By CATHAL KELLY
Saturday, March 10, 2018
TORONTO -- With three weeks left until the start of the baseball season, we have reached the "toothless threats" stage of contract negotiation.
Like a lot of veteran players who believe they deserve better, former Blue Jay Jose Bautista is still without a job.
On the pro side for hiring Bautista: People know his name.
On the con: He's old, hitting at the Mendoza line and fields his position so poorly you'd be better off putting a tackling dummy out in right.
Teams are not exactly lining up.
Bautista's thrown out several lures this off-season in the hopes of ginning up his market. Along with the usual "best shape of my life" talk, his agent has claimed that Bautista spent last season blind as a bat and has since taken steps to correct his vision.
This was news to the Toronto organization, which does routine eye tests on its players and hadn't noticed a problem. At that point, it was beginning to sound a bit desperate.
It grew more so on Thursday when a U.S.-based media proxy dropped word that Bautista was so insulted by the offers he'd received - something in the region of US$1-million for one year - he was considering retiring.
That gave Bautista the opportunity to phone up a different baseball reporter to deny that report. The resulting article could have been headlined, "Jose Bautista's Job Application." According to him, it's not about the money (i.e. it's all about the money).
In the recent past, refuting rumours you had probably started yourself would have been a decent media tactic. It would have got fans worked up and created some buzz.
This was predicated on the assumption that baseball players with a big enough brand find the job they want, on terms they dictate. A further assumption was that salaries would escalate exponentially, and forever.
Jose Bautista made (rather than earned) US$18-million last year. It's hardly enough to keep a decent-sized yacht in the water.
But one million? What monster would expect our spandexed heroes to live on the combined annual salaries of an entire grade school's worth of teachers? It's ghastly. That's the thinking, at least. It's going out of fashion as baseball embraces austerity.
Having been trained to be some of the most entitled humans on the planet, the players are collectively outraged at the idea that their nine-figure deals might dip into (sniff) hockey territory.
There was a lot of tough talk about fighting back. Agents were running hither and yon trying to foment a workers' revolt. Someone suggested boycotting spring training. Los Angeles Dodgers reliever Kenley Jansen mooted the idea of going on strike.
Out in the public square, the reaction was crickets.
Toronto starter Marcus Stroman wandered into the struggle through a side door, complaining that the Blue Jays hurt his feelings while he bickered over a $400,000 difference in arbitration bids.
In Stroman's mind, this was about common decency. In everyone else's, it was about a guy who makes US$6.5-million whining that he doesn't get a Maserati more.
Sensing that dropping to the ground in baseball's grocery aisle and throwing a fit was no longer going to get him what he wanted, Stroman walked it all back. Now he loves the Blue Jays! Wants to sign a long-term deal! Doesn't even care about money! The world is in a revolutionary moment. The peasants are running amok.
So it's a poor moment to be seen complaining that, while you are rich, you are not quite as rich as you would like. Even someone as tone-deaf as Stroman is starting to figure that out.
If so, he's ahead of a large swath of his peers who'd like to make this an Us vs. Them. The team owners are the villains in that scenario. That's easy enough to do.
But in order to elicit broad sympathy, there must also be a victim. And who would that be exactly?
Is it the Bautistas of the world - players who've already earned the GDP of Tonga, are in line at the processing wing of the glue factory, but can't understand why someone won't give them another 10 or 20 million, you know, just because?
That seems to be the angle they're trying - sad stories about multimillionaires being robbed of the opportunity to work in their pyjamas for as long as they want. ESPN just ran a huge one on 44-year-old Ichiro Suzuki. You came out the other end of it thinking, "When is enough enough?" The players union wants to make this a story about collusion.
How about we apply Occam's razor instead? Maybe owners have independently decided that, just for instance, giving a factory-second widget like Jacoby Ellsbury a US$150-million contract is no longer a smart way to do business.
If so, that's not the beginning of collusion. It's the end of mass hysteria.
The owners haven't said much in all of this because they know they don't have to. This isn't about the intricacies of U.S.
employment law. This is a class war without heroes. There are no good guys, only winners and losers. The players are too dim to realize they've already lost. They're only busy making it worse.
Fans have always enjoyed the financial superlatives of sport.
They love seeing a guy break the US$100-million or US$200-million barrier. It's a vicarious aspirationalism - "If he can do it, maybe anyone can." Given the proper genetic makeup and a lot of luck, anyone really can. People like that idea.
But the players have confused that enthusiasm for their good fortune with a general societal agreement that this one segment of the workforce deserves to be fantastically rich.
Unless you're the dependent of a baseball player, no one thinks that.
Once they start complaining about what they've got, public goodwill flips over to resentment. That's where baseball players and their golden-goblet socialism - "All of Us [One-PerCenters] Are Equal" - are headed in a hurry.
Right now, no one cares about their problems. Both players and owners should worry what happens once they start.
It's a bad time for anachronistic institutions in the United States, ones associated with cultural elitism and/or various sides of the red/blue divide. Were I one of them - like, say, baseball - I'd try to be very quiet right now.
Jose Bautista, seen here during Game 5 of the ALCS on Oct. 19, 2016, in Toronto. There were reports that Bautsita, who is a free agent, is unhappy about the contract offers he has been receiving and is considering retirement. Bautista refuted the claims.
COLE BURSTON/ THE GLOBE AND MAIL