Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 3, 2022

Into The Abyss

So here we are at last, right where fans old enough to remember baseball’s earlier bitter battles between players and owners always feared we would be when the calendar began to hint at spring.  From the day MLB’s owners locked out major league players last December, a move that was characterized, in but one of a multitude of deceits from the mouth of commissioner Rob Manfred, as a “defensive action” that would “jumpstart” negotiations, younger fans for whom the work stoppages of the last century are but tales from another age have consistently been more optimistic about a timely resumption of the Great Game’s normal rhythms. 

But those with longer memories, and the scars that accompany them, were ever mindful of both the singular role the MLBPA has played among sports unions and the degree to which the commissioner’s job has been twisted from chief steward of the game to laughing lackey of owners more interested in profit than sport.  And yes, Manfred really did find something amusing about cancelling the first week of regular season play, grinning as he stood at the podium in Jupiter Florida Tuesday evening.  Then again, why shouldn’t fans expect this commissioner to laugh when he announced that Opening Day was cancelled, since he had already famously dismissed the sport’s ultimate trophy as “a piece of metal?”

Though older eyes could see this coming, this is not about aging Boomers boasting “we told you so,” for there is no joy when the correctly predicted outcome is the Great Game losing regular season contests to a labor dispute for the first time in more than a quarter century.  And while the efforts of team owners to destroy their sport in order to save it are in many ways familiar, there are aspects of the Great Game’s first work stoppage in the internet age that are new even for those who witnessed prior struggles between owners and players. 

Thanks to social media, something nonexistent in 1994, union members now have a platform to tell their side of the story to the public.  While not equal to the resources at the league’s disposal, which include the websites of both MLB and individual franchises, a cable television network, a satellite radio channel, and journalists with ties to one or more of those outlets, scores of players reach anywhere from a few thousand to more than a million followers with each tweet or Instagram post.  The effectiveness of such direct communication was shown at the very start of the lockout, when MLB scrubbed all likenesses of current players from every team’s website in favor of anonymous silhouettes.  Players quickly responded by installing the same faceless images as their social media account avatars, which led to widespread mocking of the league’s ham-handed action. 

More seriously, players have used the internet to keep fans informed of the MLBPA’s positions and proposals.  When MLB and its favored writers tried to paint the stalled negotiations in a positive light late Monday, setting the stage for blaming the union when talks foundered the next day, players immediately spread the word of just how far apart the two sides remained.  So too did many independent journalists, who as a group have grown increasingly wary of the constant spin dispensed by MLB.  Those writers have regularly reminded fans that the lockout was a voluntary act on the part of the owners and could be lifted tomorrow.  They pointed out that the Atlanta franchise, the only U.S.-based team owned by a public corporation and thus required to open its books, reported an operating gain of $104 million in 2021, more than $1 million per home game, despite COVID-19 attendance restrictions that were in place early in the season.  That profit was a very healthy return on revenues of $568 million, contradicting Manfred’s claim that club owners would be better off investing in the stock market.

By now even fans who mouth the old canard about “billionaires versus millionaires” – a majority of ballplayers who took the field last season were paid at or just above the league minimum – have learned to view any claim from the commissioner with skepticism.  Attempting to justify the cancellation of regular season games, Manfred on Tuesday said, “we have a payroll disparity problem,” arguing that the luxury tax threshold can’t be raised significantly as it’s the only mechanism keeping small market teams from being massively outspent by the likes of the Mets and Dodgers.  His implication is that teams like the Pirates and Orioles are spending as much as they can on player salaries.  But reality intrudes.

On the list of U.S. sports markets ranked by size, Pittsburgh and Baltimore are almost together down near the bottom.  Of the markets with MLB franchises, only Kansas City, Cincinnati, and Milwaukee are smaller.  Using Manfred’s logic, it is thus no surprise that, at $54.4 and $42.4 million respectively, the Pirates and Orioles ranked 28th and 30th in team payroll last season.  But note that the two cities are “almost” together.  Between them on the market size list is San Diego, and one spot ahead of Pittsburgh is St. Louis.  The Cardinals, a franchise that constantly tries to win and often succeeds, spent $171.5 million on payroll last year.  The Padres, making a determined effort to challenge the NL West hegemony of the Dodgers, had a $179.8 million roster.  Both those numbers approach double what the two clubs from similarly sized markets combined to spend on players, which is to say, on those franchises’ products.

It is also a lie that baseball needs a hard salary cap to ensure parity, or that the Competitive Balance Tax at least helps in that regard.  Since the CBT was instituted in 2003, 13 different clubs have become World Series champions, out of 19 that have played in the Fall Classic.  Those numbers align with the leagues with hard caps – 11 and 21 in the NHL, 9 and 14 in the NBA, and an identical 13 and 19 in the NFL.  Even more telling are MLB’s numbers from the comparable period before the CBT came into existence – a virtually identical 14 champions and 20 World Series participants.

Yet in the end what matters most is which side is best prepared to weather the storm of missing games, and there the owners still have the upper hand.  April is not a high attendance month, with chilly weather in much of the country and school still in session, so gate revenue losses beyond Opening Day won’t be huge.  Also, most franchises’ regional TV contracts allow for some number of missed games before a refund of rights fees kicks in.  A widely held view is that teams have calculated the reduced season size that still works for the bottom line and are prepared to simply outlast the players.  The union plans to fund its members health insurance costs, and provide stipends of $15,000 per player in April, but its resources are dwarfed by those of the owners.

In the long history of the Great Game, there was a time when all would look to the commissioner in circumstances like these.  The position came into existence in the wake of the 1919 Black Sox scandal.  Reeling from that debacle, owners gave the first commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, broad authority to act “in the best interests of baseball.”  Sadly, for young and old fans alike, those are but tales from another age.  Today, as a willful group of owners takes the sport over a cliff, all we have is laughing Rob Manfred, whose only interest is breaking the players union, no matter the cost.

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