Former Miami-Dade Baseball Coach Among 500 MLB Vets Blocked From Pension
rocor via FlickrCC // courtesy photo

Former Miami-Dade Baseball Coach Among 500 MLB Vets Blocked From Pension

On September 2, 1963, 18-year-old Stephen Hertz made a decision that changed his life forever when he signed as a third baseman with the Houston Colt 45s (now the World Series-winning Houston Astros). Fresh out of school at Miami Senior High, Hertz couldn't help but feel starry-eyed as he walked onto the field for Opening Day against the Cincinnati Reds in the spring of '64.

"It was just a feeling that I'll never forget as I'm standing there on the first baseline with the team and they're playing the national anthem," the 72-year-old remembers. "It's almost as if, what am I doing here? I just played high school and now I'm playing on this big league team and it's opening day and I'll be playing against Pete Rose... Just a humbling experience."

Although Hertz's tenure with Major League Baseball didn't last past that first season, he went on to have a long career in coaching and still keeps up with a handful of his teammates from Houston. But in recent years, he and his peers have grown frustrated with the league's 1980 decision to exclude hundreds of players from its massive $2.7 billion pension fund. The topic is the subject of a 2010 book by author Douglas Gladstone, who calls the situation an injustice.

"There is this bushel of money floating around," Gladstone argues. "The television contracts alone are worth more than $5 billion. The licensing of products brings in so much money. I can't fathom why they don't want to do the decent thing."

The issue dates to Memorial Day 1980, just a few weeks after players walked out of spring training and threatened to strike over free-agent compensation. Before the situation spiraled out of control, the league's negotiator offered the union a pretty sweet deal: From that day forward, players could become part of the pension plan after 43 days of service and receive health insurance after just one day.

The only problem? The negotiations didn't apply to anyone who played before 1980.

Gladstone says he first heard about the disparity in 2009 while interviewing Jim Qualls, an obscure outfielder who broke up a near-perfect game by Mets pitcher Tom Seaver. When Qualls, now a struggling farmer, offhandedly mentioned not getting an MLB pension, Gladstone's ears immediately perked up.

"I have no horse in this race," Gladstone says. "I just believe in the right thing, and I believe the right thing isn't happening."

In 2011, after a public outcry from Gladstone and dozens of players, the MLB announced it would grant pre-1980 players a small retirement payment of $625 for each quarter-year of service. But critics argue the new retirement funds pale in comparison to what post-1980 players make. Those who played after 1980 for at least 43 days can rake in anywhere from $34,000 to $210,000 in pension funds each year.

"This is all about equity," Gladstone says. "Today's player is getting $34,000 and a pre-1980 guy like Stephen Hertz is only getting $625. What is fair about that?"

Sitting on his back patio in Kendall on a recent morning, Hertz reflects on his long career in baseball, which included 15 years coaching at Coral Park and Southridge High Schools and 26 years as head coach at Miami Dade College. Although he's lived a comfortable life since retiring in 2010, he acknowledges that some of his peers haven't made it to their golden years quite as well.

"I think there should be compensation for those guys that did have some significant time [in the league]," he says. "The fact that Major League Baseball does have enough money, [it could] go back and say, 'Hey, you know, you guys didn't get such a good deal back then. Let's see if we can make up for it.'"

Gladstone says there are plenty of players who could benefit from even a $10,000 pension payment per year, which would cost the league about $5 million annually. Marty Kutyna, a Washington Senators pitcher who caught John F. Kennedy's first ceremonial pitch in 1962, for example, has had three heart attacks in recent years and has no health insurance to cover his costs. Jeff Terpko, a pitcher for the Rangers and the Expos, filed for bankruptcy last year. Jim Hutto, an outfielder and first baseman who played for the Orioles and the Phillies, suffered a near-fatal brain aneurysm that doctors attributed to head trauma from home-plate collisions.

Although he has plenty of bones to pick with MLB, Gladstone says he mostly faults Tony Clark, the union boss at the Major League Baseball Players Association. As of now, though, he says he doesn't foresee MLB budging unless fans start making a stink.

"It's abhorrent to me why the leader of the players' union will not go to the collective bargaining tables and say, 'We'd like to remedy this a bit more,'" Gladstone says. "The union made a mistake. They dropped the ball."

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