Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 2, 2021

As The Lockout Begins, Faceless Players Unite

The clock struck midnight, and much like a royal coach and its horses turning into a pumpkin and pack of mice, the pictures of active players on the roster page of every MLB franchise’s website transformed into faceless avatars, identical gray outlines of a head with a baseball cap against a black background.  Gone too were all stories about any member of the active roster, replaced by tales of the long-forgotten exploits of retired stars.  Unfortunately for fans, the changes were not from a fairy tale that is certain to have a happy ending.  Rather, they were stark visual proof that the owners’ lockout of major league baseball players had begun.

According to MLB, the scrubbing of team websites was necessary because the now-expired 2016 collective bargaining agreement governed the league’s ability to use player likenesses.  Despite that explanation, which sounds like it came from a memo prepared by commissioner Rob Manfred’s legal department, the move had multiple unintended consequences.  First, it served as a reminder of both the wealth of minutiae to be negotiated before a new CBA is completed, and the intense distrust which exists between owners and players. Did MLB really think the Players Association was going to sue if the Mets’ displayed Max Scherzer’s photo?  Second, because the legalistic explanation was never going to catch up to the rapid spread of the act itself, it left MLB looking petty.  And third, it quickly became a humorous rallying point for both players and many fans supporting them, who started replacing their social media profile pictures with the anonymous silhouettes. 

Of course, for all the initial efforts on both sides to emphasize the lack of any immediate impact from the lockout, the unanimous decision by thirty billionaire owners to end a quarter-century of labor peace in the Great Game is no laughing matter.  That much was made clear, albeit in typically disingenuous fashion, by Manfred’s statement that was posted on every team’s website and MLB.com as an open letter to fans. 

In it the commissioner lamented the rupture to the usual rhythm of the Great Game’s offseason while emphasizing that there was still plenty of time to reach an agreement before “doing damage to the 2022 season.”  Of course, in the same statement he claimed that owners had “been forced to commence a lockout.”  That was a lie.  The vote to end all offseason activity and cut players off from any interaction with team personnel, including trainers and support staff, was not mandated by either the old CBA or any provision of labor law.  It was an entirely voluntary act by the owners.  Manfred acknowledged his own deceit within a few sentences, when he characterized the lockout as a defensive mechanism designed to “jumpstart the negotiations.”

He also highlighted the spending spree in the days leading up to the December 1 deadline, noting that teams committed $1.7 billion in free agent contracts during the month of November.  What he chose not to emphasize was the fact that a single franchise, the Texas Rangers, was responsible for nearly one-third of that largesse, and more than sixty percent of the total – a combined $1 billion-plus – came from just three teams, the Rangers, Mets, and Tigers.  Meanwhile more than a third of Manfred’s bosses have spent less than $10 million each on free agents this offseason.  Included among those eleven teams are three – the Reds, Guardians, and Athletics – that have yet to spend a dime on even a single free agent acquisition.

Manfred’s focus on one big number obscures those small details while also missing the larger point.  For years, including through the five-year term of the old CBA, and on into the future, the Great Game’s top free agents have and will be richly rewarded. But the understandable focus every winter on the handful of deals with eye-popping numbers mostly just fuels the canard that MLB’s labor issues are a fight between billionaire owners and millionaire players, leaving many fans angry at both.  While the value of their baseball franchises put every principal owner of an MLB team into the billionaire category, most would make it even without their sports asset.  However only thirty percent of players earn more than $1 million per year, and unlike the constantly appreciating value of the extremely limited commodity that is a major league team, a player’s asset is his skill, which declines over time, has a finite life even for the most talented, and can be instantly reduced in value by injury. 

That reality is, in part, why it is essential for stars like Max Scherzer to accept the willingness of a Steve Cohen to overpay for his services, as the Mets owner almost surely just did in giving the 37-year-old right-hander a three-year contract worth $130 million.  The deal not only takes care of the next several generations of the Scherzer clan, it also raises the bar for every starting pitcher who reaches free agency.  Few will ever sign a contract with remotely similar numbers, but the value of the agreements they do ink will be influenced by the worth assigned to an elite performer like Scherzer.

Still, most players are not free agents, and as teams have shifted to an analytics driven approach to roster building, stuffing lineups with younger players under team control while manipulating service time to prolong that status, baseball’s basic economic structure has shifted dramatically in favor of the owners.  Because the teams are private companies all the analyses require some amount of guesswork, so the results vary slightly.  But the consensus – enough that this number is used by MLB, is that at the time of the 1994 strike, 58% of annual revenues went to player salaries.  Once the strike was settled and the game resumed, that number increased slightly in the next several years, peaking at a bit over 60%.  But the portion of revenue dedicated to paying the athletes people come to see has been shrinking for years, to its current level somewhere south of 50%, and during the term of the last CBA, the average player salary declined as well, by almost 9%.   Since MLB is now an $11 billion annual business, players see a ten percent (or more) drop in the share of revenue devoted to salaries as roughly $1 billion a year taken out of their pockets, money that would have easily prevented that decrease in average pay.  Not surprisingly, they are strongly united in the belief that’s a sum worth fighting for.

Will that unity hold, as a new year begins and February dates for reporting to Spring Training approach?  On that score Manfred, with a constituency of just thirty owners, has a far easier task than does MLBPA director Tony Clark.  But the organization first led more than half a century ago by Marvin Miller remains the strongest union in sports.  They may not get everything they want, but it would be unwise to sell the players short.  For starters, reducing them all to faceless avatars has only reminded each of them how much they have in common.


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