Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 17, 2022

Hope Is Delayed, But Hopefully Not Denied

Winter lingers in northern New England.  It does so every February, irrespective of the prognostications of a rodent almost five hundred miles away in western Pennsylvania.  In New Hampshire, there are always six more weeks of winter – at least – when the second month of the year arrives.  Still, as the calendar advances, there is now the occasional day when one awakens to a temperature above freezing rather than in the single digits.  We who live here, whether by choice or inertia, see the relative warmth of such a morning as a sign of hope that the dead season will eventually loosen its icy grip. 

There is great power in hope.  It is, as a former community organizer once pointed out, audacious.  Hope is bold and daring, and those intrepid and lively qualities give one the strength needed to overcome challenges, whether in the form of the unavoidable cold and dark of winter or the inevitable ups and downs of the longest season.  Hope is why fans of the Great Game always eagerly await the arrival of mid-February, for that is the time, weeks before Opening Day and months before the playoffs, when the awesome power of hope is most widespread.  When no franchise, be it mighty or low, has tasted the bitter tang of defeat, every fan can indulge in dreams of glory.  Hope is everywhere at the beginning, when fans celebrate the magic of four little words – pitchers and catchers report.

But not this year.  This winter the day when training camps were scheduled to open, in cities large and small across the state of Florida and at ten facilities ringing Phoenix like planets around a sun, has come and gone.  There are a few minor league players at Spring Training complexes, and more will follow in the next few days.  But major leaguers are not allowed.  Thirty billionaires, members of the fortunate little club who own prodigiously valuable MLB franchises, have shut their sport down by locking out major league players in what is now the second longest work stoppage in baseball history.  There are no kids lined up for autographs in Tampa or Fort Myers, no initial reporting from Glendale or Mesa that this pitcher or that slugger looks to be in the best shape of his life. 

It does not have to be this way.  Every well-meaning fan tweeting his or her demand that the two sides come to an agreement posthaste should remember that the absence of those and other traditions of Spring Training is a management decision.  The familiar rhythms of this time of year could resume while negotiations continued, players and owners operating under the terms of the expired Collective Bargaining Agreement, if the owners unlocked the gates.  Would the Players Association strike in such an instance?  Perhaps, but then the onus for the work stoppage would rightly be on the MLBPA.  The point is that as convenient as it is to play the “both sides” blame game, it takes only one to bring the sport to a halt, and since midnight last December 2, that has been the owners choice.

When that choice was made, fans were told its purpose was “to jumpstart the negotiations” and that the lockout was “the best mechanism to protect the 2022 season.”  Those were the words of MLB commissioner Rob Manfred, an attorney trained in labor law who first consulted with the league office in 1987, served as outside counsel to the owners during the 1994-95 strike, and became their fulltime head negotiator in 1998.  Manfred was promoted to the role of MLB chief operating officer by commissioner Bud Selig in 2013, then beat out two other contenders in the vote to succeed Selig a year later.

Having led the putsch that forced Fay Vincent to resign as commissioner in 1992 while he was the owner of the Milwaukee Brewers, Selig served as acting commissioner for six years before finally assuming the title in 1998.  As the first team owner to ascend to the position, Selig changed the role, most likely forever.  Since the position is elected by the owners, every commissioner is beholden to them.  But prior to Selig, most tried in various ways to assert their independence.  In labor negotiations, that included Peter Ueberroth working to stop the brief 1985 strike and Fay Vincent intervening to short circuit the 1990 lockout.  Though unsurprising given his background, Selig was committed to the owners’ perspective in labor matters throughout his tenure, and Manfred has reduced the job to being little more than chief spokesperson for his bosses.

Knowing that, one should not be surprised that the result of the supposed jumpstart was MLB taking six weeks to respond to the Players Association proposal made just before the lockout started.  Nor should it be a shock that not only have pitchers and catchers not reported, but that even more crucial dates – like Opening Day – are now in doubt.  As the contrast between Manfred’s words in December and the owners’ actions since make plain, the focus should be on what management does, not what it says.  And what the owners’ proposals state most clearly is that they want a salary cap.  They don’t call it that of course, but every management proposal to date combines little if any increase in the luxury tax threshold with sharply increased penalties on any team that exceeds it by so much as a dollar.  If the current luxury tax terms amount to a soft cap, all of management’s offers to the players envision a hard cap in everything but name.  That ultimate clampdown on player earnings is a poison pill to the MLBPA.  It is the ultimate dealbreaker, a toxic recipe for not just the loss of Spring Training’s reporting date, or exhibition games, or even Opening Day, but for a devastatingly long and ugly suspension of play. 

It is a scenario one would prefer not to contemplate, and it remains a worst case that is not fated to materialize.  After all, the owners could lift the lockout tomorrow, or daily negotiating sessions that are rumored to be starting next week could yield a nick of time breakthrough.  But it is foolish to pretend that a dire result is not possible.  Indeed, if enough of the billionaire owners have convinced themselves that now is the time to finally break the players union, then whether the parties meet for 15 minutes or 15 hours, with each passing day the worst outcome becomes ever more likely.   


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