Ben Frederickson: Now would be great time for MLB to swap lockout nonchalance for action
ST. LOUIS — You know what would have been nice?
Locked-out Major League Baseball giving its fans some good news Monday.
Americans returned to work during the ongoing pandemic and attempted to shake off a rather stubborn holiday hangover. A little sunshine from their national pastime would have warmed the cockles. Instead they got more of the same cold shoulder.
No one who is being realistic expected MLB owners and players to spring into 2022 by suddenly discovering common ground, but some signs from both sides that signaled a shared determination to get there sooner rather than later would have been encouraging. No news would have been bad enough. The arrival of frustrating news made things worse.
USA Today reported that as of midday Monday there were no new negotiating sessions scheduled between the commissioner’s office and the players’ union. Perhaps Commissioner Rob Manfred and players’ union leader Tony Clark forgot to unwrap their 2022 planners during their lengthy holiday breaks? Or maybe Manfred was too busy taking care of something more important. The New York Post reported Monday that respected MLB writer Ken Rosenthal was let go from MLB-owned MLB Network because he had written critically about the commissioner.
For those keeping score at home, there have been just two known meetings between players and owners in the last month, and neither dug into the big economic issues at the heart of baseball’s first work stoppage since the 1994 strike. Maybe it’s good that some progress was at least being pursued on the issues not related to who makes what, but considering that debate is the real reason this lockout exists, players and owners avoiding talking about anything but exactly that topic kind of seems like scheduling meetings about carpet color before nailing down the terms of a mortgage.
The economic issues in play are complex, and both sides seem to be more interested in spinning than solving.
Players are swinging away at tanking owners, pinpointing service-time manipulation as something that must be stopped and prioritizing a faster track toward arbitration and free agency in a sport that has retreated from paying top dollars to non-elite, aging players in the post-steroid era.
Owners are not so keen on overhauling the game’s economic model. They think players have a better setup than in other leagues, because of a lack of a salary cap and lengthy, guaranteed deals for those who can earn them. Shifting around the amount of money spent on salaries has been the theme of the owners’ suggestions, but increasing the money spent on salaries will be contested.
This bitter territory is where the bulk of the battle will be waged. The wait to get into the trenches is a tactic. It’s also insulting.
When this lockout started last month, Manfred made a big deal about the timing. It guaranteed time. Time to negotiate. Time to protect the 2022 season. Time to do the least damage possible. That was back when baseball had nearly four months to work with before what is supposed to be opening day. Monday marked the 32nd day since then. Players and owners have managed to mostly squander more than a quarter of their available negotiating days.
And don’t forget spring training. Even if rushed, players will need about three weeks to get ready.
The start of the regular season is the only real deadline, and both sides know it. Fans should, too. That’s when real money starts getting lost for players and owners. That said, the general sense of apathy both sides have shown will go from frustrating to unforgivable if the 2022 regular season winds up wearing so much as a scratch.
Owners should fire Manfred if opening day arrives late. Players should fire Clark if more time to negotiate is wished for in the end. If the whole world sees a cliff coming and the two men most responsible for avoiding it can’t get their parties on the same page before the crash, it will be time for new blood in those jobs.
There’s time, but precious days have been wasted as Manfred’s lockout enters its second month.
Owners can afford nonchalance. Most players can, too. Baseball cities that rely on the regular season, not so much. Same for businesses in stadium footprints and the hardworking men and women selling hot dogs and parking cars. And then there are the fans who don’t want to make a dollar off baseball, the ones who just want to pay their dollars so they can watch a sport that is acting like it has something better to do than solve its problems.
So, how about a little more urgency?
It would be nice.
A bigger bite at the apple. The average major league salary has dropped 6.4% since 2017, according to the Associated Press. Meanwhile, MLB has seen record revenues, topping out at $10.7 billion in 2019. The players want to level the playing field.
