Cubs

How the Cubs became unwilling symbols in union's fight against MLB owners

How the Cubs became unwilling symbols in union's fight against MLB owners

The Cubs found themselves Thursday at the center of rising tensions in the fight between owners and the players union over terms to play an abbreviated 2020 season during the coronavirus crisis — held up as a symbol of mistrust by the game’s most powerful agent.

In an email to clients obtained by the Associated Press, agent Scott Boras urges players to stand firm on the prorated-salary agreement with MLB struck in March and reminded them of record industry revenues and team valuations that were not reflected in salaries in recent years.

Boras used the heavily-leveraged Ricketts family purchase of the Cubs in 2009 and the family’s subsequent investment in Wrigley Field renovations that he also tied to debt financing in AP’s reporting of the email, which was confirmed by NBC Sports Chicago.

“Throughout this process, they will be able to claim that they never had any profits because those profits went to pay off their loans,” Boras wrote in the email. “However, the end result is that the Ricketts[es] will own improved assets that significantly increases the value of the Cubs — value that is not shared with the players.”

Recipients of the email were asked to “please share this concept with your teammates and fellow players when MLB request[s] further concessions or deferral of salaries.”

A Ricketts representative pushed back on Boras’ claim.

“The Ricketts family invested $750 million to save iconic Wrigley Field for fans today and for future generations. At every level they’ve built the best player facilities in the game,” Dennis Culloton said. “In 2019, the Cubs had one of the top baseball payrolls in the game. The fact of the matter is 70 percent of the team’s revenues which support the baseball operations come from having fans at the ballpark.

“Nevertheless, we thank Mr. Boras for weighing in.”

The Cubs were one of three teams to exceed MLB’s luxury tax threshold last year and carried a projected payroll into 2020 assured of exceeding it again, barring in-season trades of significant contract obligations.

Boras has talked publicly often in the past decade about the industry issues he raised in the email, including in relation to the Cubs.

It’s also not the first time the Cubs have been at the center of controversial issues during that time. Primarily as a response to new CBA restrictions on amateur signings and to the team’s heavy debt-management costs, the Cubs helped provide the modern-day tanking blueprint now widely in use — the first big-revenue team in the free agency era to use tanking to rebuild.

In this case, the Cubs example raised by Boras comes only two days after Tom Ricketts’ interview with CNBC in which the Cubs chairman suggests the club will make only 20 percent of normal revenue in a “best-case scenario” if an abbreviated season is played.

MORE: Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts: 'We’d definitely like to see baseball back'

Ricketts also estimated team losses include a 70-percent share of total revenues tied solely to stadium attendance.

Some have disputed his numbers — although few dispute the perfect-storm nature of this crisis as it relates to a big-market franchise that expected to start seeing a return on its sizable investment in a new TV network with a 2020 launch.

But owners, who have enjoyed a federal antitrust exemption for more than 100 years, never have opened their financial books to the union and as recently as 2016 and 2017 sold off its BAMTech streaming enterprise to Disney for more than $2 billion — resulting in $50 million payouts to each owner in 2017.

Counterintuitively, the next two free agent winters were the slowest since the collusion winters of the 1980s. And the average major-league salary dropped in consecutive seasons (2017-18) for the first time since the union began tracking salaries more than 50 years ago.

On Tuesday the owners proposed a sliding-scale formula for deeper salary cuts to play roughly half of a normal season — a proposal the union called “extremely disappointing.”

By Thursday the union still had not settled on what it might include in any potential counterproposal, much less when it might present one.

“Remember, games cannot be played without you,” Boras wrote in the email to clients. “Players should not agree to further pay cuts to bail out the owners. Let owners take some of their revenues and profits from the past several years and pay you the prorated salaries you agreed to accept or let them borrow against the asset values they created from the use of those profits players generated.”

On the issue of industry debt that could be impacting the kind of liquidity that might otherwise help owners withstand the crisis, Boras added:

“Make no mistake, owners have chosen to take on these loans because, in normal times, it is a smart financial decision. But these unnecessary choices have now put them in a challenging spot. Players should stand strong because players are not the ones who advised owners to borrow money to purchase their franchises, and players are not the ones who have benefitted from the recent record revenues and profits.”

One report Thursday suggested at least some owners would rather not play this season for fear of losing more money by playing an abbreviated season than not.

Ricketts does not appear to be in that group, saying during that CNBC interview the Cubs “definitely” want to get back on the field this year.

Part of the union’s position on sticking to the prorated-salary agreement from March involves owners’ continued unwillingness to provide enough financial documentation to support their claims of projected losses.

Said Nationals pitcher Max Scherzer, a member of the union’s executive board and a Boras client, in a tweet Wednesday night:

“After discussing the latest developments with the rest of the players there’s no reason to engage with MLB in any further compensation reductions. We have previously negotiated a pay cut in the version of prorated salaries, and there’s no justification to accept a second pay cut based upon the current information the union has received.

"I’m glad to hear other players voicing the same viewpoint and believe MLB’s economic strategy would completely change if all documentation were to become public information.”

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Yu Darvish: If Cubs didn't take COVID-19 seriously, 'I was ready to go home'

Yu Darvish: If Cubs didn't take COVID-19 seriously, 'I was ready to go home'

If Yu Darvish thinks baseball can pull off this high-risk, three-month season during a pandemic, maybe there’s reason to dream on the long shot coming in.

Then, again, the Cubs’ potential Opening Day starter has not ruled out changing his mind about playing — which underscores the daily fragility of the thread holding this 30-team, 30-site process together.

“Definitely, I came here to make sure everybody’s doing the right thing,” Darvish said through a translator. “I had in my mind if they’re not, I was ready to go home.”

