It was Rob Manfred himself who three weeks earlier had accurately characterized the act of self-destruction that became official Tuesday. The commissioner of Major League Baseball, the man who turned the lights out on the start of the season to symbolize one of the darkest days in the sport’s history, said this Feb. 10:
“I see missing games as a disastrous outcome for this industry.”
And yet that’s precisely where Manfred and the owners steered this negotiation that they slow-played from the start and then took a hard-line stance on the one issue — what the owners call a Competitive Balance Tax, what the players believe is a de facto salary cap — they knew would be a deal breaker.
And broken the deal was, leading to precisely the disastrous outcome Tuesday that this sport, already teetering on the brink of increasing irrelevance, should fear the most. When the pointedly belated talks broke down, and the union unanimously rejected the final MLB offer after nine days of negotiations in West Palm Beach, Florida, Manfred declared that the first two series of the regular season were canceled. For the first time in 27 years, when the sport suffered through a devastating strike everyone vowed had taught them to never let it happen again, baseball will lose regular-season games because of a labor issue.
Who knows what else it will lose? Like the hearts and minds of loyal fans who were pining to watch the great stars of the game. Like the attention of casual fans who have a plethora of entertainment options they didn’t in 1994-95 and will have little trouble moving on from baseball.
Oh, most of them will come back eventually. They always do, because baseball at its core is such a great game — and as has been said before, it has to be, to survive so many attempts over the years to kill it. But each blow, from the Astros’ cheating scandal that prompted Manfred to dismiss the World Series trophy as “a piece of metal” to the unseemly dispute over restarting the game after the COVID-19 shutdown in 2020, strips away at the soul of baseball.
Of course, the game itself, independent of the financial impasse that has ground it to a screeching halt, is in dire straits as an aesthetic product as well. Which is another reason this stoppage comes at such an inopportune time; the longer these sides are at odds, the longer it will be until they do the equally hard work of figuring out how to make the game more watchable.
It’s important to remember this is a lockout, imposed by the owners, not a strike called by the players. Manfred called it a “defensive” lockout, designed to forestall another midseason strike, as happened in 1994, and to jump-start meaningful negotiations. And yet when talks broke down in Dallas in late November, the owners waited 43 days after the Dec. 1 imposition of the lockout to make their next offer. The flurry of activity that finally occurred these past two days, with opening day on the line, should have happened weeks, if not months, earlier.
And then came Monday, when fans were cruelly teased with reports that a settlement was imminent. The sides met deep into the night and early Tuesday morning, seemingly imbued at last with the sort of urgency that had been sorely missing. They were to reconvene Tuesday, when hopes were raised that a settlement could be hammered out and the spring-training fields soon flooded with returning major-leaguers. I was researching a column on the free agents the Mariners should pursue when the transaction ban would be lifted, in anticipation of the feeding frenzy of signings that would take place at that juncture.
It will happen eventually, and both sides said at their respective news conferences that they are ready to continue bargaining. But the atmosphere now, reminiscent of the acrimony that existed leading up to the strike in 1994, seems far from conducive to hammering out a deal. It’s much easier to envision an ugly court battle over such legal concepts as “impasse” and “unfair labor practices” that drags this out and knocks ever more soul from the sport.
Let’s hope it doesn’t get to that. Let’s hope the Players Association is wrong when it states in a news release its belief that the owners are trying to break the union. It wouldn’t be the first time owners have made that attempt, and they’ve failed spectacularly each time. This group of players is different in that it has never lived through a successful work stoppage, as its union forebears did, to draw faith from. But by all appearances the players are strongly united in their ire over the way MLB has handled negotiations. Of course, the test always comes when paychecks start being missed — but the owners will face the same pressure as they deal with empty stadiums and dried-up revenue streams.
What’s so frustrating is that this whole thing seems so unnecessary. Despite two COVID-affected seasons, it’s a good time for owners. As Eric Fisher of Sports Business Group pointed out, over the past half-decade, owners’ revenues have been boosted by “the BAMTECH sale to Disney, national TV deals with Fox, ESPN, and Turner, a bevy of new sponsorships, and the opening of the entire legal betting category.” Any poor-mouthing attempts by MLB were preempted last week by the release of the Atlanta Braves’ financial statements, revealing a $104 million profit in 2021.
Yet the owners, in their final offer, kept the CBT thresholds the same as in their previous offer — $220 million/220/220/224/230 for 2022-26. Any team whose payroll goes over that amount has to pay a tax, which has served to mostly deter big-market teams from exceeding it. Hence, the union’s belief it works as a salary cap. They want much higher thresholds that reflect the rising revenue, particularly in light of the fact there are no salary floors.
At this point, though, the particulars hardly matter. All fans need to see, at a time when COVID restrictions are lifting, warm weather is around the corner, and Major League Baseball could serve as a respite from the harsh realities of the world, is that the game is still shut down.
The sport deserves all the scorn and resentment it is getting right now. Disastrous, indeed.