Baseball’s Extreme Makeover: International Edition

When Major League Baseball’s Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) expires in December of 2011, owners and players once again will be embroiled in a labor dispute.  This is nothing new to a sport that has suffered eight work stoppages since 1972, the most recent coming in 1994 when baseball cancelled its World Series.

Baseball’s current CBA is not unlike traditional CBA’s, as it is a voluntary negotiation between an employer (the “owners”) and a trade union (the “players”) in an effort to regulate working conditions.  This includes procedures governing grievances, how wages are regulated, and employees’ freedom to contract.  The Major League Baseball Player’s Association (“MLBPA”) is a notoriously resilient union, among the strongest in the United States.

Among the plethora of pertinent issues facing the two sides in the upcoming negotiation is the call for an international (global) draft.  Currently baseball employs a First Year Player Draft (Rule 4 Draft), which encompasses players who are residents of either Canada or the United States (including U.S. territories, i.e., Puerto Rico) who have never signed a contract.  The rest of the world is available to the highest bidder.  This includes the talent rich region of Latin American, the competitive professional leagues in the Asian corridor and baseball’s newest hotbed in the Netherlands.

Critics of the current structure argue two major flaws exist: it is unfair to North American players (who have little freedom of contract) and it rewards teams in major markets with deep pockets.  The principle of the freedom to contract is as American as apple pie and well, baseball.  Currently, when a player is drafted, his rights are retained until the subsequent draft.  On the other side of the hemisphere (in either direction), players are free to negotiate with any of baseball’s 30 teams beginning as early as age 17.

The real focus of critics’ venom is the competitive imbalance this creates.  Baseball, unlike the other major American professional sports, does not employ a salary cap (baseball’s luxury tax has proven ineffective in curbing excessive spending).  Typically, but not always, the best players sign with the team offering the most money.  Not surprisingly, the teams with the most money to spend are those in markets such as New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Los Angeles.

To institute an international draft, baseball must address the issue of global compliance.  Is Venezuela, a strong conduit of talent in recent years, going to allow American baseball to dictate policy for their homegrown talent?  Would they adhere to the strict policies regarding age eligibility (and verification)?  Another consideration is what impact stripping foreign players of their free market advantage would have on players migrating from other strong, lucrative professional leagues.

The National Basketball Association is currently dealing with this dilemma.  Countries such as Turkey and Greece (pre-economic fallout) have deep pockets that provide an opportunity to avoid the “one and done” college rule and age eligibility requirement (players must be 19 and a year removed from high school).  Why go to college when you can play against professional competition and make a lot of money doing it (see Brandon Jennings)?

For baseball, the question is whether an international draft is an issue large enough to force a lockout.  That answer is likely to come within the next 13 months. For now, we get the opportunity to enjoy a World Series featuring teams with the 10th and 27th highest payrolls in the game.  Note: to get there they beat teams with the highest (New York Yankees) and 4th highest (Philadelphia Phillies) payrolls in the game.

5 comments

  1. While a worldwide draft may help to solve the problems that currently exist, any type of regulatory third-party body would help to give some reprieve to foreign players. The current exploitation of recruiting in foreign countries (especially Latin American countries) is appalling. Until a few years ago, contracts did not have to be translated into Spanish nor properly explained to the (oftentimes uneducated or illiterate) teenage player and family. The age requirements are often overlooked and children are being recruited by teams to the extent that some have called it a violation of human rights. Additionally, while Latin American countries may have near human rights violations, other countries have astronomical fees. For a US team to speak with a professional Japanese player, one team payed $50 million and then payed another $50 million in his salary. Should MLB treat talent-rich countries with such a disparity? I think this issue is go big that it needs to be addressed immediately by the organization, not necessarily the union that could threaten to strike and limit the amount of reform needed to have an equal playing field in every country.

  2. I think an interesting take on any legal issues associated with sports should stem on this question: What about fun? Although not a technical question, it makes one think about what has happened to a national pastime such as baseball. Perhaps from a more sociological standpoint, what messages are sent to the public when players’ associations and owners cannot come together to figure out how many millions are rightfully deserved by players to engage in sports. Furthermore, while professional sports teams are fighting over the difference between 10 million dollars and 12 million dollars, think about the average American who is struggling to get healthcare benefits paid by their employer. It has to make you think about where professional sports have come from and where they sit today in the minds of the millions who watch them.

  3. The other thing that is American as apple pie and baseball is heart. The one thing money can’t buy. I think the recent World Series teams show that having a bag of money and restrictive labor agreements may mean nothing. It isn’t the game of inches that football is, and the prolonged multi-game series should favor those teams with the most toys, but I think the last season shows that playing as a team, no matter how much you make, is the best labor condition around.

  4. The thought of having an international draft is a topic the commissioner (Bud Selig) does not look forward to working through. It would require Major League Baseball to set up business infrastructure in all of these territories that is much larger than what they presently have. Also, there are a number of questions that would remain, such as:

    – Would players with 10+ years experience that are eligible to leave the Japanese league be required to enter the MLB draft?
    – If a player has any other professional experience as a ball player would they be allowed to enter as a free agent?
    – Would the draft rules for current US players remain the same? Would a team have indefinite draft rights, unlike the current system?
    – Would instituting a draft cause teams to pull the funding from their developmental programs in Latin/Central America since there is no guarantee they will be able to sign that player?
    – Would instituting a draft lead MLB to lose their anti-trust exemption? The rationale was that baseball games were local affairs, not interstate commerce. Placing eligibility restrictions on foreign players could spark changes that could snowball into something much bigger than anyone expected. Would Congress (the only party who can revoke the exemption) change their tune after such a dramatic change that is so restrictive to some and liberating to others.

    Those just some of the hundreds of questions that need to be answered before the new CBA is agreed upon.

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