With the acrimony between Major League Baseball ownership and the Players Association reaching hull-crushing depths, and hopes for a 2020 season being eroded more and more by the leaked memo or letter, it’s time to stop seeing this as anything other than what it is: an owner-induced labor stoppage. A lockout.
Remember when this was still about trying to play an abbreviated baseball season in the midst of COVID-19? It doesn’t feel like that anymore. Frankly, now I’m entirely unconvinced this was ever about Coronavirus.
If Major League Baseball is using the current global health crisis as a way to preemptively prosecute the forthcoming collective bargaining agreement — and I’m inclined to think this is exactly that — then not only is everything surrounding this cold war a bad charade, but a sick joke played on the players, as well as baseball’s fans, ancillary employees, beat writers now scrambling to cobble together content in the protracted absence of games when they’re not getting furloughed, all the way down to nearby bar owners and pro bono writers who run baseball websites.
The baseball season should be two and a half months old now. It should be almost halfway complete. Life under quarantine has warped our sense of time and season, but it’s mind-boggling to think that it’s mid-June and we have no baseball. It’s almost more mind-boggling at this point to think of what these days would be like with Major League Baseball, like someone fighting the flu trying to remember what it feels like to be healthy.
Instead, we’re treated to the very passive-aggressive, couple-on-the-brink-of-divorce-esque public bickering via beat writers conscripted into the war between management and labor.
In the absence of transparency — an extent to which I can understand; contract negotiations, like any legal proceeding, should be played out under an umbrella of *ahem* discretion — we’re left with leaked intel and leaky propositions, such as MLB claiming a $640,000 loss per game without fans, totaling $4B in losses in an 82-game season, a $500MM loss in 2020 based on a 48-game season as opposed to an 82-game version. It’s enough to make one’s head spin.
But all these numbers are vigorously disputed by MLBPA, and if reputation is anything, we shouldn’t take anything MLB says at its word. At all. Not that the players are represented by a union leader incapable of tripping over himself, mind you, but that at this point, it’s ownership via its avatar of avarice in Rob Manfred that is attempting to reneg on the memorandum of understanding established March 26. It’s ownership that is preventing players from returning to camp or otherwise preparing in earnest for a season more closely resembling a sprint rather than the customary marathon. Owners are preventing workers from getting back to work.
This is literal definition of a lockout.
And, plainly, the players shouldn’t negotiate with the owners right now when the eruption of bad faith from Mount St. MLB can be seen for miles. Much has already been made of the correspondence reported first at The Athletic by Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich on June 12, where MLB deputy commissioner Dan Halem launches all sorts of nonsense against the wall to see what sticks. Lost in the bitter tone of the memo and some of the more acrimonious-by-legal-standards barbs is a premise that should cause the players to stop all negotiations post haste:
In his letter, Halem takes exception to what he calls, “the Association’s rhetoric that players ‘remain opposed to any further pay cuts,’” saying the players were never entitled to be paid in the first place because Manfred had the authority to suspend all contracts once President Trump declared a national emergency on March 13. [Emphasis mine]
This is a massive, fictitious assumption of power, if allowed to be by way of continued bargaining and negotiation. While it is true that Manfred did have that authority, having and using are two very distinct things; and at no point does it appear that this privilege was invoked. Quite the opposite, back in March, the league and the players were still relatively on the same wavelength and agreed in the MOU to pay $170MM to the players. This necessarily exempts the league from the likes of a spurious claim such as Halem’s. The MOU is essentially a pre-contract agreement, a fiat amendment to the CBA with the specific intent to bypass the spectre of a nuclear option.
If the union negotiators were to come to the table now, it would be a tacit admission of Halem’s premise, in essence deleveraging themselves from the MOU. This alone should make further negotiations impossible under present conditions. Union representation can’t possibly be that dumb; Dan Halem shouldn’t have been that stupid.
Further, ownership is asking players play some games essentially for free. In the middle of a global public health crisis. For the apparent sole reason of lining the pockets of owners who shouldn’t need more lining. It’s easy to look at the outsized contracts of the likes of Bryce Harper, Mike Trout, Christian Yelich, Stephen Strasburg or Anthony Rendon and shrug at the plight of professional athletes. Even then, the superstar is the exception and not the rule: while the median income of a Major Leaguer is about $1.5 million (as of 2018), and your low-end baseball player will see more money than most of us ever will, saying nothing of the lifestyle perks also negotiated within the CBA, it’s the principle that matters.
Yes, Trout and company have signed lucrative contracts. Those contracts had to come from somewhere, and they too had to be negotiated in good faith. The same owners who freely locked up players with massive, if not thoroughly bloated deals are the same owners now crapping their pants at the possibility of playing games without fans. Of course, it merits mentioning that turnstile revenue represents a slimmer and slimmer portion of team revenue, while media deals have bubbled to near-unsustainable levels. These same owners are also reportedly opposed to lifting antiquated territorial restrictions (read: blackouts) because reasons.
Do these owners actually care about the game? Are all 30 MLB principal owners this obtuse? I can’t imagine John Sherman signed up for this crap when he bought the Royals from the late David Glass. (Bob Nutting, on the other hand…)
It’s really simple: Baseball, or any professional sports franchise, shouldn’t be a primary way to make one’s money. These should be passion projects, not profit engines, especially when considering just how much owners are willing to offer players on paper, but not during a pandemic. More Bill Veeck, less Arte Moreno (or, if I’m being totally honest, Bud Selig, who traded passion for profit at some point in his ownership of the Brewers and shouldn’t be as venerated as he is when he threatened to move the Brewers to Charlotte in lobbying the State of Wisconsin for Miller Park’s stadium funding.)
And if owners are willing to scuttle prior agreements and undercut the contractual obligations of the players to do what they do professionally, then it’s clear that baseball — and everything and everyone asscoiated with it — is the least of their concerns. They will put labor into a position where they cannot fulfill their end of the bargain. They will lockout players.
And that’s exactly what is happening.
Brent Sirvio is a co-founder of Bronx to Bushville.