Darvish was the first player in the majors last spring to publicly express fear of the COVID-19 spread and lethality of a virus that was blamed for fewer than 10 American deaths at the time — weeks before major sports were shut down across the country.

Four months and more than 130,000 U.S. coronavirus-related deaths later, he made the “tough” decision to play — with plenty of reservations.

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“Yes, definitely, I still have concerns,” he said Sunday, two days after Giants star Buster Posey became one of 11 players without a pre-existing, high-risk condition to decline to play this season.

MORE: Tracking MLB players who have opted out or declined to play in 2020

Under rules in the COVID-19 health and safety Operations Manual, players with high-risk conditions are allowed to change their minds in either direction when it comes to the opt-out decision. And they earn full service time for the year and prorated salary for the 60-game season if they don’t play.

Those such as Darvish who are not in that category don’t get service time or pay for the year if they decline to play and are not allowed to return once that decision is made official.

Asked if he still is leaving open the possibility of opting out of the season, he said, “Maybe. But at this point no, I don’t think so.”

In a baseball vacuum, Darvish offers the Cubs’ their best chance to have success during a 60-game season and any playoffs that might follow.

“The way he finished the season last year, how good he was for us, that’s the guy we’re counting on,” manager David Ross said, referring to a second half that included a 2.76 ERA and a 118-to-7 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 13 starts.

But Darvish, a native of Japan, hasn’t viewed baseball in a vacuum since the year began — approaching Cubs officials upon his arrival for informal work before spring training began in February to address concerns about reporters who might travel from possible virus hot spots in Asia to cover him.

“I’m really worried about it,” he said then.

And then on March 5 he left the Cubs’ spring facility to see a doctor for a test after experiencing a cough, out of a fear he might expose teammates if he had the virus.

By the time MLB and the union agreed last month to terms for a season, the thought of playing during a pandemic had only become more serious for Darvish and many others throughout the game.

“It was tough because I have small children,” Darvish said of the decision. “During the spring we had a lot of thoughts about that, and it was tough decision.”

He said seeing teammates with similar family dynamics and concerns choose to play made it “a little easier to make the decision to play.”

But it’s a discussion among players and their families across the majors that isn’t going to go away — and figures to only intensify every time another batch of test results shows up late or another player tests positive somewhere.

MORE: Cubs COVID-19 tests return negative, Theo Epstein cautions against complacency

Not to mention continued spikes in new cases and deaths in cities and states across the major-league map.

“I think we’re all a little nervous. Nobody wants to get this thing,” Cubs veteran Jon Lester said. “You have to just believe in the testing process; you have to believe in kind of the bubble community we’re trying to create here; you have to believe in these things.”

That’s when Lester held up a mask during the Zoom session with reporters.

The Cubs — the only team in the league without a player testing positive through the first two weeks of intake and monitoring testing — have shown a commitment to safety protocols from top to bottom in the organization. Third baseman Kris Bryant wore his mask again while taking ground balls at third base Sunday, despite plenty of safe distance from the nearest player or coach.

“I know that some of the players are uncomfortable wearing it, but they do wear it,” Darvish said. “So it’s nice to see. I used to wear [masks] all the time in Japan so I’m very comfortable with this.”

Getting comfortable with the larger experiment, especially when teams begin to travel and inherent risks increase, could be an ongoing adjustment — for everyone from
Darvish, Lester and Bryant to Angels superstar Mike Trout, who continues to express concerns with his first child due next month.

“There’s a lot of stuff where you’re putting yourself out there and just kind of hoping,” said Lester, whose successful battle with cancer more than a decade ago qualifies him for a high-risk exemption to opt out.

“My own personal health really wasn’t my concern,” said Lester, who said the team doctor consulted with his oncologist in Chicago on the issue. “We do have some family stuff we’re trying to stay away from. But I think you just have to dive into this head-first and go with the protocols and wash your hands and be careful.

“You really have to concentrate on that and hopefully everything else kind of takes care of itself.”

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Why David Ross is 'excited' about umpire crew joining Cubs Summer Camp

Why David Ross is 'excited' about umpire crew joining Cubs Summer Camp

The days of Cubs mental skills coach John Baker holding an armchair cushion between him and the catcher as he calls balls and strikes may be over.

Professional umpires will soon take over the responsibility of calling the Cubs’ intrasquad scrimmages. Crew chief Tony Randazzo and his umpire crew will embed themselves at Cubs Summer Camp, manager David Ross announced Sunday.

“I think it’s going to affect the mental skills department too,” Ross said, laughing. “Yeah, I’m excited about getting real umpires up here. Bake’s been doing a good job for us, but every chance we get an opportunity to turn up the dial and make it as game-like as possible, the better.”

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From his playing days as a catcher, Ross is familiar with Randazzo. Ross said he’s excited about using the umpires as a “sounding board" for questions. 

The introduction of MLB umpires, which is expected to be implemented across the league, is also set up to give umpires practice before the regular season.

The Cubs’ earliest scrimmages, as well as Sunday’s intrasquad game, featured catchers calling balls and strikes, which Ross called, “fun and unique.”

“Being in that situation in the past,” the former catcher said, laughing, “you’re not going to make anybody happy when you punch them out.”

In the middle of the week, Baker took over umpiring duties. Baker has Tier 1 clearance – the Cubs deemed his role a priority, especially in the midst of a pandemic – so he has on-field access.

“Well, after umpiring 5 ½ (innings) tonight,” Baker posted to Twitter on Thursday, “I can say that that job is much harder than it looks on TV. I’m exhausted.”

 

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