As sunset approached inside a ballpark that should have hosted a Marlins-Mets spring training game on an idyllic Tuesday afternoon, Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred instead announced there’d be no baseball anytime soon, not at spring training, not for at least the first two series of the regular season, not while these malcontent players he only occasionally can’t bring to heel refuse to capitulate.
It’s lockout season, baby, and despite slamming the door shut on his industry Dec. 1, failing to negotiate for 43 days and consistently coming forth with proposals ranging from unserious to unrealistic, Manfred did not waver in his finger-pointing.
Not at the 30 owners who sign his paycheck and have generated disgust among fans and players alike for a consistent indifference to earnest competition. And certainly not at himself, since after all, he’s not to blame for beating the players but good in two consecutive collective bargaining agreements, a development that, in concert with the owners’ collective discipline, stifled salaries four consecutive years even as industry revenue streams only ran deeper.
No, it’s the players that are out of touch, their anger making it so hard for the gentle souls in MLB’s central office to strike a fair deal.
“Throughout the five-year period,” Manfred said Tuesday of a CBA term marked by tanking, reliable veterans wilting on the market and charismatic, marketable superstars left unsigned into March or later, “there was a lot of rhetoric with dissatisfaction with the deal that they made. A lot of rhetoric was negative with respect to the clubs, the commissioner’s office, me.
‘A SAD DAY’: Failed MLB lockout negotiations leave sport reeling
“That environment, someone else created. It’s an environment in which it’s tough to build bridges.”
Well, just call the nine days MLB and the union spent negotiating in Florida another wasted Infrastructure Week, then.
Few bridges were built. None were torched, either, which bodes well for a season eventually occurring. But the whole process – particularly knowing for the past three to five years that this showdown was looming – only exposed the lengths owners will go to run up the score in any negotiation, and how increasingly out of touch they are with people who actually seem to enjoy the game.
By now, you probably know the biggest roadblocks to a deal, most notably a luxury tax whose primary purpose seems to be allaying the guilt of tight-fisted owners who’d rather pocket revenue-sharing money than populate their roster with talent. That’s all sausage-making stuff and figures to get worked out, perhaps as soon as Thursday or maybe by Memorial Day. Whatever.
No, the greater devil is in many of the offerings Manfred touted as good for the game, good for the fans and yes, quite generous to the players.
For instance, take this olive branch of gifting a full year of service time to players who finish first or second in Rookie of the Year voting.
In case you’ve been asleep since 2015, when Kris Bryant was sent to Triple-A like an overgrown third grader asked to attend kindergarten, service-time suppression has been arguably the most insidious maneuver popularized by GMs and the owners who love them. It essentially forces young stars to serve seven years, rather than six, under a club’s thumb before they can choose their workplace.
The only foolproof way to get around that practice is to simply shave a year off free agency, so that five years becomes six and the system works as intended. But MLB let it be known that option was nuclear, and the union gave it up quickly.
Instead, Manfred and Co. offered what he called an “incentive system to promote top prospects on opening day,” guaranteeing the top two finishers in each league’s rookie voting “a full year of service no matter how long they were in the major leagues.”
Nice gesture, huh? Trouble is, like anything that crosses the table from owners to players, the packaging is always better than the contents.
After all, just how many players would benefit from this magnanimous gesture?
Well, for the 2020 and 2021 seasons, that would be exactly nobody.
Randy Arozarena, the ’21 AL Rookie of the Year, debuted in 2019 and easily has a full year of service time. Runner-up Luis Garcia was called up in 2020 and had a year-plus service by year’s end. NL rookie winner Jonathan India, his top prospect status diminished, debuted on Opening Day and received a full year. No. 2, Trevor Rogers? Already called up in 2020.
In 2020, winners Kyle Lewis and Devin Williams had at least a month of time before starting the year. AL runner-up Luis Robert debuted on Opening Day because he capitulated to a team-friendly long-term contract, another favored management maneuver. NL runner-up Alec Bohm would have only temporarily benefited from the rule; a month spent in the minors in ’21 now leaves him short of two years, anyway.