Doing so will require a massive restructuring of an economic system that disadvantages less-experienced players by requiring three years of major league service to be eligible for salary arbitration and six for free agency. But that isn’t even the players’ biggest gripe.
The root of the issue, according to many players, is what Max Scherzer described Wednesday as “a competition problem.” Players believe not enough teams are actively trying to win — and therefore not paying big salaries — because the CBA rewards the worst teams with the highest amateur draft picks and the most money to sign them. The number of 95-loss teams rose from three in 2011 and four in 2012 to eight in 2018 and six this year.
“Adjustments have to be made in order to bring out the competition,” Scherzer said in a Zoom call to announce his record contract with the New York Mets. “As players, that’s absolutely critical to us to have a highly competitive league. When we don’t have that, we have issues.”
Two words: expanded playoffs.
The owners proposed a 14-team field, according to the New York Post, after nine seasons with a 10-team format. The move would increase revenues from ticket sales and especially television deals and put more money in everyone’s pocket.
But the players are concerned that granting more teams entry into the postseason would further disincentivize owners from spending. If teams can get into the playoffs with 85 wins rather than 90, some may attempt to compete with a lower payroll.
Manfred is hyper-focused on on-field changes, such as a pitch clock, that will make games more enjoyable to watch. But he said Thursday that those issues are being cast aside for now to keep the focus on economics.
The owners are mostly pleased with the status quo. But given their appetite for expanded playoffs, the players likely will withhold their stamp of approval in return for something substantial, such as a modification of the draft system or free agency based on factors other than service time.
Some owners may get antsy the longer they’re unable to sell tickets for next season. But it would seem far more difficult to unify 1,200 players — many of whom don’t stay in the majors long enough to ever cash in on the millions available in free agency — than 30 billionaire owners.
The players stuck together last year in demanding 100% of their salaries for every game they played during the 60-game schedule. And to hear Scherzer tell it, they are resolved to see this through, too, regardless of whether they make $600,000 per year or $43.3 million, his new annual salary from the Mets.
“We’re absolutely committed to doing that,” said Scherzer, who serves on the MLBPA’s executive subcommittee. “When I hear every player, whether young or old, they’re all saying the same thing, clubhouse to clubhouse. It’s not just me that thinks this. It’s everybody. It’s obvious to all the players.”
Scherzer added that the players have been girding for a fight since the ratification of the last CBA, and the union has assembled “a pretty good war chest” over the last five years to assist middle- and lower-tier players in the event that a stoppage drags on.
Yep. Consider the back-and-forth rhetoric as the lockout began.
Manfred accused the players of making an “aggressive set of proposals” that are “bad for competitive balance” because they would make it more difficult for small-market teams to compete. He also claimed the players rejected concessions by the owners to increase young players’ salaries, eliminate draft-pick compensation tied to free agency, create a universal designated hitter, and create a draft lottery similar to the NBA.
“We made a proposal [Wednesday] that, if it had been accepted, I believe would have provided a pretty clear path to make an agreement,” Manfred said.
In a separate news conference Thursday, Clark disagreed with that characterization.
“From the outset, it seems as if the league has been more interested in the appearance of bargaining than bargaining itself,” Clark said.
So, no, a new agreement won’t be hammered out in a few days, which explains why so many free agents rushed out between Black Friday and Cyber Monday to sign contracts. Teams dished out eight- and nine-figure deals like leftover stuffing and cranberry sauce. The total outlay in November was roughly $1.7 billion.
There’s plenty of time before either side begins to lose money and too many fundamental issues at stake for the future of the sport to rush this process. But if there isn’t a CBA in place before, say, Super Bowl LVI, it’ll be time to activate the DEFCON levels.
Bob Levey/Getty Images North America/TNS
Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred looks on prior to Game 1 of the World Series between the Atlanta Braves and the Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park on Oct. 26, 2021 in Houston. (Bob Levey/Getty Images/TNS)