How MLB, MLBPA must get their priorities straight as lockout looms over their sport

Hours before the negotiation teams of the players and owners met Thursday, one industry source lamented the state of the game. Each side is entrenched and angry, the source noted. “I don’t even know where we go from here,” he said. “I really don’t. Everybody is painted into a corner.”

With the sport seemingly headed for at least some downtime, there’s plenty of room for reflection — and now is a great opportunity for everyone involved to ask themselves hard questions about how they contributed to a completely toxic working relationship, and what they can do (and must do) to effect change.

The owners

1. Why can’t we focus on the bigger picture? The owners need to free themselves from the cancerous incrementalism that has infected their sport, something their extraordinary collective wealth should allow them to do. It’s not evident that some of the owners are capable of this, though, given the small-minded decisions over the past couple of years, such as when the Oakland Athletics proposed to cut the salaries of their minor leaguers from $400 to $300 a week during the COVID-19 shutdown, or the league’s choice to cut about a quarter of the minor league clubs despite an annual savings of less than $2 million per team.

But the owners need to recognize that even if they prevail in a long-term standoff with the players and end up with a slightly bigger pile of money, their product would be damaged, perhaps irreparably. Some fans would stay away forever, and the players’ anger would persist. The owners need the players to be on board to build the sport, through on-field changes and promotion.

Whatever revenue the owners might sacrifice with a major, decisive concession in the competitive balance tax would be more than offset in the years ahead through MLB growth.

2. Why are we working to protect a system that incentivizes losing? Think about that: The Baltimore Orioles (among others, following the example set by yet more teams) have determined it’s better to cut their payroll to nothing, lose and pretend they are selling a major league product. Is this really that far removed from the notorious actions of players on the 1919 Chicago White Sox, who chose to take money over competitive integrity and tanked the World Series?

The point of such steadfast losing is to build a farm system full of top draft picks. And yet MLB fosters a dynamic in which the best, most exciting players are held in the minor leagues long past the time when they should be promoted, simply for the sake of financial advantage. Kris Bryant and Jarred Kelenic are the most famous examples, but there’s another in Baltimore: Former No. 1 pick Adley Rutschman has been the Orioles’ best catcher — and one of their best players — for a long time, but he likely won’t make his major league debut until he’s 24½ if Baltimore continues to manipulate his service time.

These noncompetitive behaviors are bad for baseball. The owners should be as devoted to ending them as the players’ union is. Some agents and club executives have laughed at the notion that the proposed draft lottery would compel tanking teams to spend. “In fact, some of those teams [that don’t want to spend more money on a higher pick] might prefer to have the sixth player in the draft, rather than the first,” one longtime agent said.

3. Where’s the leadership? Not everyone among the owners agrees privately with how these negotiations have played out; it’s easy to imagine the leaders of big-market teams watching the shutdown with incredulity. But will anyone among the dissenters actually step out and speak up?

In the spring of 1995, with the players’ strike lingering, management generated an absurd plan to sell teams on replacement players — scabs, in the eyes of the union members — as a big league product. Orioles owner Peter Angelos refused to participate in the ridiculous ploy. Yes, some of his reasons were self-serving — he wanted to protect his organization’s most significant asset, Cal Ripken Jr.’s consecutive game streak, and, having made his fortune in plaintiff law, representing union members, he recognized how hypocritical he would’ve looked. But Angelos was willing to take a stand in that moment, and that undercut folly that should’ve never been attempted.

Baseball is starving for somebody willing to take a stand outside the flock.

Rob Manfred

Rob Manfred explains the cancellation of games resulting in a delayed start to the 2022 MLB season.

1. What happened to relationship building? At the outset of Manfred’s time as commissioner, he talked about wanting to forge relationships with individual players. What has been borne out through this labor mess is that he has fallen far short in this effort. After the next labor deal is made, he needs to mingle with the players, listen to their feedback and do a better job at connecting with them. There is a strong perception among players that Manfred and those who work on his negotiating team don’t really like baseball, and that they don’t care about the players. As best he can, Manfred needs to hit that head on. He can’t allow his frustration with the union leadership impact his conversations with players. This might mean less golf and more time around the batting cages.

He also needs to build a more diverse group around him. As one former player seethed during the Nine Days of Almost Nothing in Florida, all of the folks walking across the compound to shuttle offers were white. That needs to change.

