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Tony Clark is tone deaf on MLBPA pension concerns

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Former Houston Astro Aaron Pointer, the first African-American linesman in the Pac-10 and graduate of Oakland-McClymonds. (Courtesy)

By Douglas J. Gladstone
Special to S.F. Examiner

Major League Baseball Players Association executive director Tony Clark’s nickname is “Tony the Tiger”, presumably because he was an All-Star first baseman for the Detroit Tigers years ago. A better moniker would be “Tone Deaf Tony.”

In a USA Today story published this past June, Jorge Ortiz wrote that the MLBPA intended to dedicate an entire section of its website to honor fully-vested ballplayers.

According to the article, they “are all exceptional players who have not only demonstrated they can play at the game’s highest level, but that they can thrive on that stage and compete through injury and adversity,’’ the union said in a statement. “They offer irreplaceable knowledge and experience to their teammates, clubs and fans.”

The statement implies that if you’re not receiving an MLB pension, you weren’t exceptional.

There are 641 retired ballplayers not receiving an MLB pension who would disagree. Not surprisingly, many are persons of color, such as Aaron Pointer, who was the first African American head linesman in the Pac-10; prior to that, he played for the Houston Astros.

A graduate of McClymonds High School, Pointer grew up in Oakland before attending the University of San Francisco. Yet all Pointer receives — and other non-fully-vested players like him — is a non-qualified retirement annuity of $625 for every 43 game days of service he was on an active MLB roster. Up to $10,000. And that’s before taxes are taken out.

Meanwhile, a vested retiree can earn up to $220,000 a year.

Of course, what the story completely leaves out is that the union refuses to go to bat for any of the 641 non-vested men.

These non-vested men don’t receive MLB pensions because they didn’t accrue four years of service, which is what you needed before 1980. However, during the 1980 Memorial Day weekend, the MLBPA accepted a proposal from the league in which the vesting requirements were lowered to one game day of service credit for health care, and 43 game days of service credit for a pension.

Regrettably for these 641 men, the union didn’t request that this change be made retroactive. So, while vested retirees get to pass their pensions on to a loved one, spouse or designated beneficiary, the non-vested players don’t.

The union has been loathe to divvy up any more of the collective pie. Even though Forbes recently reported that the current players’ pension and welfare fund is valued at $2.7 billion, Clark has never commented about these non-vested retirees, many of whom are filing for bankruptcy at advanced ages, having banks foreclose on their homes and are so sickly and poor that they cannot afford adequate healthcare coverage.

Clark was awarded the Jackie Robinson Award by the Negro Leagues Museum in 2016 for purportedly living up to the pioneering standards of that social justice trail blazer. Yet, in not going to bat for men like Pointer, he is only doing a profound disservice to the award that bears Robinson’s name.

What makes this injustice more unseemly is that the national pastime is doing very well financially. MLB recently announced that its revenue was up 325 percent from 1992, and that it has made $500 million since 2015. What’s more, the average value of the each of the 30 clubs is up 19 percent from 2016, to $1.54 billion.

As for the MLBPA, unions are supposed to help hard working women and men in this country get a fair shake in life. But “Tone Deaf” is apparently only helping himself — he receives a MLB pension AND an annual salary of more than $2.1 million, including benefits.

Clark needs to realize that all the men who played the game – whether they’re vested or not – made important contributions to the sport. Six hundred and forty-one shouldn’t be penalized because of something that occurred 38 years ago that wasn’t their fault.

Those 641 men deserve pensions. That’s because, in the words of a certain cartoon tiger, “they’re G-R-E-A-T.”

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