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WHAT IF BASEBALL IMPOSED A LOCKOUT — AND NO ONE CARED?
The enemy is within, but rather than work together to fix the existential crises of a broken sport, the owners are shutting down the players while risking the onset of permanent public apathy
Why waste the letterhead? Rather than writing a flowery "letter to fans" under the Major League Baseball logo — from Robert D. Manfred, Jr., Commissioner of Baseball, and posting it Thursday at 12:03 a.m. ET — the man should have been in bed snoozing. After all, his exasperating and increasingly irrelevant sport has been in a deep sleep for decades, and, truth be known, an MLB-imposed lockout of players underscores the deeper tragedy here.
No one cares.
"It would have been more beneficial to the process,'' said union leader Tony Clark, referring to "misrepresentations'' in the letter, "to have spent as much time negotiating in the room as it appeared was spent on the letter. It's unnecessary to continue the dialogue. At the first instance in some time of bumpy water, the recourse was a strategic decision to lock players out.''
America has moved on from baseball. Much like Big Hair, Members Only jackets, the Sony Walkman and Duran Duran, what once was a huge deal — the national pastime, in fact — has become a stale victim of its own stupidity in years since. Anesthetized by four-hour games with less action than an armadillo race, turned off by scandals that spill routinely and disgusted by a sense that only big-money franchises want to win a World Series while most others dawdle or tank in hopes of catching a Ted Lasso-like spark … yeah, people have grown tired of it all.
So as Manfred and the owners announce their latest dick-swinging battle against the MLB Players Association, a country responds with collective apathy. Only hours after Manfred's sappy letter, he was firing away at the MLB Players Association, claiming the union's demands for greater free agency might kill small-market teams when, in reality, the owners have created a system of haves and have-nots based on wildfire free-agency spending. That includes $2.5 billion in player contracts and nine agreements of nine digits and two commas over the last month — making it impossible for lower-revenue markets to compete for World Series titles. The system doesn't work because MLB has owners with limitless budgets, such as Steven Cohen in New York and Guggenheim Baseball in Los Angeles, and lesser-heeled owners in smaller markets who can't compete — or don't want to compete — anywhere near that level. The ownership tactic, as always, is to blame the union instead of devoting the first 22 years of a new millennium to fixing the existential problems in MLB's house.
From this point on, everything you hear is part of a public-relations campaign to curry your favor. They think you are dumb.
They are the fools.
"We believe that an off-season lockout is the best mechanism to protect the 2022 season,'' Manfred wrote in his letter, which faded into the digital ether. "We hope the lockout will jumpstart the negotiations and get us to an agreement that will allow the season to start on time. This defensive lockout was necessary because the Players Association’s vision for Major League Baseball would threaten the ability of most teams to be competitive. It’s simply not a viable option. From the beginning, the MLBPA has been unwilling to move from their starting position, compromise, or collaborate on solutions.''
Countered the union: "This shutdown is a dramatic measure, regardless of the timing. It is not required by law or for any other reason. It was the owners’ choice, plain and simple, specifically calculated to pressure players into relinquishing rights and benefits, and abandoning good faith bargaining proposals that will benefit not just players, but the game and industry as a whole.''
During dueling press conferences in Arlington, Texas, where MLB and the union spent all of seven minutes talking Wednesday before the lockout was enacted, MLBPA lawyer Bruce Meyer said, "We feel our proposals would positively affect competitive balance, competitive integrity. We've all seen in recent years the problem with teams that don't seem to be trying their hardest to win games or put the best teams on the field."
Meaning, both sides agree on the core issue: Only certain franchises actually are operating in the major leagues, while too many others are pretending, playing a bastardized version. They just want to point middle fingers at each other rather than cooperate and seek a resolution.
In 2021, amid the very global pandemic that Manfred addresses in his letter, I'd rather enter a COVID-19 quarantine than deal with a winter of labor bomb-throwing. I speak for most Americans. The league never has recovered from its last cage match with the players, in 1994, when the World Series was canceled while a striking union resisted attempts to implement a salary cap. You'd think the owners would have learned a crippling lesson, watching their sport free-fall while the NFL and Michael Jordan whisked past them that decade, an industry takeover that paved a superhighway for football and basketball to rule the 21st century.
But for every progressive owner like Cohen, who views the lockout as an annoyance while committing a record $43.3 million per year to Max Scherzer and turning the Mets into the sport's biggest spenders, hawks remain in the ranks. Having experienced the warfare amid the last work stoppage — I wrote critical columns in the power axis of Chicago, where commissioner Bud Selig and White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf plotted in nearby bunkers — I still detect Reinsdorfism in the air today. I'll never forget the day, with his team in first place, when he stood in the press box and declared he was going to be "a hawk.'' He wasn't referring to broadcaster Hawk Harrelson, and weeks later, the sport shut down.
