Opinion: MLB has put itself in a bad place

The Seattle Times
Published: 12/4/2021 4:47:18 PM

SEATTLE — I got an old, familiar feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach late Wednesday night, when MLB announced it had declared a lockout.

It’s not that the lockout itself was a surprise. Hardly. Both sides have been bracing for just this occurrence for months, and it would have taken a miracle to avoid a work stoppage. These iterations of the MLB Players Association and MLB ownership don’t do miracles. They do rancor.

Immediately, commissioner Rob Manfred issued a letter to fans ripping the union for its intransigence. The union fired back with a statement accusing the owners of negotiating in bad faith. On Thursday, predictably, there was more squabbling, as each side presented radically different interpretations of the stalled negotiations, so divergent it was as if we were dealing with alternate realities.

And suddenly, it was like we were back in 1994 all over again, when the animosity between the sides was immense, and had been growing exponentially worse for two decades. They might as well have shipped in Bud Selig and Donald Fehr to Irving, Texas, site of the final failed negotiating sessions, to be guest smirkers and throw out the ceremonial first barb.

In the bad old days, every time the basic agreement expired, it was a guaranteed work stoppage — strikes in 1972, 1980, 1981, 1985 and 1994-95, and lockouts in 1973, 1976 and 1990 — as owners made desperate (and ill-fated) attempts to curb the meteoric economic gains by the players. Legendary negotiators such as union founder Marvin Miller and his protégé Fehr always managed to outmaneuver and outlast the owners, who kept trying to institute a salary cap and other drags on the growing amount of money earned by players. But it seemed as if the players kept accumulating more power with each agreement.

The tipping point, of course, came in 1994 with the long and painful strike that began at the height of the pennant races in August and lasted through the following spring — with teams populated by replacement players, maybe the darkest time of my baseball-writing career.

The damage was immense, but it also seemed as if the whole sordid affair knocked some sense into the sides. They actually worked on developing some semblance of a cordial working relationship. The next five times the contract expired, an agreement was reached without a work stoppage. The era of labor peace lasted 26 years — and brought with it unprecedented prosperity for owners and players.

The era of labor peace abruptly ended Wednesday. It’s an extremely dangerous development for a sport that has already seen its place in the landscape slowly recede, amid growing competition for disposable income, growing concern about competitive balance and growing complaints about the pace of play.

Fans already found out during the COVID-19 shutdown that they don’t really need sports to fill their days. And I can vouch from experience that there’s nothing more distasteful to fans than listening to the commissioner and union chief — Manfred and Tony Clark, in this case, but the names don’t even matter — bicker about sums of money that are unimaginable to common folks.

And who knows when this lockout will end? The issues at play are so fundamental — involving free agency, arbitration and revenue sharing, among many others — that there is not going to be a simple path to a settlement.

Especially not with the balance of power having shifted to ownership in a way I never, ever thought I’d see. The last few basic agreements have whittled away at the growth of salaries, and the luxury tax has served as a de facto salary cap.

By embracing data that shows that players’ performance begins to wane after age 30 or so, teams are far more reluctant to give out massive contracts to middle-age players. Players, in turn, are highly concerned about teams that make no effort to win — so-called “tanking” — as they rebuild with young players. They want mechanisms that ensure players get more pay earlier in their careers without what they perceive as artificial restraints on free agency and service-time manipulation.

It’s far more complicated than that, but I suspect you don’t really want to hear about the minutiae of these tedious labor issues. You want a settlement so we can play ball again. And we’ll get one, eventually. The question is how much collateral damage will be done along the way.

Manfred will tell you that the motivation for a lockout is to ensure that no regular-season games are lost. There was no way owners were going to repeat their tactical mistake in 1994, when they went into the season without an agreement, which immediately gave the players massive leverage to institute a strike. They did so at the most damaging time for owners. The World Series was canceled for the second time in baseball history.

So in theory, owners this time around bought a couple months to keep negotiating, with a sense of urgency but without the immediate threat of losing games. The next tipping point will come in late February or early March, when a settlement will have to be reached to allow for a bare-bones three-week spring training, as occurred after the 1990 lockout ended. Otherwise, opening day and beyond is in jeopardy.

If you want some hopeful news, it’s that each of the three previous lockouts was settled without losing a regular-season game. That’s a stark contrast from the strikes that all shut down the regular season to varying degrees.

Ominously, I’ve seen it all before. I’ve also learned that despite all the fans who vow during a work stoppage that they’ll never come back to baseball, most eventually do. But not all. And maybe all the old rules have changed in the ensuing quarter century, with the advent of social media. In so many ways, it’s a whole new world.

All I know is that it’s going to be distressing times over these upcoming weeks and months. And there’s going to be hell to pay, one way or another.


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