In October, we learned that Major League Baseball has been working overtime to try to impose an international amateur draft on the youngsters coming over from Latin America and, to a lesser extent, Canada and Europe. Players in the Dominican Republic protested, but that seems to have galvanized the league more than dissuaded it.
Since then, the Commissioner has made it an important part of the negotiations with the MLB Players Association, who have pushed back. That must have been a surprise to the lords of the realm, who are used to the union selling out amateurs and minor leaguers (who are not represented by the union) in favor of their own interests. It has become enough of a sticking point that rumors percolated out last week that the owners might be willing to lock the players out over the issue.
Which, amazingly, has made the players dig in their heels even harder. According to Jeff Passan:
Sources: A significant number of Latin American players are expected at MLB/MLBPA bargaining session today to fight the international draft.— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) November 28, 2016
This, frankly, is a remarkable development. At every turn, players have deferred to the league as they’ve shaved money and freedom from amateur players. The original amateur draft in 1965 was imposed on the players by the league. But the union chose not to fight it after it got up and running. They also allowed MLB to impose caps on what teams could spend on their draftees and on their international signing classes. They let the league impose a signing deadline on draftees and gave teams incentives for not ponying up to amateurs’ demands by letting them have a replacement pick in the following draft.
And Major League Baseball has taken great delight in bullying amateur players. Teams have gleefully ratted out to the NCAA youngsters who have the temerity to think they deserve to be represented by an agent (sorry, “an advisor”) in these initial contract negotiations if those negotiations go south. And they ordered surprise drug tests for Dominican players who protested earlier this month.
But now players who have been through the international signing process are standing up for those who still have to make their ways through it. They’re rightly pointing out how ridiculous it is for the league to fight over what amounts to no more than $5 million per year for the overwhelming majority of teams. They’re saying that their countrymen deserve the right to choose where they play and for how much.
Yes, the international system has flaws. There is corruption, poor education, and, as last week’s disturbing arrest of six Rangers prospects indicates, a troubling lack of oversight. But fixing these problems does not require a draft. It requires a deeper understanding of the Latin American markets than the league has been willing to show. It requires a commitment to addressing those problems head on, and not using them as an end-around so that a multi-billion dollar industry has to pay a few million less per year to develop the talent that sustains it.
So much of these CBA negotiations is posturing that it’s hard to tell exactly what will happen here. The players could be bluffing, and so could the league. Perhaps we’re not as close to the brink as we appear. But if Major League Baseball really is serious that it wants to go to war over its right to impose its will on poor Latino kids, it will deserve any and all the ill-will it generates.