Baseball's Orphans

Why are 74 old-timers -- players who helped create the multibillion-dollar business called Major League Baseball -- still without pensions?

"You pretend like you are slicing an apple, not peeling it," he says, demonstrating a slicing, and then a peeling motion.

Meanwhile, Giants owner Peter Magowan's kids are running around in too-cute little uniforms signed by all the players, grabbing balls like apples out of the bucket next to the dugout. Willie Mays cruises the clubhouse buffet. Orlando Cepeda cracks wise with some of the Latin American players.

And Stan Javier, the Giants' right fielder, is in the dugout, thinking about the past.

When I ask him about the pension crusade, his thoughts turn to his father, Julian Javier, a second baseman with the St. Louis Cardinals during the '60s and '70s. What would his retirement have been like without a pension?

Sure, Javier says, he'd be willing to support a pension extension to help the pre-'47 players. For fairness' sake. Besides, Javier says, he doesn't think the players' image can take another knock.

"We already have a bad enough image as it is," Javier says. "We wouldn't be here with what we have today if it weren't for those guys."

Giants backup catcher Brent Mayne squirms for some time on the wet dugout bench before smiling in resignation and agreeing to an interview about the pension crusade and the lawsuits. Mayne's a mellow fellow, a surfer from Southern California who knows more about great wave-riders of the past than baseball legends. He listens dutifully as I explain the lawsuits and their indirect connections to pensions for the old-timers.

"I'm just initially hearing this, so I don't have a lot of information, and I can't give a lot. My heart says help. Who wouldn't? But uninformed it would be hard to give a conclusive ..."

Suddenly Mayne stops himself and blurts out, "Geez, I sound like the president." And a day or two later, Mayne says he thinks providing pensions to the pre-'47 players is a good idea that he'd support. In a whisper of amazement, the $225,000-a-year catcher says, "Man. There's just so much money in baseball."

Brian Johnson, the Giants' starting catcher, knows as little as Mayne does about the pension fight and the lawsuits. But like Javier, he quickly thinks his way to the core of the moral argument for extending the pension. "I would definitely support those guys who played before us, to be appreciative in that kind of way in terms of a pension. They did give the game a positive image."

Then Johnson starts thinking about the politics of generosity.
"It would be good for the owners to be involved. Joint ventures are always good. There's plenty of money to go around."

Jim Poole, a Giants pitcher and representative of the players union on the team, stands by his locker, suiting up. Team owner Peter Magowan makes a beeline for him, shakes his hand in a hail-fellow-well-met kind of way, and breezes out of the locker room.

"Right now we are concentrating on building a better relationship with the owners," Poole says when I ask him about old-timer pensions. It's not for Magowan's benefit that he says this; the owner is obviously out of earshot. Poole is just being honest; he's heard the pension extension issue discussed at Players Association meetings, but only in passing. "It hasn't gotten a lot of attention. We've been concentrating on our contract."

He can't say if he's for it or not. He'd need to see how much it would cost. One thing's for sure, though, he says. It would take an agreement between the owners and the players to make it happen, regardless of cost.

What Poole says is worth what 10 Stan Javiers say about pensions for the old players. Poole is a union rep, and the union is all-powerful in determining what most players believe.

And Poole is right to be cautious.
Pensions are complicated organisms. The people who run the baseball pension have to make sure the fund is capable of making payment to nearly 2,000 retired players each year at varying rates (depending on their salaries and years of service) while handling the financial arrangements needed to pay the pensions of current players, once they retire. Projecting these costs, and making sure the money is there to meet them, is a complicated business and not given to carefree disbursements of money.

That said, there's more than $1 billion in the players' pension fund, and 74 pensionless players who have four or more years in the majors. (The four-year service cutoff is important to the old-timers. They don't want a handout; they just want what they believe they earned. The original pension, set up in 1947, required you to have at least four years of service under your belt.)

The math goes this way:
To provide a modest, $35,000-a-year pension for all the eligible pre-'47 players would cost $2.6 million a year. A generous $50,000 pension for players with four years or more of service would cost $3.7 million annually. And if the players and the owners by some miracle were overcome with a Scrooge-like transformation and decided to give the old-timers an $85,000-a-year pension, a little something to make up for all the years of penury, it would cost $6.3 million annually.

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