Rozner: Fathers, sons and a broken MLB pension

  • Mike Stenhouse will get his Major League Baseball pension in a year, but his father, Dave, who had more service time in the big leagues, has never received a pension.

    Mike Stenhouse will get his Major League Baseball pension in a year, but his father, Dave, who had more service time in the big leagues, has never received a pension. courtesy of Mike Stenhouse

  • Mike Stenhouse poses with his father, Dave, along with Pete Rose and Gary Carter in 1984 while Mike was with the Montreal Expos.

    Mike Stenhouse poses with his father, Dave, along with Pete Rose and Gary Carter in 1984 while Mike was with the Montreal Expos. courtesy of Mike Stenhouse

 
 
Updated 6/16/2019 8:13 AM

When you're as big as Major League Baseball, you can ignore anyone or anything that doesn't further your purpose.

And when you're as flush as the MLB players association, you can turn a blind eye to those who seek financial justice.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

But if you're one of the men reaching the end of their lives having served both of the colossal institutions entombed above -- pinching pennies and wondering about how to pay for funerals and survivor benefits -- you don't have the luxury of pretending the problem will go away.

A few months ago we wrote about the 600-plus players who played in the majors but have no pension, abandoned when a new deal was struck between MLB and the players association in 1980.

There has only been silence from the billion-dollar bodies as they wait for these men to die -- and for the shameful issue to die with them.

Among those on this Father's Day weekend left out in the cold by MLB is 77-year-old Nelson Mathews, a former outfielder for the Cubs and K.C. Athletics, who played in 306 games.

His son, 49-year-old Illinois native T.J. Mathews, pitched in 362 games, mostly for St. Louis and Oakland.

While the father receives a small stipend, the son will receive a pension when he turns 62.

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There's 69-year-old Hank Webb, who played in parts of six years for the Mets and Dodgers in the '70s. He receives no pension.

His son, 33-year-old Ryan Webb, who played for six teams from 2009-2016, will get a full pension.

There's 70-year-old Steve Grilli, who pitched parts of four years for Detroit and Toronto.

While his dad gets no pension, 42-year-old Jason Grilli, who pitched for nine teams including the 2004 White Sox, will receive a pension.

And there's 85-year-old Dave Stenhouse, who as a rookie pitcher for the Washington Senators started the 1962 All-Star Game at Wrigley Field.

Stenhouse played three years and receives no pension. His son, 61-year-old Mike Stenhouse, who played in parts of four years for three teams, will get an MLB pension.

"I had less service time than my dad and he doesn't have a pension, and he was an all-star. My pension starts in a year. It's kind of weird," said Mike Stenhouse, who lives in Rhode Island not far from his dad. "A lot of former players think they're owed something. I don't see it that way. I think it's a moral question.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"Morally, I think it's right to take care of the guys who helped build the sport into this mega-billion, multinational corporation, leading to the big TV contracts and worldwide exposure, yet they're the guys who will never benefit.

"I really believe those players in my dad's generation, from the '60s and '70s, were the cornerstones to building this business."

The son, in this case, is not just worried about his father.

"When I think of my dad, I also think of my mom," Mike Stenhouse said. "In almost any pension situation, the pension passes to the spouse. That's what my dad worries about. He's a little bit older.

"The wives sacrifice a lot for a player to reach the big leagues, giving up their own careers and educations. The wives have earned it, but my dad has nothing to pass on to her."

Mike Stenhouse then struggles to find the words to appropriately explain how his father feels while watching former teammates collect a pension and talk about how good their lives are at reunions.

"My dad is, well, maybe not embarrassed, but I guess a better way to say it is he feels left out of the official brotherhood," Mike said. "I think he's hurt.

"The money would be nice. His pension money from private work will run out in a few years and he's worried about my mom, but he's also ashamed that's he's not part of the retiree brotherhood.

"I feel bad about that."

Anyone who played after 1980 is eligible for health coverage after a single game day and pension-eligible after 43 days. The union did not make it retroactive when the bosses signed that deal in 1980, leaving behind the rest.

There are only 632 still alive and the fathers discussed here today are among them.

Those MLB pensions can be passed on to a designated recipient and a vested player today can collect as much as $225,000 each year. The minimum pension is several tens of thousands annually.

And though the MLBPA's welfare and pension benefits fund is valued at more than $3.5 billion, the pre-1980 players are largely ignored.

If possessing less than four years' service, they get a small amount of money based on a complicated formula, but no pension or health benefits, and they can't bequeath their "non-qualified retirement payments."

For every quarter year of service, the 1947-1979 players -- who didn't reach four years of service time -- get $625, before taxes. The maximum is $10,000, though most receive only a fraction of that.

And that pittance was only served up -- under protest and the result of pressure -- in the last decade as a result of a book written by Doug Gladstone in 2010 that shed light on a dark subject.

No amount of embarrassment over this issue seems to matter for MLB, which brought in $10 billion in revenue last year, not for MLBPA boss Tony Clark, who collected $2.1 million in 2018, or for Rob Manfred, who figures to be making at least half of Bud Selig's last salary, which was $22 million.

While taking nothing away from the sons, these dads undoubtedly gave their kids a great start toward making it in the major leagues, giving them the benefit of their wisdom and helping them learn from their own mistakes.

But today, these fathers are being punished for having played in the majors at the wrong time.

As it turns out, the sins of the father were in trusting a league, not to mention a union that insisted it cared about them as these men fought for players' rights and fought to grow the game.

Turns out, that was their biggest mistake.

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