By Mark Kreidler
Special to The Examiner
The Giants have legitimate questions. Here’s one: How does a team go from Buster Posey to Joey Bart/Curt Casali and not drop off the cliff? Another: If you win 15 fewer games than last season, are you still a wild success?
The answer to that second question, by the way, is yes — but only if you can actually get on the baseball field to play baseball games in this sport we call baseball. Weirdly enough, that’s where we’re stuck.
I’d love to have spent the winter debating Kris Bryant’s value or trying to guess what Brandon Crawford regressing to the mean even looks like. Instead, we’ve had a steaming platter of owner obstruction with a side of delayed spring training. If this is how MLB’s brain trust thinks it’s going to climb out of a two-year pandemic-dug ditch, then — wait, that can’t be it. Nobody’s that daft.
The last two weeks have been darkly instructive, though. The owners put forth a transparently insincere effort to “negotiate” with the MLB Players Association by asking for federal mediation, then portrayed the union as louses for saying no thanks. After that, they waited another week-plus to make a new proposal, when they know full well that they’re still at the midpoint of negotiations.
It’s incredible: Despite routing their own product in each of the last two contracts, the owners want to wring yet more from that product — that is, from the players. They’re trying to steal second with an eight-run lead in the ninth inning. It’s genuinely nonsensical.
I’ve covered a few of these — more than a few. There have been several baseball labor disputes in which “Both sides make valid points!” was a fairly reasonable take. This is not one of them.
This time, what the players are asking is, in fact, reasonable. They’re asking, for example, that their average salaries stop going down when profits are up. Their average salary has decreased in each of the past four years and is essentially flat over the past decade, while MLB revenue has shot up 20% during those same years.
In fact, it took a global COVID emergency to interrupt one of the all-time winning streaks by any group of sports owners ever: 17 straight years in which every single year marked a new all-time high in revenue for MLB.
The players would like the owners to quit rewarding teams for tanking. Recognizing that franchises have functionally gutted the middle class of MLB veterans in favor of using young, lowest-paid guys (often in order to lose), the players would like those rookie-level salaries to go up meaningfully, since the future free-agent payday many of them dream of isn’t likely to happen.
The players have said yes to the universal DH and yes to expanded playoffs, both requested by the owners, and they withdrew their own proposal to get players to free agency faster.
The owners, meanwhile, locked out their players in December, then went 43 days before making a counter to the most recent union proposal. “Phones work two ways,” Commissioner Rob Manfred replied when asked to account for that inexplicable lapse. Thanks for your service, Rob.
It seems almost impossible the owners of any business coming out of a two-year pandemic would purposely choose to choke out their own product, but then again, this is baseball. It’s incredibly different. Sports leagues just are. In other businesses, people work to make a product. In sports, the players are the product. And yet the very owners of these teams get confused on that point time and again.
There are not always two equal sides to a story. In this case, the MLB owners 1.) Declared a lockout to “jump-start” negotiations; 2.) Subsequently failed to make a proposal for six weeks and now will have made exactly two offers in 11 weeks; 3.) Have evinced almost no interest in doing anything that would prevent tanking; 4.) Refuse to meaningfully adjust the luxury tax, which serves as a de facto cap on spending; 5.) Refuse to meaningfully adjust rookie salaries; 6.) Have brought forth not a single good-faith attempt at adjusting a labor relationship that has become badly imbalanced; 7.) Said they wanted mediation when they really didn’t; 8.) Sit perfectly willing to sabotage their own industry, if it comes to that.
I made up those last two, since we can’t know the minds of owners who don’t deign to speak to their own fan bases and who hide their books even as they demand to be believed about finances. But we do know this: The owners have always had the ability to end the lockout. Like this: “We’re lifting the lockout and opening camps, in order for players to be fully ready for the regular season, while we continue to aggressively negotiate.”
That won’t happen. So, you know, conclusions will be drawn.
If little of this makes sense to you, it’s my fault — I forgot to mention the background. Several years ago, after Bud Selig called it quits as commissioner, the owners appointed in his place a man with no palpable interest in baseball, a man, Manfred, whose lifetime calling and passion is labor law.
Manfred earned his bachelor’s degree at Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, his law degree at Harvard and his negotiating chops at Morgan Lewis & Bockius, a firm long known for its anti-union and union-busting tactics. Don’t let the earnest comments fool you: He means business, and he works for the owners, not the game.
That’s fine, in theory. The commissioner, after all, is hired and paid by the owners. But when Manfred says, as he did the other day, “I see missing games as a disastrous outcome for this industry,” he’s a little too on point. This is, to him, industry. The game comes second.
Mark Kreidler is a freelance contributor to The Examiner. Read more of his columns at https://markkreidler.substack.com