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No, the union should not file a grievance over the Kris Bryant stuff

Chicago Cubs photo day

Kris Bryant

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You all know the setup by now. Kris Bryant is raking this spring and destroyed Double-A and Triple-A pitching last year. He’s ready for big league pitching. However, if the Cubs start him off in the minors and leave him down there for a little less than two weeks before bringing him to Chicago, they’ll push his service time back enough to gain another full year of control over him before he reaches free agency.

While the Cubs have consistently claimed that if they keep Bryant down, it will be for baseball reasons and not business reasons, I don’t think most folks believe that. Yes, it is possible to keep a straight face and say that Bryant needs some defensive reps at third or left field or something or that his shoulder is questionable enough to be cautious, but those are just talking points. If it weren’t for the service time issue, I think it’s insane to say that he wouldn’t start the season with just about any club.

Into all of that wades Ken Rosenthal this morning, arguing that the MLBPA should file a grievance over Bryant’s plight:

If Kris Bryant starts the season at Triple-A, the union should file a grievance to restore his lost service time, even though it would stand little chance of winning the case.

The old union leaders — Marvin Miller, Donald Fehr, et al — never backed down, always supporting players on issues of principle, regardless of the anticipated outcome.

I love Ken Rosenthal -- and I think the Cubs are keeping Bryant down to manipulate his service time -- but I must respectfully disagree with him here. Both on the facts and on the strategy.

Marvin Miller didn’t build the Players’ Union to what it became by fighting losing battles. Sure, he famously lost one -- the Curt Flood case -- but even that case (a) had at least a chance of winning at the time it was filed; and (b) ended up showing Miller and the union that it had to win its battles on surer ground, where it had the advantage, not to try Hail Mary passes or to win in the court of public opinion as opposed to where it really mattered. The owners owned the court of public opinion and, time has shown, the government’s support when it comes to baseball matters.

Beyond the Flood case, Miller built his power and that of the union by fighting small, eminently winnable battles. A pension battle here. Meal money and travel accommodations there. Small battles which the owners either ignored or had no basis to fight which (a) instilled confidence in Miller on the part of the union rank and file; and (b) showed arbitrators that Miller and the union did not cry wolf and was not interested in simply making headlines for headlines’ sake. Eventually that gave Miller the political capital and confidence to fight the bigger battles. Go read “Lords of the Realm” to see how this worked.

Filing a grievance over the Bryant thing would be the exact opposite approach. It would (a) be aimed at P.R., not righting an actual wrong (the Cubs do have the power to do what they want with Bryant); and (b) would be a sure losing case, as no arbitrator will ever second-guess a decision by a club that is, by all evidence available apart from our skeptical inferences, a baseball decision. Marvin Miller’s approach was to show his strength by getting good results. A Bryant grievance would show the union’s weakness by attempting to get via litigation that which it could not get via a straight-up Collective Bargaining negotiation. In short, it would be throwing a public tantrum. A tantrum which would cause the union rank and file to feel like its union was less effective than they want it to be.

Which, by the way, is probably already happening in some respects. The union was overly-sensitive to p.r. concerns and the complaints of some of its more disgruntled members when it came to PEDs, routinely allowing the owners to re-negotiate the terms of the drug rules and penalties without getting anything in return. Such a stance may have gotten the union some good press in the short run, but it has created a situation in which the union has forever ceded any strength it had when it comes to drug issues. The league can suspend a first-time offender for a year now. It can, possibly, penalize a drug addict just as harshly. The MLBPA has no real voice in this anymore, it seems. If it picks losing battles in other areas, it will be similarly weakened.

If Tony Clark and the union want to fix the Bryant situation, they should address it in the next CBA. In the meantime, they should make a point of asserting the rights players already have by virtue of the CBA and work to build consensus among the players about what battles they wish to fight and how hard they wish to fight them.

Put differently: it should leave the theatrics and the P.R. to the Scott Borases of the world and get to work.