Kramer: The bitter taste of MLB service time
David Kramer | Friday, March 5, 2021
Over five months ago, I lauded the Seattle Mariners organization for its storied embrace of diversity in the clubhouse. I showered praise on the entire front office for its commitment to promoting talented BIPOC players to the global stage. At the time, the program stood in the way of anti-Asian sentiment and widespread racial injustice with an unswerving, admirable brand image.
Things have changed.
The Mariners organization now bears a brand image so tainted and distrusted that even the integrity of the club’s diversity comes into question. In a conversation with a Bellevue, Washington Rotary club, former Mariners team president Kevin Mather casually exposed systemic abuse of league service time that carries devastating implications within the professional sports industry at large.
Service time refers to the number of days that a given player spends on an MLB roster over the course of his career. Put simply, players’ service time dictates their eligibility for salary raise opportunities like arbitration—a process in which players and teams disagree on an adequate salary, and an independent auditor determines a reasonable figure—and free agency status—the ability for players to enter the greater MLB market and sign with a new team—if desired. Before reaching arbitration or free agency eligibility, however, players are vulnerable to their team’s payment terms, oftentimes receiving close to the league minimum salary. Worse yet, team executives hold the power to keep talented players on minor league rosters, even if they are deemed ready for MLB’s level of play.
Understandably, teams actively seek financially feasible ways to protect top players. The very structure of service time leaves room for front office executives to manipulate the clocks of their most promising prospects before they start ticking.
Kevin Mather alluded to his former program’s effortless exploitation of MLB’s service time system, claiming that center field prospect Jared Kelenic would not start the regular season with the Mariners. Not coincidentally, this deliberate move to delay Kelenic’s service time comes only two seasons after he refused to sign a long-term contract with the Mariners. Mather’s comfortable air implies that Kelenic is far from alone.
Mather’s almost shameless confessions only magnify the worst kept secret in professional baseball; the resounding comments from players across the league during Spring Training attest to the thin veil through which executives have operated for years. Surely the media exposure surrounding service time will lead to a formal response from MLB commissioner Rob Manfred, and new regulations could close some of the current loopholes.
But at the heart of the service time epidemic comes a less pronounced, yet more dangerous image of abusive power: Kevin Mather’s suppression and manipulation of a substantially diverse organization.
During his Rotary club teleconference, Kevin Mather framed his revelation of the Mariners’ service time manipulation with highly insensitive remarks about several of the program’s Japanese players, including former star pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma and current prospect Julio Rodriguez.
Disparaging the “terrible” English skills of foreign players, an increasingly large proportion of the clubhouse, effectively disparages the Mariners’ image as an organization that promotes equity for its own sake. A powerful white man lamenting the financial consequences of hiring a team interpreter, all the while openly seeking to control the future of BIPOC players, evokes this country’s deeply oppressive past of slavery and internment camps. A rich white executive capitalizing on the talents of BIPOC players, all the while bemoaning the inconvenience of “terrible” assimilation to American culture, gives the Mariners organization’s service time manipulation a pretty disturbing semblance.
Of course, this service time problem is not nearly as severe as the inexplicable evil of America’s past. But until racial disparities in MLB’s power structure subside, the bitter imagery of men like Mather having the power to curb the careers of BIPOC players is simply unavoidable.
Well before the service time scandal surfaced, I anticipated the need for MLB staffs, journalists and fans to shift their focus from how history remembers them to how they treat people behind closed doors.
“Forces like the Seattle Mariners,” I stipulated months ago, “constantly draw, erase and redraw the ‘right side’ and ‘wrong side’ of history before our very eyes.”
Perhaps in being wrong, I stumbled on something right.