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I am one of those baseball analysts who believes that the continuing existence of salary arbitration has done more to create the disparity between the have and have-not franchises than any other factor in the business, including free agency. Just witness what happened earlier this month when the young two-time Cy Young award-winner Tim Lincecum used the threat of arbitration to gain an increase from his $650,000 salary last year to a two-year deal for over $10 million a year. And though the Tampa Rays potentially great centerfielder B. J. Upton “lost” his arbitration case, settling for “only” $3 million instead of the $3.3 million he wanted, he still received a healthy raise from the $350,000 he made last year.

When salary arbitration was approved as part of the collective bargaining agreement starting with the 1972-73 off-season, it served a useful purpose for both sides. Curt Flood had lost his suit before the Supreme Court in June 1972 and so the frontal threat to baseball’s nearly century-old reserve system had been defeated. Flood had retired, having failed in his brief comeback attempt with the Washington Senators in 1971 and escaped to an island retreat in Majorca off the coast of Spain.

Yet there were plenty of active disgruntled veteran players unhappy with their salaries so the agreement to bring in a neutral arbitrator to decide salary for the upcoming season was welcome to both players, who for decades were told to either take it or leave it or at best get under-the-table payments for something not in the contract, and general managers who were glad to have a neutral third party make the final decision so he could be blamed and not the gm himself.

There would be no splitting the baby in salary arbitration. Each side would have to post a figure that felt realistic and within a day the arbitrator would pick one or the other. In the first years of salary arbitration the differences between players and owners were matters of thousands of dollars or in some cases tens of thousands of dollars.

Meanwhile, the union was looking for other test cases against the perpetual reserve clause. As Flood was unsuccessfully taking his case to the highest court of the land with the Players Association footing the bill, more than a dozen other veterans were “playing out their option,” testing the perpetual one-year renewal clause within the reserve system. Unsigned for the entire 1975 season Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally (who actually retired in mid-season) were ready to test their case in front of grievance arbitrator Peter Seitz on the eve of Thanksgiving 1975. Note well: There are two arbitrators in baseball, salary arbitrators who are called in for cases in February and the permanent grievance arbitrator that has been in the collective bargaining agreement since 1970.

Baseball fans and I think even a good part of the general public know what happened in the Messersmith-McNally case. Peter Seitz virtually pleaded with the owners to merge the issue of the unsigned contract in the two pitchers’ cases into negotiations for the entire collective bargaining contract that was also up for renewal in the fall of 1975. The owners wouldn’t listen to Seitz with the result that every player who hadn’t signed a contract for 1976 could have been a free agent.

Wisely, the Players Association limited free agency to veterans with more than six years of service in the major league. I tell this story as the prologue to my first book THE IMPERFECT DIAMOND: THE STORY OF BASEBALL’S RESERVE SYSTEM AND THE MEN WHO FOUGHT TO CHANGE IT that will be available next month in an updated third edition with the subtitle “A History of Baseball’s Labor Wars.”

The second edition had an added chapter on the 1980s and for the third edition I’ve included a new introduction that tells for the first time the problems I encountered trying to write the memoirs of Marvin Miller. It also contains a long epilogue dealing with the strike of 1994 and its aftermath, including the rise and (I hope) fall of steroids and other performance-enhancing substances.

Maybe it remains true that “baseball is what this country used to be and football is what it has become,” but I have guarded hopes that the ability at last for baseball players and owners and their representatives to get a new labor deal without a strike since 1994 is a good sign for the future.

And now on to pitchers and catchers reporting to spring training, still the greatest phrase in the English language. Here’s hoping for another gripping installment of America’s only repertory theatre, the baseball season with each game potentially a thrilling drama in 18 acts . . . or more!

Ciao for now!
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