Teams irked by a new Mariners policy of collecting 60 percent of voluntary dues that visiting players typically turn over to the clubhouse manager.
On the second day of a trip to Safeco Field last week, the visiting Chicago White Sox caused simmering tensions over a Mariners policy change inside the visiting clubhouse to boil over.
Three sources that witnessed events say five White Sox veterans – James Shields, Chris Sale, Todd Frazier, Justin Morneau and Adam Eaton – demanded a meeting with Mariners management to protest against a new policy by president Kevin Mather that sees the Mariners collecting 60 percent of voluntary dues that visiting players typically turn over to the clubhouse manager.
The dues are not mandatory, but voluntary payments of about $70 per game per player ($50 for coaches and staff) are historically given to clubhouse managers after every series so they and their assistants – known as “clubbies” – can supply food, drinks and other services to the visiting clubs.
The White Sox were upset at what they perceived as the Mariners infringing on their private financial arrangement with clubbies that has been part of the Major League Baseball routine for decades.
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Unsatisfied with the response they got following a Tuesday night sitdown between the five players and Mariners assistant general manager Jeff Kingston, Shields called a team meeting Wednesday morning at which the White Sox decided to withhold all dues from visiting clubhouse manager Jeff Bopp until the Mariners reversed the policy.
The incident was first reported by Fox Sports’ Ken Rosenthal on Sunday.
D.J. Birnie, the longest-serving Mariners clubbie on staff, said in a brief interview Monday he had resigned from his decade-long job with the team due to “ethical concerns” over the policy and how it was being implemented. Birnie worked the White Sox series, but had announced his resignation prior to it.
Mariners senior vice-president Randy Adamack said Monday the team instituted the change to keep track of the money flowing in and out of the clubhouse.
Baseball clubhouses have traditionally operated as a sort of business within a business where clubhouse managers are viewed as “dual status” employees. They are paid salaries by the team, but are also viewed by the IRS as private contractors operating on the players’ behalf.
The tips are logged by the clubhouse manager and immediately distributed among the group of minimum-wage, team-paid clubbies at each series end. Any surplus dues money – after expenses are paid for – is usually kept as profit by the clubhouse manager, though part of it is typically shared as his own tips to clubbies at the All-Star break and season’s end.
But the Mariners’ new policy now sees Bopp, in his first season on the job, asked to put 60 percent of all dues into a joint checking account run by him and the team. The team allows Bopp to keep 40 percent of dues and any tips beyond that to share amongst clubbies.
The 60 percent diverted to the joint account is used to cover all clubhouse-related expenses and the salaries of clubbies, according to Adamack. The new arrangement also allows Bopp to keep any remaining surplus once expenses are covered.
An IRS ruling in 2005 said MLB teams are not responsible for tax withholding or reporting on behalf of clubhouse managers taking in dues and tips. The IRS had investigated after some players claimed tax deductions for the dues paid to clubhouse managers in unofficial fashion.
Adamack says the new policy will enable the Mariners to keep better track of overtime hours worked by clubbies. The Mariners typically employ five visiting clubhouse employees per game, including a batboy, in addition to the manager.
But players around MLB are incensed by the change and fear other teams will emulate the Mariners if it continues. Players view clubbies as an extension of their team and the Mariners’ incursion as a labor-management issue so serious that representatives of several teams have complained to their union about it.
An MLB Players’ Association source in New York said two weeks ago, even before the White Sox visited Safeco, that the Mariners clubhouse issue was of enough concern to the union that it is now being made part of collective-bargaining negotiations with owners. The current CBA expires Dec. 1. The source asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitive nature of CBA negotiations.
The Oakland Athletics were the first to express concern over the policy after their visit in April. Sources familiar with the situation said the Cleveland Indians were the first to take serious action in June, with players paying all dues via checks that had the words “for tips only” written on them.
Several Texas Rangers players did the same thing the following series.
But the Mariners still diverted the money into the joint account.
Bopp did not respond to requests to comment.
But Adamack says that Bopp, a former assistant in the Mariners home clubhouse, was made to accept the 60 percent diversion of player dues as a condition of his employment. Bopp was given the job after the team fired former visiting clubhouse manager Ted Walsh last Oct. 28.
Sources familiar with the situation say Walsh, 52, was “old school” and would never have approved of the kind of system the Mariners are now employing. Instead, they say, he was fired in October after a prank was pulled on a 21-year-old batboy earlier in the season.
Walsh confirmed in a short interview the prank was the reason given for his firing, but declined all further comment.
Adamack said the team would not comment on private issues involving Walsh.
The White Sox, prior to leaving Seattle last Wednesday, tipped the various clubhouse staffers as per usual. But they put their allotted dues money in an envelope, sealed it, and promised to mail it to Bopp as soon as the team reversed its policy.
To date, the policy remains in effect and the envelope has yet to be mailed.