The case for the reserve clause
Forty years ago this Saturday,
While Flood didn't win the case (the Supreme Court upheld the clause, citing past precedent), his suit set in motion the downfall of the reserve clause system and the rise of free agency. After arbitrator
Miller set up a tiered system under which players were allowed to become free agents after six years in the major leagues. Those who had played for more than three years were allowed to have their contract disputes settled by an independent arbitrator, while players in their first three years would remain completely under team control. It wasn't long before other sports followed baseball's lead and service-based free agency became the norm.
Miller's service-based system was a landmark in sports history, but was it a good one? If we redesigned the system from scratch, would it make sense to replicate it? While Miller's system of compensation is so familiar and intuitive to us today, the rationale behind it is a bit puzzling. In a factory or a plant, a worker's wage that increases with years of service may be appropriate. But does this system make sense in baseball? After all, baseball, unlike a factory, is a workplace in which the value of workers' productivity varies tremendously. Some workers are immensely productive for their employers, while many others are not. Shouldn't this productivity be rewarded, regardless of how long a player has been in the league?
In 2008 the AL MVP was
Certainly Miller righted a major wrong, in that the players were not getting a fair share of the revenues from major league owners. Winning games is extraordinarily important to a team's bottom line, and it's only fair that the players who provide those wins should benefit. But while the Players Association may earn its fair share as a whole, the individual market is still highly unbalanced.
Of course, Miller would argue that players "pay their dues" when they are young, and reap the rewards later in their careers when they become free agents. Still, in a sport fraught with injury and unpredictable performance, this can easily lead to serious inequities. Take, for example, former Cubs phenom
This problem of inequitable salaries could have been avoided had Miller negotiated to make all players free agents, instead of just those with six years of service. (A's owner
No, having all players become free agents isn't the answer at all. Still, the current system doesn't seem like an ideal setup either. So what would be better? Ironically, a return to the reserve clause system could be the best for all parties.
Of course, that will never happen. But there was a lot to like about the old system. For one, big-market clubs were prevented from simply buying all the best players -- without free agency, teams were forced to grow their own players and could keep their core talent together. Two, there was more team continuity from year to year, and star players were far more likely to stay with their clubs for the entirety of the careers -- a big plus for the fans, the owners, and the players (who I suspect would much rather become a local hero for the team they came up with than go from team to team as a hired gun). The big problem with the original reserve clause, of course, was that the players were vastly underpaid. However, baseball could easily solve this problem by agreeing to collectively pay the Players Association a certain percentage of MLB revenues. The NFL and NBA already essentially do this, so there is no reason that it couldn't be done in baseball as well.
However, instead of the complicated system of hard caps, soft caps, salary floors,
The new system of compensation would mean that fans would never have to hear a player whining about his contract. If a player didn't like his salary he would have only his own poor performance to blame. It would also solve the problem of highly inequitable salaries. Players would make a salary in proportion to their production, and no one would ever be vastly underpaid or overpaid. Not only would such a simple system make sense from a public relations standpoint, but it would also give players peace of mind to know that they would be paid fairly. As it stands now, an outstanding young player such as
It also means that a player would never feel the crushing burden of being massively overpaid. Take Lincecum's rotation-mate in San Francisco,
The beauty of the reserve clause system is that it would almost completely take money out of the game. While stat wonks like me may enjoy things like calculating salary-per-win ratios, most fans (and players) would rather focus on the game itself. Any trades that would be made would be made from a baseball standpoint -- no more salary dumps and fire sales. Additionally, there would be no more drama surrounding 11th-hour contract negotiations and signing demands. All players would have to do is show up and play. No more big contract expectations to deal with or money-related distractions -- the focus would return to the field, where it belongs.
Of course, the players would never go for it (and the owners, who would be required to share their revenues by paying into a central salary fund, might not, either). Why? Players lose some choice. They would no longer have the freedom to sign wherever they want. Never mind that all but the elite players have little choice anyway. There are usually only a handful of teams that compete for a given free agent, and often only one best offer presents itself, meaning that even in free agency, the owners, not the players, are really the ones who determine where players end up. Additionally, there are plenty of free agents who might like to stay with their former club but find that their free-agent status actually forces them out. There's little doubt that
To give players some protections and autonomy I would argue for giving veterans a no-trade clause and perhaps a once-in-a-career "mandatory trade" clause, which would allow a player to force a trade to escape an environment that he truly disliked. Given those caveats, I would imagine that many players might actually welcome the return to the reserve clause, as it would simplify the monetary aspect of the game and give them the peace of mind that they would be paid fairly for their performance no matter what stage of their career it comes. Additionally, players would change teams less often, enjoy improved rapport from the fans and never have to worry about a contract again. Not to mention, they could save a bundle on the considerable fees that they currently pay to their agents. With no more contract negotiations, they wouldn't need them!
Still, I don't see the Players Association going for it. Convincing the Yankees to pay into a central salary fund and give up the opportunity to steal away a