2. Why can’t I let anything go? Manfred needs a thicker skin. He needs to understand that the criticism aimed his way isn’t always personal; it’s business. The players who attack him on social media are going after the person who sits in his place as the chief lawyer for those with real power — the owners who steer and dictate policies (Manfred does, at times, make it easier for them to do so, practicing his golf swing and smiling while announcing canceled games). For Manfred, absorbing that frustration needs to become just part of the job, as other commissioners have learned. Roger Goodell gets booed every time he shows his face at the draft, every time he steps to the microphone. It’s just the way it goes.

But whether it’s player reaction or media coverage, Manfred can’t seem to let it go. There he was on Tuesday, in the midst of a devastating pivot point in baseball history, turning oddly prickly in response to a question posed by Ken Davidoff of the New York Post. Davidoff is retiring from baseball coverage, and as Manfred began to answer Davidoff’s question, he made reference to Davidoff’s past criticisms of him and said with laughing sarcasm that he’ll really miss the writer. Given the gravity of the moment, the reaction was odd. Manfred needs to do better.

3. Why are we making this harder than it has to be? No matter how this turns out, Manfred needs to make sure everyone on his side of the aisle keeps their competitive instincts in check for the sake of the sport. Following the 2016 labor deal, most in the sport immediately recognized what a wipeout the negotiation was for the owners — and in the aftermath of that, the players seethed. So the fact that someone under Manfred’s umbrella generated a championship belt to celebrate success in arbitration was completely unnecessary. It might have felt like fun to baseball executives, but it stoked the fury of the players; it has been portrayed like the front-office version of a bat flip. Manfred needs to make it clear to everyone around him that it’s better to be stoic in success or failure.

Tony Clark

1. How much ground can we make up? If you believe in the Harry Truman notion that the buck stops with the leader, then the awful results of the 2016 CBA talks for the players fall on Clark’s shoulders. The enormous loss of financial growth that infuriates the players was caused by Clark’s choices in those negotiations. The ground the players are fighting to win back now is the ground Clark lost 5½ years ago. It’s unclear whether Clark has fully owned that failure. Publicly, he has put the onus on the owners.

But if the owners move substantively and a better deal comes within reach, Clark, now working alongside longtime attorney Bruce Meyer, might want to admit his own mistakes in years past and advise the players that what’s on the table represents a suitable improvement. As one agent said, “It might take 15 years, or three CBA negotiations, to get back to where you were before. You can’t expect to get it all back at once.”

2. Why didn’t we start this sooner? The late union leader Michael Weiner constantly engaged with Major League Baseball in the months leading up to the CBA expiration, working through the complicated puzzles. Clark has taken a very different approach in the past two CBA negotiations, waiting and waiting before diving into the core issues.

The players are rightly furious about some of the owners’ tactics and PR spin. But is it possible the union would be better served by a Weiner-style engagement? Moving forward, could the business relationship be improved by more consistent dialogue?

Max Scherzer and the executive committee

1. Who are we really fighting for? With negotiations between the two sides stalled, this is the moment to inject some creativity into these talks, and the executive committee needs to assess whether there might be a better way to get money into the hands of the middle class in its union.

That middle class has taken the biggest hit in recent years, with the average middle-class free-agent contract plummeting by almost half, from $11.8 million in 2014 to $6.2 million last winter. When this labor stoppage ends, it’s that group who will pay the biggest price for the lost revenues of the owners’ lockout: Teams will reduce their budgets and their offers to longtime veterans who are not stars.

The biggest pushes for increased pay for players — a higher minimum salary, and the pool of money being negotiated to reward young stars — won’t necessarily help these players. Some agents and club executives agree teams will continue to non-tender arbitration-eligible players, which will only grow the free-agent pool, and the bonus money will go only to the highest echelon of young players.

The union leadership has maintained a stated principle that it will never agree to a salary cap, never agree to a design that might restrict what any player might make. But as some agents note, that principle might not necessarily serve the interests of the rank and file.

It might be too late in these negotiations for the players to construct and propose a system that serves the interests of all tiers of players — as the NBA union seemingly has. But there is precedent for the union changing its stance. In the 1990s, the union leadership rejected the idea of drug testing while citing the principle of privacy rights. But in 2002, in the face of rampant performance-enhancing drug use, players convinced union leadership that the old stance didn’t protect the interests of those who wanted to remain clean. Those players wanted testing so they didn’t feel compelled to take drugs to keep up. The union abandoned that principle and agreed to the first drug testing program.

Right now, the highest-paid players are doing great, pushing the highest salaries to record levels annually But the middle-class players are losing major ground. In the years ahead, they need help.