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PERSPECTIVE

The Sox and Solidarity

The players' recent boycott threat was widely hailed as a heroic act. What does that say about us?

(Globe Staff Illustration by Josue Evilla; photos by the Boston Globe/File)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Neil Swidey
April 6, 2008

So this was the local nine's Norma Rae moment?

In the famous Sally Field movie, a textile-mill worker holding a handmade UNION sign stares down cops and bravely puts everything on the line so her fellow sweatshop workers might be granted better working conditions and a livable wage.

To judge from the lock-step media coverage and proud-of-our-boys fan reaction to the Fort Myers job action in mid-March, you'd think the Red Sox players had taken no less daring a stand. The Boston Herald headline cheered, "Sox Show Togetherness," and the breathless copy read as though it was being written for the ages: "So, on the 19th day of March, the team's identity - and its unity, from top to bottom - was reinforced." The Globe headline applauded, "Sox Players Go to Bat for Coaches." Even on the rambunctious "Sons of Sam Horn" fan message board, there was a consensus of praise.

So what had the players done to earn this heroic glow? They refused to take the field for their last spring-training game in Florida and threatened to boycott their much-hyped road show in Japan until the team's coaches and trainers were guaranteed the same promised $40,000 bonuses the players would get for making the overseas trip. It's not clear who was responsible for the breakdown in communication, and in the end, Sox ownership, with help from Major League Baseball, agreed to pick up the tab.

Now, don't get me wrong: Supporting their lesser-paid colleagues was an admirable stance for the players to take. And their opponent in this standoff, MLB - last seen shaking down the tiny, wholesome Cape Cod League for a cut of its action - is about as sympathetic an outfit as Mr. Burns's nuclear power plant in The Simpsons.

But what, exactly, had these players put on the line? Unless I missed it, none of the multimillion-dollar earners on the roster had offered to turn over their bonuses to their more lowly paid coaches and trainers, or even offered to pool their bonuses and divide the pot equally. All they did was risk skipping an exhausting trip that some of them had been grumbling about for weeks. (Technically, they could have faced fines, but raise your hand if you think that was really going to happen.)

And the only people who were inconvenienced by their job action were the fans who had paid up to 46 bucks for a spring-training ticket, only to be forced to wait as the Sox refused to take the field for more than an hour.

Manager Terry Francona clearly felt bad he had to inform his lesser-paid assistants that their expected $40,000 bonuses wouldn't be coming. For some of the staff, he said, the $40K bonus "is equivalent to two-fifths of their salary for the year."

I suspect Francona intended that comment as an appeal to the common man. Yes, a $100,000 salary - unlike the outrageous sums the players get - is a pay scale many of us can relate to, whether our check clocks in below or above it. But expecting that we should feel upset that a guy is not getting a 40 percent bonus to take a company trip to a fascinating part of the world, I think, is asking too much. Airports around the globe are jammed with business travelers with fatigue in their eyes and wrinkles in the shirts, and few of them are seeing their paychecks goosed by $40K for their troubles.

So what does it say about us that we should be so awed by the players taking this stance? Have we been so beaten down by the antics of pampered stars like Manny that a low-risk move like theirs actually looks valiant?

In fairness to the players, many of them give considerable time and money to charity. Their lives, while charmed, carry some burdens many of us would run from. And they're hardly the only examples of the insanity of America's salary structure. As Northeastern University economist Barry Bluestone told me, "People at Bear Stearns get tens of millions for doing a terrible job at manipulating financial markets. And people get minimum wage for taking care of our grandparents."

But for some perspective on the players' daring stance in defense of $40,000 bonuses, consider this: The median household income for residents of Boston in 2005 was $42,562. That's about, well, five-fifths the size of those bonuses.

If the Sox players had done something with their extra cash and their solidarity to help the people whose salaries keep that median figure so low, the one-in-five Boston families living below the poverty level, the people struggling to pay their rent, never mind trying to afford bleacher seats at Fenway - now, that would have been truly heroic.

Neil Swidey is a Globe Magazine staff writer. E-mail him at swidey@globe.com.

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