Pete Alonso, Mike Soroka, John Means? None of these three 2019 top rookies would’ve benefited, either. That year, Houston’s Yordan Alvarez – called up in June – would have been the only beneficiary, but even he ends up on the wrong end of a three-card monte. After all, the Astros timed his call-up just right that he now finds himself three days shy of arbitration eligibility, a distinction that will cost the reigning ALCS MVP millions of dollars over the next four years.
MORE REACTION: Fans left furious after Opening Day games canceled
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Go all the way back to 2016, and just seven of the 24 players who finished top two in rookie voting would have benefited from this “incentive system.”
That’s because Rookies of the Year are random, while service-time suppression is quite intentional. Additionally, this stipulation puts another onus on journalists to participate in the news, rather than cover it. And increasingly, we are fools to do your dirty work.
The greater point is, when the owners say they’re giving you something, triple-check it, because they’re quite possibly giving you nothing.
Kind of applies to the paying customers, too. Manfred insists the “agreement we offered players offered huge benefits to our fans,” and by that he’s citing an apparently invisible throng of casuals screaming for expanded playoffs.
Look, there’s nothing worse than the “none of the fans I know want expanded playoffs” argument. But it’s a generally accepted truth that baseball’s truest fans respect the grind, appreciate the meaning of sustained greatness, even steer into the delirium and heartbreak that come with falling just short over 162 games.
With a straight face, Manfred expressed disappointment that the players agreed to expand the playoffs to just 12 teams, and that his preferred 14-team field would’ve brought “the excitement of meaningful September baseball and postseason baseball to fans in more markets.”
It would have been far easier to swallow this had he just admitted it was a blatant cash grab that will also serve the dual purpose of deadbeat owners claiming, “We tried,” when their 81-win team falls just short of the postseason. (Or, worse yet, gets in).
Listening to the commissioner’s borderline gaslighting can be exhausting, and in a twisted sort of way, makes you wonder what it must be like to sit across the table from his aide-de-camps. Little wonder, then, that the famously willful Max Scherzer made sure to sit in on many of the significant negotiations, a fiery conduit from table to union teammates.
The message was received.
Toronto Blue Jays pitcher and player rep Ross Stripling boiled this down neatly when he told Sportsnet how it felt on the other end of the heavily-chronicled back-and-forth Monday night into Tuesday morning, when it appeared MLB was moving toward the players.
“It got to be like 12:30 and the fine print of their CBT proposal was stuff we had never seen before,” Stripling said after Manfred announced he was cancelling games. “They were trying to sneak things through us, it was like they think we’re dumb baseball players and we get sleepy after midnight or something. It’s like that stupid football quote, they are who we thought they were. They did exactly what we thought they would do.
“They pushed us to a deadline that they imposed, and then they tried to sneak some (expletive) past us at that deadline and we were ready for it. We’ve been ready for five years. And then they tried to flip it on us today in PR, saying that we’ve changed our tone and tried to make it look like it was our fault. That never happened.”
Just bridge-building, right?
No, the players are on to Manfred, and increasingly, it seems, so are fans. While MLB has tried to peddle its usual narratives – that the lower-revenue teams are at risk, that agent Scott Boras is pulling all the strings in the shadows, that all avenues were exhausted to strike a deal – they don’t seem to gain the traction they once did.
A lot has changed since 1994, when Bud Selig nuked a World Series while fans decried the “millionaires vs. billionaires” battling for dollars. But income inequality is front of so many more minds now, and while players of Scherzer’s caliber won’t starve anytime soon, they emerged from a system that sometimes starves and occasionally does not house its minor-league players. Players remain woefully under-marketed, but to core fans, they are suddenly far more relatable than their private equity overlords.
Mercifully, the Polo Shirt Caucuses in Jupiter are over. An Associated Press photographer captured what may be their defining image: Manfred taking a practice golf swing on a veranda at Roger Dean Stadium, sending the intended or unintended message that his short game may be of as much concern as the fate of the 2022 season.
Nice follow-through, and upon closer inspection, there’s no blood on his hands. Hey, there never is.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: MLB lockout: Players are on to devil in MLB bargaining details
Source: Yahoo Sports