March 25, 2017
By John Heisler
Matt Nussbaum doesn’t pick up a baseball much anymore.
He played catcher for a couple of summers in a men’s 27-and-older wood bat league near his home in Connecticut, but a torn labrum in his shoulder likely has put an end to that notion.
“I got behind the plate, and I totally overdid it,” he says wistfully.
But don’t think Nussbaum isn’t knee-deep in baseball just about every other day-thanks to his role as assistant general counsel of the Major League Baseball Players Association.
Most recently Nussbaum spent three weeks in St. Petersburg, Florida, helping represent players in this year’s 15 salary arbitration hearings. He helped argue three particular cases, including that of former Irish pitcher David Phelps (now with the Miami Marlins) who won his hearing and will make $4.6 million in 2017, $2.1 million more than he earned in 2016 and $275,000 more than the Marlins had offered.
Each of those hearings involves hour-long initial presentations from both sides followed by a half-hour of rebuttal for each, all in front of three arbitrators who then collaborate to make a final decision within 24 hours.
“Sometimes we have two in one day-you have a morning case that goes four or five hours, you grab a granola bar and go into another one,” says Nussbaum.
“A lot of people follow salary arbitration very closely. They see that there were 15 cases this year and the players won seven and the clubs won eight. That’s what gets the most publicity. But going to hearing is a last resort. Our system was designed to facilitate settlements and every year well over 90 percent of our cases settle. This year we had 15 cases, but three years ago not a single case went to hearing. It’s hard to predict how it will shake out.”
Nussbaum works as one of the MLBPA representatives in negotiations on potential rules changes, such as the recent new one eliminating the actual pitches on intentional walks.
“Some of the more interesting things I’ve been part of involve rules and regulations covering pace of game, collisions at home plate, take-out slides at second base. I enjoy a lot of the on-field stuff,” he says.
Nussbaum also is a key figure in the the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) negotiations between MLB and the players’ association. A new CBA is on the agenda every five years, but Nussbaum says the minute one is signed work begins on details of the next version.
“Almost all of my 2016 was consumed with the negotiations over the current CBA,” he says. “We got the deal done with maybe two and a half hours before the deadline on December 1 in Dallas. It takes a tremendous amount of work leading up to an agreement like that.
“As a labor lawyer I also spend much of my time dealing with players who find themselves in a dispute with their club or the Commissioner’s Office. Some of the cases involve medical issues, some are contract disputes and we also deal with disciplinary matters. A big part of my job is providing advice on player rights under the CBA.”
Nussbaum’s good work has earned enough attention to merit him a spot on the prestigious SportsBusiness Journal Forty Under 40 list for 2017 announced in February. All 40 executives, recognized for excellence and innovation in their careers, will be featured in the April 10 issue of SportsBusiness Journal. They also will be honored at the annual Forty Under 40 gala April 20 at Monarch Beach Resort in Dana Point, California. That event comes at the conclusion of the annual CAA World Congress of Sports April 19-20.
Nussbaum likes the fact a number of former Irish players have had noteworthy roles with the MLBPA as player representatives (or alternates) as well as pension or association reps. That list includes Craig Counsell (formerly with the Milwaukee Brewers, Arizona Diamondbacks and Florida Marlins-and currently manager of the Brewers), Aaron Heilman (formerly with the New York Mets), Phelps and John Axford (now with Oakland and formerly with Cleveland. St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Colorado and Milwaukee).
“The best part of my job is how much I get to work with the members of the union, working with the players,” he says. “It may be the strongest union in sports and it’s because of the engagement of our players who are unbelievably sharp, engaged and educated. They dig into the issues and they come to the bargaining table ready to go.”
Nussbaum joined the MLBPA early in 2011 after spending the previous three years as an associate general counsel for the National Hockey League Players Association (NHLPA). Prior to joining the NHLPA, he served two and a half years as an associate in the litigation and corporate criminal investigations department in the Chicago office of international law firm Jones Day and one year as a law clerk to federal district court Judge Edward F. Harrington in Boston.
“I was always a huge sports fan,” said Nussbaum Friday while offering his reactions as a panelist for the Notre Dame Law School symposium “From Courts of Sport to Courts of Justice.”
“But I fully had my eyes set on doing something in public service, maybe working for a firm, maybe as an assistant U.S. attorney, and that was the track I was on. I had never taken a single labor law class when I had the chance to go to the NHLPA, but it was a unique opportunity.”
A South Bend, Indiana, native and a graduate of the University of Notre Dame (2000) and Notre Dame Law School (2004), Nussbaum and his wife, Lauren, have three daughters and live in New Canaan, Connecticut.
Nussbaum–his father Dick (an attorney in South Bend) is also a former Irish baseball player and Notre Dame Monogram Club president and current president of the Midwest League–played baseball for the Irish from 1997-2000. A starter in left field in 1999 and 2000, he finished with 70 career RBI and helped Notre Dame to a pair of NCAA Championship appearances.
He hit .373 over the final 20 games of his junior campaign, then served as a team captain as a senior. He also received the Francis Patrick O’Connor Award, presented annually to the student-athletes who best display the total embodiment of the true spirit of Note Dame as exemplified by their contributions and inspirations to their respective teams.
While baseball may be mostly in the rear-view mirror from a playing standpoint, that doesn’t mean Nussbaum has forgotten the good times he enjoyed in an Irish uniform:
“We played Miami in a two-game series toward the end of the 1999 season, and the games were in South Bend. Miami was ranked number one at the time and they would go on to win the College World Series that year.
“In game two, we went with pitching by committee, with Aaron Heilman taking the ball in the fifth inning. We hadn’t given up any hits when Aaron entered the game, and he held Miami hitless all the way until the top of the ninth inning. Aaron retired the first batter in the ninth, which brought Miami shortstop Bobby Hill to the plate (Hill would go on to play a few years in the big leagues). At the time we were clinging to a 1-0 lead.
“I was playing left field for that game, which is where I played most games that season. I actually never played left field before coming to Notre Dame. I was a second baseman in high school.
“Hill was a switch hitter, batting lefty against Aaron. Aaron made a good pitch on the outer half of the plate, and Hill hit a soft line drive in my direction.”
The ball sliced away from Nussbaum, dying toward the foul line and looking like a sure-fire double. So he sprinted to his right and made a diving grab to preserve the no-hitter.
“Unfortunately, the next batter blooped in a base hit to break it up,” says Nussbaum, “but Aaron struck out the batter after that to end the game–a one-hit shutout victory.
“That play and that game are among my fondest memories in a Notre Dame uniform.”
Nussbaum also appreciates being able to spend his days working in and around a sport he loves.
“I have a dream job,” he says. “I am a very lucky attorney. There are a lot of unhappy lawyers in the world. I’m not one of them.”
Senior associate athletics director John Heisler has been covering the Notre Dame athletics scene since 1978. Watch for his weekly Sunday Brunch offerings on UND.com.