Not The Weekly Mailbag: This Didn’t Have To Happen
By Andy Singer
For someone who is a relative optimist when it comes to baseball, I have been both pessimistic and resolute regarding the labor disagreements that I predicted back even prior to the labor strife we saw during the pandemic shortened 2020 season. I have long expected at least part of the 2022 season to be canceled, and here we are in early March, with nary a Spring Training game to which we can look forward. I don’t think any of us is in the mood to discuss baseball’s labor disputes anymore. While matters of politics, economics, labor rights, etc, are topics that interest me in the real world, baseball is my escape from the day-to-day. I am bitter and angry that my escape has been taken rather callously. As a fan, we have all been taken advantage of, again. I’ve read a lot of opinions online dismissing labor negotiations as millionaires vs. billionaires, but that perspective ignores some really basic and transparent realities about this situation. The reality is that games didn’t need to be canceled, and the lockout was not necessary. The facts point us to a singular culprit.
Baseball has long been awash in cash, and baseball’s owners have gained significant sources of added revenue in recent years from lucrative regional and national TV deals to increased corporate sponsorships. In that time, what have the players gotten? A de facto salary cap (that ownership swore wouldn’t be used as such) with relatively static thresholds when adjusted for inflation; static minimum salaries that actually represent a minimum salary reduction when adjusted for inflation; supposedly small-market ownership groups pocketing the majority of their revenue sharing money allocated to help make those teams competitive; reduced free agent spending as teams become more efficient and “optimized”; and constant public admonishments from the league about everything wrong with the way the game is played while attempting to unilaterally force rule changes. This list isn’t even comprehensive! This is just what came to me off the top of my head. By almost any assessment, the players have lost significant ground in revenue split since the previous CBA was enacted, and an adjustment is warranted.
Before I go further, I do want to comment on the idea that players should be grateful for what they have. I don’t wholly disagree with that idea; players are living out a dream, getting paid to play a child’s game. However, let’s not pretend that all of these guys are set for life after playing the MLB game for a year or two. Remember: a simple Google search can give us almost exact figures for how much money 40-man players bring home annually. Beyond the Box Score analyzed the numbers during the 2019 season. Of the 1267 players part of the MLBPA in 2019, just 31.4% earned $1 million or more. Also keep in mind that somewhere between 30-35% of MLBPA membership are minor league 40-man roster players that never touch more than a prorated portion of the MLB minimum. Even the MLB minimum salary sounds really nice for most of us, but keep in mind that in addition to the costs incurred by players living in major cities while paying the best trainers and nutritionists to keep themselves on the field, MLB careers are short, between 2.5-5.6 years according to most studies. For the majority of players, playing MLB baseball is not life-setting economically, and with a short career, they need to make what they can while they can. They have a right to negotiate via the standards set by CBA negotiations.
And the players wish-list was known well in advance of the expiration of the most recent CBA at the end of 2021. Rather than negotiate in any meaningful way, the owners locked the players out and sat on their hands for at least 4 weeks. When the owners cam back to the table, their proposals moved hardly an inch towards the players’ asks, even as the players showed meaningful willingness to cut some asks out of proposals and move the numbers back towards ownership’s desired figures.
Then MLB set an arbitrary deadline this past Monday for negotiations. In a truly spectacular display of propaganda and a willing media funnel for that propaganda, MLB floated the idea that a deal was close in the waning hours of Monday evening, close enough that it was willing to extend its own arbitrary deadline. The reality is that MLB had made incremental movement and attempted to buckle the MLBPA over its knee, or else. MLB’s “take it or leave it” offer late in the afternoon on Tuesday further reinforced that fact.
Based on the negotiation tactics MLB has used throughout this process, they have in effect made clear that the beginning of the season never really mattered to the league or its owners. Remember what I said before about being able to Google relatively exact revenue figures for the players? We can’t do the same for MLB teams; MLB refuses to be transparent with its revenue figures, and its Anti-Trust exemption helps with that cause (a conversation for another day, but one that continues to rear its ugly head). Maybe it doesn’t hurt the owners financially to miss a few games in April. I don’t know, the numbers aren’t public, but at this point, it’s a plausible idea.
Owners of MLB teams have made it clear for years that the fans don’t matter to them. Yankee Stadium could be 80% empty, and Hal Steinbrenner wouldn’t care because at least he has TV money and corporate sponsorships paying for the empty seats in front of the moat behind home plate. MLB has unequivocally made it clear that fans don’t matter, and neither do the players (you know, the ones who make the product). Last time I checked, I don’t come to the ballpark to watch Hal Steinbrenner or the Henry family swing a bat or throw a ball.
Baseball’s economics are broken. The players’ proposals sought to make baseball’s economics more equitable. The numbers would have likely made minor dents to ownership’s bottom-line. The owners’ response was to sit on their hands and count their cash. Had MLB negotiated in good faith, you and I would be watching baseball right now. We’d be arguing about whether or not Jasson Dominguez is a flawed prospect or a generational prospect making strides; we’d be fretting about SS and 1B. Instead, we have apathy and disgust.
These days have been a long time coming. I’ve expected it, but I can’t begin to tell you how angry it makes me as a fan. The worst part is that it didn’t have to be this way. Baseball’s lockout and uncertain future falls squarely at the lowly feet of Rob Manfred and baseball’s owners.
The SSTN Weekly Mailbag will return next week. Send in your questions to SSTNReadermail@gmail.com, and we’ll try to return to some form of normalcy.