On good faith

Murray, Ohtani and baseball’s fugitive slave act

The news that the Oakland Athletics have the option of tipping the scales their way in the pursuit of two-sport star Kyler Murray, has shone a spotlight on MLB’s labor policies, and it’s not a pretty picture.

The current collective bargaining agreement between MLB and its players union deals a huge blow to the ability of amateur athletes to get market value for their services.

These rules limited Murray to a minor league contract and a fixed limit on the size of his signing bonus based on his draft slot — he was taken ninth overall. Unfortunately, Murray’s ascension as a pro football prospect have given him leverage he didn’t have when he agreed to the A’s deal.

Because both parties negotiated their original deal in good faith, the A’s are within their rights to put more money on the table.

Let’s talk about good faith for a second.

Shohei Ohtani, who was not an amateur like Murray, but an established professional and former MVP in Japan’s Pacific League, the world’s third-best after MLB’s two circuits, was told, “Sorry. But our rules say you’re an amateur.”

They might have added, “That’s because we can write our rules to say you’re an amateur. We have to do that because our owners are otherwise too irresponsible–they can’t help themselves from paying market value for amateur players and thus need to be coerced into exploiting our monopoly and depriving you of your rights. Got it?”

So instead of maybe $150 million as a 22-year-old when teams were allowed to exceed spending limits on international professional “amateurs” or waiting until 2020 and becoming a 25-year-old free agent — in MLB’s eyes — Ohtani signed a standard minor league contract with a signing bonus of around $3.5 million.

It’s too bad Ohtani wasn’t a football player. He could have had his agent enter him in the NFL draft, and then he would have been eligible to renegotiate, or perhaps not. MLB takes a harsh view of teams trying to woo players by making up the difference between their real market value and MLB’s soviet-style planned economy price.

Of course, Ohtani could have said — after signing — that he wanted to go home to play in Japan. That he got homesick. It happens. People understand. Perhaps the Angels and MLB would understand that $150 million would make him less homesick, perhaps not.

Ohtani, however, couldn’t threaten to return to NPB, because his old outfit has signed on to baseball’s version of America’s Fugitive Slave Act, which says no NPB team could then hire him — effectively putting him out of work. Take our rules or go wash dishes.

This wouldn’t be a problem if baseball adopted a more liberal system. You sign a player for as many years as you want to commit to him and pay him what you have to. When that period expires he’s free to go. If he wants to leave in the meantime, you can name your price or refuse. It’s essentially a free market. Unfortunately, professional baseball is ideologically opposed to free markets in any shape or form — except in its belief that its less-skilled employees such as minor leaguers and entry-level staff be paid as little as possible.

So the A’s and Murray, like the Angels and Ohtani, were all dealing in good faith. But when will MLB start doing that?

Jim Allen

sports editor for a wire service in Tokyo

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