If it’s not nice to fool with Mother Nature, it’s certainly not a good idea to upset a man of God.
Former Minnesota Twins pitcher Tom Johnson, who spent his entire career with the team before becoming a pastor, now resides with his wife, Debbie, in Bratislava; the couple runs the non-profit Good Sports International in Slovakia.
Johnson, who received his Masters of Divinity at Bethel Seminary in San Diego, appeared in 129 games (all but one of them in relief) for the Twins over five years, from 1974 to 1978. In 273 and one-third innings, he won 23 games, saved 22 others, and had a sterling Earned Run Average of 3.39.
That’s an excellent resume. But what’s not so lovely is that Pastor Johnson is among the 626 remaining retirees who do not receive pensions from having played Major League Baseball (MLB). And he’s not exactly thrilled that he’s being taken advantage of by the league.
“The collective of pre-1980 non-vested players grows smaller every day,” he told me in a recent email, “and I’m confident I speak for all former players (and spouses of those who are no longer with us) in expressing gratitude for your efforts to bring awareness to this situation.”
Regular readers of my columns here know that a lot of former Padres — the ballplayers, not priests — are affected by this dirty little secret. Pitcher Lowell Palmer and Harold Reynolds‘ older brother Don Reynolds are just a few that are being victimized by MLB.
Harold — who earns good money at MLB Network — won’t even talk about this. He has the platform to do it. But he won’t go to bat for his sibling or anyone else. But that’s another matter entirely.
For the most part, baseball players nowadays are set for life. Vested retirees can earn as much as $225,000.
Except for men like Pastor Johnson. They only get $625 for every 43 game days of service they accrued, $10,000.
Unlike a real pension, the non-qualified retirement benefit the pre-1980 retirees receive cannot be passed on to any of the players’ spouses, loved ones, or designated beneficiaries; when the man dies, the payment dies with him.
Pastor Johnson and the other men are in this position because, during the 1980 Memorial Day Weekend, a threatened players’ strike was averted when the negotiator for the league made the following offer to the Major League Baseball Players’ Association (MLBPA). Going forward, every player would automatically qualify for a pension after 43 game days of service, and he’d be eligible for health coverage after only one game day.
The problem for all the pre-1980 players was the proposal was never made retroactive.
To date, the MLBPA has been loath to divvy up anymore of the collective pie. Even though the current players’ welfare and benefits fund is valued at more than $3.5 billion, MLBPA Executive Director Tony Clark — a former San Diego high school hoops star — has never commented about these non-vested retirees. Many of whom are filing for bankruptcy at advanced ages, having banks foreclose on their homes, and are so sickly and impoverished that they cannot afford adequate health care coverage.
I know Pastor Johnson’s current work transcends money, but why take advantage of a man of the cloth this way? After all, isn’t there a good book out there that says something about fair play, kindness, and helping those who are less fortunate being pretty essential character traits?
But I’m pretty sure the great newspaperman Heywood Campbell Broun also once wrote that sports “doesn’t build character, it reveals it.”
What does that say about the folks running MLB and the union?