‘It’s not about me’: Scherzer bucks a system that worked for him
By James Wagner
Max Scherzer drives a Porsche.
That shouldn’t be shocking. He’s a very talented and highly compensated professional athlete. Investment bankers, company executives and movie stars drive them, too. And MLB’s billionaire club owners have mansions, jets and lavish artwork.
Throughout his decorated career, Scherzer has signed two free agent contracts worth a combined $340 million. The Lerners, the billionaire owners of the Washington Nationals, and Steven Cohen, the billionaire owner of the New York Mets, gave him those deals. The latter, a three-year, $130 million contract signed with the Mets this offseason, set a baseball record for the highest average annual salary: $43.3 million per year.
Clearly, Scherzer, 37, has benefited from the economic structure in baseball, a model that is negotiated in the collective bargaining agreements between MLB owners and the players union. With Scherzer on the team, the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Nationals and, eventually, the Mets will have paid a luxury tax for large payrolls.
Despite all this, Scherzer is pushing for change in the players’ new labor deal with owners. He and Andrew Miller, a veteran pitcher with an estimated $80 million in career earnings, are among the top player representatives in the union, and certainly the most vocal.
Scherzer was at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, Florida during the nine days of face-to-face negotiations with MLB ahead of the league’s self-imposed deadline of 5 p.m. last Tuesday to begin the 2022 season as scheduled on March 31. He and Miller were both there for the marathon 16 1/2-hour negotiating session that began last Monday and bled into Tuesday.
And after MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred canceled the first two series of the season — more than 75 games — Scherzer attended a news conference in which he explained why this all mattered to him, and why players were willing to wait until they got a labor deal they believed was fair.
“It’s not about me; it’s about everybody else,” he said after the news conference Tuesday. “And I’ve seen what happens to the other guys, and I’m willing to fight for those guys, and willing to sacrifice my salary to make sure that they can make the most that they can.”
The sides have been discussing a new CBA since last spring. When a new deal wasn’t reached before the previous one expired, Manfred locked out the players on Dec. 2, halting the sport and any interactions or transactions involving players. The talks in Florida produced only modest progress, with gaps remaining on several key issues.
When March 31 rolls around and stadiums remain empty, players will begin losing pay and service time. For every day of the regular season that is lost, Scherzer stands to lose an estimated $233,000.
Despite record contracts, like Scherzer’s, the average major-league salary of roughly $4 million has reached a plateau. The average career length is about four years, and salary arbitration — which provides raises — generally starts after a player has accrued three years of service time. According to the union, 60% of players who played in a game in the major leagues last year were paid roughly the league-minimum rate of $570,500.
The latest minimum salary proposal by MLB, which has progressively increased throughout talks, called for it to begin at $700,000 in 2022. The players asked for $725,000 this season, with larger annual increases. The sides have agreed to create a bonus pool for top players who are not yet eligible for arbitration, but they have bickered over the amount ($30 million with no annual increases versus $85 million with $5 million annual increases).
So this, Scherzer said, is beyond a labor dispute between billionaires and millionaires.
“Players in my position understand that there’s players in the minor leagues grinding through that have not made a lot of money in their life,” he said about players in baseball’s lower ranks, who are not represented by the MLB players union, and who are often paid roughly $8,000 to $14,000 per year — and not all receive large signing bonuses, either.
“Getting into the big leagues almost makes them whole when it gets to even the minimum salary,” Scherzer continued. “They’ve been in debt going through the minor leagues, and being able to realize that windfall in the major leagues really makes a difference in their lives and their careers. That’s why, in a $10 billion industry, we veteran players — and I’ve talked to numerous veteran players — we all agree that their compensation for the pre-arbitration player has to go up.”
For the first time since the talks in Florida were called off, negotiators for MLB and the union met on Thursday, for 90 minutes in New York. All the key issues were discussed, but it was unclear when they would meet again or when a new deal would be reached. Every day is costly for both sides — and in the eyes of fans.
“If it was solely within my ability or the ability of the clubs to get an agreement, we’d have an agreement,” Manfred said Tuesday. “The tough thing about this process is it takes both parties to make an agreement. I’m really disappointed that we didn’t make an agreement, and I’m really committed to doing everything possible to get one.”
While owners have listened to the union and offered ways to increase compensation for younger players, they have also proposed some ways to generate more revenue to pay for it, such as expanding the playoffs, and some methods to curb spending elsewhere, such as their luxury tax model, which players say hasn’t kept pace with growing revenues.
“We have a payroll disparity problem, and to weaken the only mechanism in the agreement that’s designed to promote some semblance of competitive balance is just something that I don’t think the club group is prepared to do,” Manfred said.
Bruce Meyer, the union’s lead negotiator, said Tuesday that the differences in the sides’ proposals for those pre-arbitration players was roughly $90 million.
In terms of MLB seeing players’ concerns as a wealth distribution problem — that star players are disproportionately commanding more money than others — Scherzer offered an alternative explanation. He said that, during the negotiations, he looked at a metric that compared the total compensation for players — from the year they enter the major leagues to reaching arbitration — to what is known about league revenues. Historically, those players’ compensation accounts for 3-4% of revenues.
“Given that we’ve seen historic amounts of younger players in the game, and the production they’ve been able to bring to the game, the offer we have on the table represents 5% that we’re trying to allocate,” he said. “Just one more percentage point of league revenues toward those young guys, and we’re being told that’s too much.”