Retired MLB Players Deserve Fair Pensions

Douglas Gladstone makes the case for looking after old ballplayers, even if they weren’t stars.

Steve Grilli, the father of current Pittsburgh Pirates relief pitcher Jason Grilli, has been on my mind lately.

A former hurler for the Detroit Tigers in the mid-1970s, Steve pitched at a time when the players on each winning World Series team didn’t get full post-season shares of $323,170, as each member of the winning St. Louis Cardinals did last year, or $317,631, as each member of the winning San Francisco Giants did in 2010.

Want to know what Steve Grilli’s first professional contract was for?  A measly $15,000.

“Times were so rough for me,” he’s said, “that I used to hop a fence to siphon off gas from a used car lot ’cause I couldn’t afford to fill up at the pump.”

While gas is still hovering around $4 per gallon these days, Grilli probably wouldn’t have a problem if he was playing today. That’s because the minimum salary for even the 25th player riding the pines is currently $480,000.

Sadly, however, Grilli isn’t a member of the 2012 American League champion Tigers roster. If the past two years are any indication, each man on either the Tigers or 2012 National League Giants squad who gets a full post-season winner’s share will probably receive up to $330,000 apiece this year. And that’s on top of the $3.29 million average salary they’re making.

That’s some serious money. But like Grilli, Dave Stenhouse, who started the 1962 All-Star Game as a rookie hurler for the then-Washington Senators, won’t see any of it.

The father of former major leaguer Michael Stenhouse, I had the pleasure of meeting Dave two years ago when my book tour took me through Rhode Island.  My book, A Bitter Cup of Coffee, tells the true story about a group of almost 900 former big-league ballplayers, including Steve, Dave and former New York Met pitcher Hank Webb, denied pensions as a result of the failure of both the league and the union to retroactively amend the vesting requirement change that granted instant pension eligibility to ballplayers in 1980. As you may know, prior to that year, ballplayers had to have four years service credit to earn an annuity and medical benefits. Since 1980, however, all you have needed is one day of service credit for health insurance and 43 days of service credit for a pension.

When Michael Stenhous turns 62, he’ll receive all the benefits of being vested in the player’s pension fund. But his dad, Dave, who is already 79, does not. And I think that’s cosmically absurd.

Same thing for Webb. His son, Ryan Webb, is pitching in the majors now, with the Miami Marlins. So when his career in The Show ends, Ryan will get a pension.

But his dad, whose cup of coffee in the bigs ended before the league and the union agreed to change pension eligibility rules in May 1980, doesn’t receive anything. All Hank gets is a stupid life annuity payment that isn’t even guaranteed. Under the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) between the league and the players’ union, these life annuities are only ensured through 2016.

It’s appeasement, pure and simple. These men are being thrown a bone by an $8 billion industry that isn’t lacking for money.

What’s more, if Dave, Steve or Hank croaks tomorrow, none of their spouses or loved ones or designated beneficiaries will have that payment passed on to them. See, since this isn’t a real pension, there is no survivor benefit.

And that’s just an egregious injustice that I don’t think enough people know about.

Hey, I’m the parent of a beautiful four-year-old girl. And there’s a reason parents like me care about the future generation. Our kids are our future.

But let’s also not forget the folks who came before us, like the Dave Stenhouses, Steve Grillis and Hank Webbs of the world. Let’s show them some healthy respect too.

Listen, I can’t wait to teach my daughter how to turn two properly—right now, her footwork on the pivot from second needs a little work, but that’s okay. I’m confident she’ll get the hang of it eventually.

Sad to say, I’m not at all confident MLB nor the players’union are going to do right by men such as Stenhouse, Grilli or Webb.

Under the terms of the life annuity agreement between the league and the union, each non vested player receives a whopping $625 for each quarter of service he accrued in the majors, up to 16 quarters or four years. So Dave, who had about three years credit, comes home with a gross check of $7,500, if he’s lucky. And that’s before taxes are taken out. Cheapskates to the end, MLB and the union didn’t even give these guys the courtesy of sending ‘em W4-P forms to let them decide how many withholding deductions they wanted to file.

So a guy like Grilli, who had appx 2 1/3 years of service in the bigs, between his time with the Tigers and Blue Jays, grossed $5,625. His net per year? A paltry $3,700.

Meanwhile, want to know what the average MLB pension amounts to? As of 2006, it was $32,000 per year.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Messrs. Grilli, Webb and Stenhouse received their first life annuity benefit last September; the second installment was disbursed to them this past February.

As I mentioned earlier, in the CBA unveiled two days before Thanksgiving last year, the league and union extended these life annuity payments through 2016. But does that mean that Dave, Steve or Hank are really thankful? What happens if, in the next CBA, the league and the union decide to nix this payment plan?

They’ll all get squat.

If, like me, you want to see that Steve, Hank and Dave and all the other men getting hosed are really treated fairly, here are some folks you can contact:

You can contact Mr. Rob Manfred, Vice President of Labor Relations for MLB, by writing to the league at 245 Park Avenue, 31st Floor, New York, New York 10167; you may also telephone the Commissioner’s office directly at 212-931-7800.

You can contact Mr. Steve Rogers, Special Assistant to union executive director Michael Weiner, by emailing him c/o the union via [email protected]

 

If enough people complain, maybe by next Father’s Day, Steve, Hank and Dave will enjoy all the pension privileges that their sons can look forward to getting.

Now that would be a great Father’s Day gift, wouldn’t it? It may not beat tying one on with your old man, but it sure beats a tie.

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About Douglas Gladstone

The author of "A Bitter Cup of Coffee," which is available via Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble.com or by telephoning Word Association Publishers directly at 1-800-827-7903, Douglas J. Gladstone by day is an assistant public information specialist with the New York State & Local Retirement System. He is also a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the San Diego Jewish World, the Chicago Sun Times, Baseball Digest and Seamheads.com. Doug's latest piece on Tony Award-winning actor Ron Holgate appears in the Fall 2012 issue of BLACK HILLS FACES magazine.

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