 20 in 2021. Draft bonus-pool figures were frozen at 2019 levels through 2021, and undrafted players’ signing bonuses were capped at $20,000, down from $125,000. The international signing period, set for July, can be delayed to January 2021.
What was once the paragon of pro sports unions ceded this much ground and mortgaged future members primarily in exchange for service-time concessions that ensure that even in a compromised season Mookie Betts will still be a free agent.
It continues a trend of the MLBPA agreeing to short-sighted salary depressants without fully recognizing the long-term effects: a de facto salary cap in the luxury tax; qualifying offers that depress the value and market for free agents; slotting, bonus pools, and overage penalties for paying draft picks, and a spending cap on international free agents.
Owners needed cost certainty on coronavirus salaries, absolutely. But they remain eager to exert greater control on talent costs. They used the cover of a crisis to coax the union into further concessions.
3. People should applaud players such as Texas’s Shin-Soo Choo, who gave $1,000 each to 191 Rangers minor leaguers; Colorado’s Daniel Murphy, who donated $100,000 to two organizations aiding minor leaguers; and St. Louis’s Adam Wainwright, who pledged $250,000 to benefit Cardinals minor leaguers. But what about demanding more of the billionaires who pay those salaries? Fans are quick to point out players’ financial means, but then seem to puzzlingly give even wealthier owners a pass. MLB teams have pledged to pay minor leaguers $400 per week through May, but that’s a substantial pay cut for some.