Personal History: Why Labor Secretary Marty Walsh should stay the hell away from baseball

I learned this the hard way

  
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Labor Secretary Marty Walsh says he’s ready to step up to the plate and help end Major League Baseball’s lockout.

My advice to Marty, as former labor secretary to the current one: Stay away from baseball. I wouldn’t touch another baseball labor dispute if Babe Ruth asked me in person.  

In 1995, the owners and players were at loggerheads, too. I tried to mediate.

Bill Clinton (on phone): “Bobby, this is Bill. How you doing on the strike?” Translated: What the hell’s going on? The World Series may be canceled for the first time in a century – and on my watch – unless you settle this thing soon.

Me: “We’re doing a lot of talking. Players want free agency, owners want a salary cap. The only way to give players free agency and not have the stars all end up in the wealthiest clubs is for the big clubs to share some of their revenues with the smaller ones, maybe through a tax on team payrolls. Each side would have to give a bit. That’s what we’re working on now.” Translated: I’m getting nowhere.

Bill was eager to get involved. He smelled a deal. He wanted to be savior of the national pastime. He had heard that the two sides were in Washington. “Why don’t we just call them over to the White House and see how far we can get?” he said.

Hours later, Bill, Al Gore, and I were in the Roosevelt Room with Bud Selig, who represented the owners; Don Fehr, the players; and the other owners and players from the two bargaining committees. The owners were middle-aged, gray and corporate. The players were big, hulking young men who looked stiff and awkward in white shirts, ties, and jackets. All sat motionless around the giant mahogany table.

Down the corridor and around the corner, the White House press room was crowded with reporters and cameras, anticipating a story about how the President settled the baseball strike.

Al began ponderously. “As I understand it, the players don’t want their salaries to be capped, and the owners say a salary cap is the only way to keep the smaller teams competitive. Now, if the owners would agree to tax themselves so that the larger teams would subsidize the smaller teams, we’d be halfway home. And if the players would agree to some sort of ceiling on their individual contracts, that would get us the other half. S-o-o-o …” Gore seemed to be talking to five-year-olds. “The real question here is how far both sides are willing to come in order to strike a fair balance. Am I correct?

No answer. One of the young pitchers cleared his throat. “Mr. President, Mr. Vice President, I love baseball. We all love baseball. This isn’t really a dispute over money.” He looked intently around the table. “Hell, I’d be willing to play the game for $3 million a year if I get some respect.”

I couldn’t repress a cough.

After two hours, we were still nowhere. “Let’s take a break,” Bill said quietly. “Maybe if we just talk informally we can make some progress.”

Bill was an eternal optimist, convinced that there was always a deal lying out there somewhere. It’s what made him a super-salesman: He was absolutely certain that every single person he met – Newt Gingrich, Yasir Arafat, whoever – wanted to find common ground. It was simply a matter of discovering where it was.

If the owners would agree to binding arbitration, it would be over. But they wouldn’t budge.

Bill and I went with Selig to another office. Bill sat down next to him on a couch, and commenced the move. Bill’s face was six inches away from Selig’s. Bill’s arm rested on the back of the couch behind Selig’s head so that his hand reached around to Selig’s other shoulder. It was full-intensity Bill Clinton. I was amazed Selig didn’t melt on the spot.

“Look, Bud,” Bill purred in soft southern. “You guys can make millions. Millions. We’ll have a b-i-g sendoff for the season. I’ll help you. We’ll all help. I’ll get Dole to go to Kansas, Gingrich to Atlanta. I’ll have every major figure in America out there for the start. Can’t you just see it?” Bill sketched the vision in the air with his other hand. “This will be the biggest season opening ever in the history of the game. Now … all you need to do” – Bill’s voice became even softer, and he moved his face even closer to Selig’s –“is agree to have this thing arbitrated. It’s in your interest, Bud.” Bill paused and looked deeply into Selig’s eyes. “And it’s also in the interest of … America.”

I thought I heard the National Anthem in the distance. The performance was spellbinding. Selig’s thin body seemed to be shaking. “Let … Let me just … just check with the other … other owners,” he said weakly. I helped him out of the couch. He could barely stand, poor man. He wandered out of the office, dazed.

Bill shot me a grin. “I think we hit a homer.”

The reporters down the hall were restive. I couldn’t help think there were more important things for the President and Vice President of the United States to be doing with their time than waiting for Bud Selig to return with his verdict. Surely something must be happening in China.

But Bill was feeling good. While Selig conferred with the other owners, Bill joked with the giant players who were then leaning against corridor walls chomping pretzels and slurping Cokes. The West Wing had been transformed into a locker room.

David Cone, a pitcher for the Kansas City Royals told me I’d make a fortune in the majors. “I don’t know a pitcher who’d ever be able to strike you out. Your strike zone is the size of a peanut,” he laughed. I tried to look amused.

This wasn’t a labor dispute. It was a big-finance fight between multi-millionaires and multi-millionaires over how to split billions.

A half hour later, word came back that Selig and the owners had reached a decision. We regrouped in the Roosevelt Room.

Selig looked at Bill like a guilty puppy who’s just chewed a hole through the carpet. He cleared his throat. “I’m sorry, Mr. President … We can’t do it.”

Bill seemed stunned. I wanted to strangle Selig.

Experts in the field of collective bargaining always warn that presidents should keep well away from labor disputes, unless the national interest requires action. The nation may love baseball but the national interest doesn’t require owners and players to agree on a contract.

A second precept is from experts on the presidency. Power is never to be frittered away on lost causes. Like much of the power in Washington, presidential power derives from the appearance of having it.

Bill lost big that night.

I remember him moving glumly into the press room, Al Gore and I at his side. The room was a pigpen of half-eaten sandwiches, soda cans, cigarette stubs, and bleary-eyed reporters. Boredom and impatience had evolved into hostility.

“I’m disappointed to say that the players and owners still haven’t reached an agreement,” Bill said earnestly, as the entire White House press corps began writing the next day’s headline story about Bill Clinton’s hubris and humiliation.

I heard angry grumbles and questions coming from several places simultaneously.

“Mr. President, why did you invite the players and owners to the White House in the first place?”

“If you can’t even get these parties to agree, what hope do you have in Bosnia?

“Does this mark the nadir of this administration’s influence?”

“Why do you and your labor secretary think Washington should be involved in every employment issue in America?”

The baseball strike effectively came to an end on April 2, 1995, after 232 days, making it the longest strike in Major League Baseball history. A total of 948 games were cancelled and MLB became the first major professional sports league to lose an entire postseason due to a labor dispute.

So you see, Marty — stay away from baseball. Let them work it out for themselves.

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