Fifteen years ago, in the infancy of console sports simulations, 38 baseball players made a choice that would ensure they would never appear in a video game. Only five of them remain in the major leagues.
They crossed a picket line, an act of war to organized labor, by signing replacement player contracts with Major League clubs as the infamous 1994 players' strike dragged into the spring of 1995. Just five of them logged major league service in 2009 and they're all 38 years old or older. But the continued absence of their names in games is one of the last persistent vestiges of the baseball strike of 1994 and 1995.
Although these replacements later made full major league rosters, some of them contributing memorably, they are forever denied membership in the Major League Baseball Players Association, and thus their likenesses can never be used in any MLBPA licensed merchandise.
The five: Brendan Donnelly, Matt Herges, Ron Mahay, Jamie Walker and Kevin Millar (pictured above), one of the emotional leaders of the 2004 Boston Red Sox, known for his "cowboy up" comment in 2003 that became a rallying cry. All of them are on their real-life teams under different names, uniform numbers and player images in any video game.
Millar, Walker and Mahay are free agents entering 2010. But Donnelly signed a one year deal with Pittsburgh on Jan. 16, and Herges has been invited to spring training with Kansas City. So it's likely this quirk of history will continue when MLB 2K10 and MLB 10 The Show release on March 2.
Alternate player names and likenesses are not a new concept. Randall Cunningham appeared as QB Eagles in Tecmo Super Bowl, after all. And baseball free agents might be in good standing with the union, but their membership is conditional upon holding a signed major league contract. So, Sammy Sosa was "Stan Shackelford" in the free agent pool of MLB 2K9, because he was unsigned at the time the game released. Also, minor leaguers with no prior major league experience cannot be used, as they are likewise not MLBPA members.
The most famous alternate-name case might be Barry Bonds, as "Joe Young" (an homage to 49ers quarterbacks Joe Montana and Steve Young) in the MLB 2K series. But Bonds, like Cunningham and Jim Kelly in Tecmo Super Bowl, opted out of their union's licensing agreements. MLBPA and the NFLPA divide the revenue from licensed products equally among its members. Bonds elected to cut his own deals and keep all money made off his likeness to himself.
Ron Mahay, however, is probably not going to make more off official Ron Mahay-licensed memorabilia than he would drawing a full share of MLBPA money, whatever that is. But he's permanently ineligible for it. Although replacement players receive pension benefits, are subject to the same rules of free agency and are given representation during salary arbitration, disciplinary hearings or other matters, they are barred from joining the union, cannot vote on its matters and, of course, can't collect any licensing money.
How can MLBPA unilaterally remove these players from a game? First, the union requires any company using likenesses of more than two Major League Baseball players in connection with a commercial product to sign a licensing agreement with the union. This is a pretty standard requirement. The online football sim Quick Hit Football, for example, was permitted to sign individual deals with five current NFL players but no more.
Could 2K or SCEA cut individual deals with Donnelly, Millar and the other three to get their authentic names and likeness in a game? I'm not sure what the contracts say, whether they are specifically prohibited from doing so or if there's some other legal proscription at work here. But even if they could, it simply wouldn't be worth it to get five journeymen players into a game, considering the antagonism that would cause to an absolutely essential licensing partner in a realistic sports simulation.
That said, the continued banishment of these players reflects poorly on the baseball players' union. The subject's come up before - when both were on the Red Sox, Johnny Damon as the team representative fought for Millar (and teammate Brian Daubach) to be voted into the union. A Boston Globe article from 2004 quoted an unnamed MLBPA member angrily calling the union's policy "chickenshit."
"Talk about holding a grudge," the player told the Globe. "Talk about thinking you're high and mighty."
Scab labor is no joke, but the MLBPA is not the United Auto Workers. Its average salary is $2.9 million and the league minimum is $400,000. These are highly paid entertainers, although the rank and file wouldn't be in the absence of collective bargaining, that's for sure. Replacement players are scab labor by the literal definition, but there's no way baseball ownership was going with them as a serious, sustainable cost control decision, like a manufacturer hiring cheaper labor. If Millar, Daubach, Cory Lidle, Benny Agbayani and others actually took a major leaguer's job - that is, remained on a roster while an MLBPA member was released - I'm not aware of it. In most cases, these players were paid a modest severance, dismissed, and later earned their way back onto a major league roster.
The issue involves more than just showing up in a video game, which is increasingly a mainstream "you've arrived" moment for top professional athletes. When Donnelly won a World Series ring with the Angels and Millar claimed his with the Red Sox, neither were allowed to appear on licensed memorabilia commemorating the titles. That kind of KGBing of history makes the MLBPA look petty and its posture needlessly punitive.
I'm not holding my breath, but it would be nice if these five were at last granted union membership as a reconcilliatory gesture. Otherwise, their conspicuous absences only raise questions whose answers perpetuate reminders of one of the worst work stoppages in the history of North American sports, which to the average fan is as bad for the union's reputation as it is for management.
The MLBPA should be the bigger man here. It should cowboy up, and let these five into the games.
Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears Saturdays at 2 p.m. U.S. Mountain time.
Kevin Millar image via Wikipedia