A couple of weeks ago I responded to this piece on Marvin Miller’s legacy published at The Economist, and last Thursday the author, Dan Rosenheck, responded in the comment section of my post. I meant to get to this last Friday, but since I didn’t and since the response is somewhat lengthy, I figured I’d devote a new post to answering Mr. Rosenheck’s counterpoints. Those points are bulleted, so I’ll respond in turn:
You argue that a system of perpetual one-year deals would have reduced overall compensation. This is counterfactual, so there’s no way to prove it one way or the other. I know Miller thought this, but I’m not convinced that it’s true. On one hand, you wouldn’t have 7-year albatross deals. On the other, however, if teams didn’t have to worry about paying for decline years, peak Pujols or A-Rod might have been able to sign for $40 million or more a season.
I suppose it’s true enough that you can’t “prove” a counterfactual, but I would just note that for my assumption to be incorrect we have to completely suspend the law of supply and demand. This is true even for the elite players in the game, since every elite player, plus all of the various 5-6 win players, would be free agents all at the same time, every single year, with the impetus being on the players to accept the jobs/money before it goes to someone else. So the notion that player salaries wouldn’t be lower under this system is certainly possible, but such a reality would turn just about every economic principle in the textbook on its head.
Baseball’s current economic system was hammered out in negotiations between Miller and the owners following the Seitz decision. Again, there’s no way to know what the owners would and wouldn’t have been willing to accept. Miller could have made concessions in any number of other areas in order to secure a better deal for young players. Or he could have called a strike (earlier than 1981) to strengthen the players’ hand. I’m perfectly aware that negotiations entail tradeoffs, and that the nefarious owners were viscerally opposed to granting the players any rights whatsoever. I just don’t happen to think that Miller made the optimal tradeoffs.
Wait, weren’t we just hung up on how you can’t prove counterfactuals? Because, sure, perhaps the union could have made different decisions in negotiations and gotten different deals, and maybe those deals would have been better. Or maybe the players got everything they could out of owners, and the latter was never going to concede eliminating the reserve clause. Even putting aside our own assumptions here, I think the reasonable thing to do here is to defer to the judgment of the guy who was actually involved in the negotiations, and had much more experience when it came to negotiating with MLB than those of us on the outside.
.In a “true” free market system, teams most certainly would have an incentive to invest in player development—if you sign a player out of high school or college to a $30 million contract, you better damn well do everything you can to make sure you turn him into a good major leaguer.
Except for the obvious fact that no one would get those big signing bonuses under a system of annual free agency, as there would be no value for teams in acquiring and training amateur players. Large market teams would have no need to invest in lottery tickets, as they could easily assemble their rosters through free agency every winter, while small market teams would have nothing to gain by investing in player development only to see the end product snatched up by the big market teams after a year or two.
Yes, the draft is good for competitive balance, but at a huge cost to draftees. As I’ve argued elsewhere, an expanded revenue sharing system based on market size would be an even better means of leveling the playing field among clubs, without the pernicious side effects on the game’s most economically vulnerable players.
I’m not actually a fan of the draft, at least for MLB, so I don’t really feel like defending it. I would just note, however, that the draft existed before the MLBPA came along to collectively bargain with the owners, and that fans have become accustomed to drafts as a means of allocating incoming amateurs. So I think it’s safe to say that the MLBPA attacking the draft itself is a pretty low margin endeavor, and it’s hard not to see why they don’t make an attempt at it.
I agree that MLB players would not have been willing to strike on behalf of their minor league counterparts. But I’m not at all sure that such a drastic step would have been required to improve their lot. Minor leaguers are *so* cheap that even doubling all their salaries would barely register on a major league team’s balance sheet. There are plenty of things Miller could have offered the owners in exchange for a big improvement in conditions for minor leaguers.
1. Read Lords of the Realm.
2. That these things would represent such a relatively low cost almost refutes Rosenheck’s point itself. After all, if the owners were likely to be amenable to it, and it would presumably be of benefit to the player development/talent acquisition aims of the franchises, why don’t owners just unilaterally improve conditions/pay in the minors?
3. I still have no idea how this call for hardline radicalism on Miller’s part squares with your criticism of his negotiating stance on drug testing.
“Smearing” Miller is a bit strong. I agree completely that Miller “did more than anyone to enrich and empower professional baseball players,” and think his exclusion from the Hall of Fame is a travesty. The entire first paragraph of the piece rehashes why he deserves much of the praise he has received—he single-handedly ended athletic pseudo-slavery, and every professional athlete today owes him a debt of gratitude for that landmark achievement. But just because he got the single biggest thing (free agency) right doesn’t mean that he didn’t make other mistakes along the way. And given how he was being canonized in most of the sports media, I thought an article highlighting his errors would be a useful corrective.
As far as I can tell, this entire paragraph literally says nothing other than “Miller wsa awesome, but probably not perfect.” Which, I guess, is a useful corrective to the roughly zero people who have called Miller perfect.