Fat and lazy and sitting on billions, these men never have grasped the bigger world around them. Do Manfred and the owners really think 331 million Americans, just trying to get through life in unprecedented times, give a greased-up cutter about who wins the labor tussle? The answer, as always: No one wins. If they'd wanted, both sides could have been talking out their issues the last several years. But as seen in the past, the enmity is so thick and bloody that both sides almost prefer to kick the other's ass than win the Series. Was it really necessary for MLB to scrub the images of the players' likenesses from the league website and team sites, replacing their photos with generic silhouettes? Manfred said the league was forced to so legally, prompting numerous players to replace their Twitter profile photos with blank avatars in an unusual show of solidarity.
Tweeted Mets pitcher Trevor Williams: "It's a meme. When you think about it, by us posting a picture of what MLB does, we're doubling down on what they're doing.''
What the owners refuse to acknowledge is that baseball has been in slow decay for more than a generation. Because people are immersed in an uber-popular NFL, swirling college football drama and a social-media-friendly NBA — not to mention Millennials and Gen Zers drawn to UFC and League of Legends video gaming — the monstrous TV revenues generated by those competitors no longer are headed MLB's way. ESPN is cutting back on its baseball emphasis, leaving Fox and Turner to carry the bulk of the postseason, though the October ratings are so weak that you wonder why any network invests.
A less-than-preferred media pie, despite its standing as an $11-billion-a-year industry, has left baseball in a troubled, top-heavy state. With the Dodgers, Mets, Yankees and a handful of others playing big-boy money ball and too many stragglers just trying to get by, is it time for Premier League-style relegation? Is it time to contract sluggish franchises, if the Pittsburghs and Baltimores can't legitimately compete, though what a stinking shame if beautiful ballparks in both cities sat empty?
In turn, the owners are paying only the stars and blowing off the middle class, another union sticking point. Understandably, fans are confused why, in the hours before a lockout, teams would set spending records. But all the gold rush did was highlight the competitive integrity crisis. The Mets spent big. So did the Texas Rangers, who have money and a new ballpark to fill. Toronto stocked its pitching rotation for a title run. Tampa Bay, which succeeds with brainpower despite an abysmal ballpark with low attendance, found $223 million for 20-year-old phenom Wander Franco. But generally, the haves remain haves and the have-nots remain have-nots. Last winter, as reported by USA Today, almost half of the $2.7 billion in free-agency spending went to seven players, while the other 158 free agents divided the other half. Since 2003, the only small-market team to win a World Series was the Kansas City Royals, who haven't been heard from since. In that span, the top six payrolled teams have averaged 90 victories and the lowest five teams have averaged 75 wins. It's simply not a real competition when the Dodgers have a $282.7 million payroll — while losing to a championship-bound Atlanta team with nearly one-half the payroll — and Cleveland is at $60.2 million.
Relegation, I tell you.
What's also confusing to fans is how Scherzer, a member of the union's executive subcommittee, can be so vocal in fighting for competitive balance — when he just took his services to the highest bidder: $130 million over three years, a record annual salary. He chose the Mets after Cohen promised to exceed MLB's luxury-tax threshold to win a championship. "You don’t hear that from owners too much these days,” Scherzer said hours before the lockout kicked in. "When you hear an owner wants to do what it takes to win, obviously that piqued my interest.''
Yet, most owners proceed as if operating under a salary cap. Hence, the lockout. "That’s a specific thing that we’re negotiating on right now: how teams view that as a cap and they won’t really spend too much over that, despite the penalties on that actually being pretty negligible, comparatively,” Scherzer said. "So to see Steve show the fortitude to be able to go past it, and show that he’s going to do whatever it takes to win, that’s music to my ears.''
In a perfect world, every team would have an owner with Cohen's $11 billion net worth. But how does MLB unseat Bob Nutting in Pittsburgh, where multi-billionaire native Mark Cuban might like to buy the Pirates, without years of lawsuits? It isn't happening.
So, they fight, rather than fix what's patently wrong. "It's not a good thing for the sport. We understand it's bad for our business,'' Manfred said. At some point, maybe in January, when America is hooked on the Super Bowl tournament and the college football title game while Steph Curry is entertaining us all, the owners and players might look around and hear the crickets.
Then, in February, when spring training nears and everyone starts to lose substantial money, they'll agree to disagree and open camps in Arizona and Florida, thinking everything is fine.
And they will be deluding themselves. The enemy of the players is not Manfred. The enemy of the owners is not Clark.
The enemy, for both, is apathy. We simply have stopped caring.
Jay Mariotti, called “the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.