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It’s Time for the Players to Write Themselves Back Into the Lockout Story

Major leaguers can’t stay silent while the league tries to erase them.

Visitors to Major League Baseball media properties in the last week have noticed a distinct lack of Major League Baseball players. Since the league locked out the players when the collective bargaining agreement expired at 11:59 p.m. on Dec. 1, team websites yanked down articles about current players and scrubbed their headshots from rosters. The league’s television network reruns Field of Dreams. Its Instagram has posted only about the Hall of Fame, its TikTok only about celebrity first pitches.

The league says it is following advice from attorneys about not running afoul of labor law; the players’ association says it does not know which law that would be. Whether this is about avoiding a grievance or sending a message, the fact remains that the league has erased the players. The players should write themselves back into the story.

Oct 20, 2021; Los Angeles, California, USA; Atlanta Braves starting pitcher Jesse Chavez (60) pitches in the first inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers during game four of the 2021 NLCS at Dodger Stadium.

Because free-agent reliever Chavez, a 14-year veteran who just won the World Series, cannot rely on a steady income, his wife, Crystal, works as a longshoreman.

The union has not imposed a gag order; Cubs outfielder Ian Happ recently did a segment on MLB Network Radio, and free-agent reliever Andrew Miller appeared on a podcast for The Athletic. (Sirius XM, not MLB, owns MLB Network Radio.) But the union should go further than that: It should schedule daily Zooms in which players explain to fans, through reporters, why they believe the game’s economy is broken.

The league possesses almost every advantage. There are only 30 owners, as opposed to 1,200 players, making them easier to wrangle. Owners can afford to think long-term, because their careers can last decades; as of 2019, players averaged 3.71 years in the majors, according to The Score. (That figure is down from 4.79 in ’03.) Owners won huge victories in the last two CBAs, meaning they are mostly happy with the status quo, while players are trying to claw back some of what they bargained away. And, from a public-relations standpoint, fans don’t truly grasp the difference between the owners' wealth and that of the players.

Fans and media often frame baseball’s labor battles as being waged between millionaires and billionaires. To an extent, that’s true: All 30 teams are valued at more than a billion dollars, and most of the players who lead the union have amassed generational wealth. (A union spokesman declined to provide a list of the 30 team representatives, but the least-compensated player on the union’s eight-man executive subcommittee, Astros catcher Jason Castro, has made some $48 million in his career.)

But, as The Score pointed out in a thorough piece on the game’s economics, most major leaguers will never see that kind of money. The league minimum in 2021 was $570,555. In ’19, 63.2% of players had fewer than three years of service time. That cohort, mostly making the league minimum, combined for 9.8% of player pay. (NHL league minimum is $750,000, and 23% of players make within 10% of that; in the NBA, where it’s $925,000, that figure is 3%.) Most of them have no skills or training outside of baseball. Half a million dollars a year is pretty good, but three seasons of that won’t sustain you for the rest of your life.

Players chafe at the idea that they are out-of-touch rich guys haggling over the difference between $450 million and $500 million. But why would fans think differently when they hear only about the outliers?

Tigers righty Michael Fulmer should talk about being a plumber in the offseason. Free-agent reliever Jesse Chavez, who just won the World Series, should describe how his wife, Crystal, works as a longshoreman so that one of them can have a steady income. And the countless players who took out loans to support their families when last season was shortened—fans should hear from them.

Tigers righthander Michael Fulmer works as a plumber during the offseason.

Fulmer, who won the 2016 Rookie of the Year, works as a plumber during the offseason.

Maybe it’s not fair to ask a bunch of guys making the league minimum to publicize their budgets. But because they have so little to offer at the bargaining table, their best hope for success in negotiations comes from putting pressure on the owners. They can do that by engaging fans at a time when the league is expressly doing the opposite.

When first replaced players’ faces with generic silhouettes, many players responded by changing their Twitter profile pictures to those silhouettes. It was a clever gesture. But now they should try the opposite: Instead of disappearing, they should speak up.

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Lingering Questions As MLB Lockout Puts Game on Hold