Saturday, June 6, 2020

There Are No Good Guys Here

For baseball fans hoping to see live baseball by Independence Day, Ken Rosenthal at The Athletic has some unwelcome news for you. I think those of us who were paying attention saw the witting on the wall earlier in the week when MLB didn't even bother to make a counteroffer to the Unions' proposal of a 114 game season followed by expanded Playoffs.

As Rosenthal demonstrates, both sides seem dug in to their positions right now, with seemingly little hope for compromise. Rosenthal traces the current rancor between the two sides to the perception that union chief Tony Clark gave away too much in the 2016 negotiations. Among other things, the Luxury Tax and the stiff penalties for exceeding it has worked as a de facto Salary Cap. Other things that rankle union members is the way the service time of young players is allowed to be manipulated and the way young stars with 0-3 service years are forced to accept bargain basement wages.

Rosenthal describes the Players Association as "a wounded animal", still hurting from the perception that they took a serious beating in 2016. I think that's a valid point, as is this description of MLB:
The union is something of a wounded animal. But the league at times resembles a big bear standing over that animal, poking and prodding and kicking away... Fairly or not, some who negotiate with MLB, from players to umpires to Minor League Baseball, accuse the league of acting like bullies.
I think that's an on the money description of how MLB has essentially refused to negotiate this past month. I'm not going to rehash what I wrote yesterday. If you're new to this site, I welcome you to read yesterday's post. Essentially, I find the way MLB has comported itself over the past few weeks extremely puzzling, to the point where I wonder whether the whole point of their moves up to now was to force the extremely short regular season and expanded Playoffs as the only choice. The risk, of course, is that no baseball is played at all, but we're informed that a hardcore group within the club owners would rather not play if they had to risk losing some money.

I've been very critical of MLB management and the owners in this space. I continue to believe they are too willing to place what they perceive as being best for themselves and their profits far ahead of what's best for the game. I also believe that all of their recent maneuvering  has everything to do with "winning" some sort of PR war, and little to do with honest efforts to get the game back on the field.

This doesn't mean that I see the Players as the "good guy" in all of this, I just see them as somewhat less culpable than ownership. MLB's bizarre proposal that would essentially force the highest-paid players to subsidize the Clubs by giving back most of their salary seemed more purposely provocative than any type of sincere attempt to move things forward, but the players' counteroffer to play 114 games and extend the Playoffs into December was hardly any more realistic.

If there was a normal Administration in Washington, we might be at the point where a diplomatic chief executive might insert himself and try to get the parties working on something that would be realistic for both sides. I'm going to stay away from political rhetoric here, I will only say that this President has shown no inclination to do anything like that. It seems unlikely that any help will come from that direction.

I do think that, if I was a player, I would be questioning whether the baggage from 2016 is weighing a little too heavily on Tony Clark, and if it might make sense for someone else to take the lead. If I was a moderate team owner, and realized how detrimental to the game this fight has become, I might try to put some pressure on MLB Commissioner Manfred to cut the nonsense and start some actual negotiating. For both sides, there needs to be a realization that getting the game back on the field is the only way to attempt to reverse the damage that the negative publicity surrounding these bad-faith negotiations has caused the game of baseball.

Rosenthal also mentions the concern that Agent Scott Boras has too much power within the union. I know Boras is disliked both in the game and even by a fairly large number of fans. I don't think that matters all that much, frankly. Boras has power because he's the most successful agent in the game and represents so many players. That's going to give him some say in how things go in any union/management discussions, and there's really little that can be done to change that.

One thing that I see here is that there is little doubt that the upcoming negotiations for a new Basic Agreement that expires after next season is hanging over these current negotiations. Why not include some bargaining for that Agreement as part of what each side is offering here? For instance, if I was the owners I would offer not to seek any sort of salary cap in that agreement for a concession from the players in these negotiations. The players are never going to agree to one, anyway, so why not use it for some leverage now?

I thought this was an interesting point from Rosenthal's article, where he was discussing the players' frustration with the emphasis on analytics to drive down player costs:
Clubs in recent years have appeared to follow the lead of the commissioner’s office, viewing the players as disposable assets, striving for greater efficiency through an increasingly data-driven approach. The analytical bent is reflected in the clubs’ hard-line in negotiations with players in virtually every service class.
Essentially, MLB forces players to wait a considerable period of years to achieve free agency, but then they lose negotiating leverage because clubs have increasingly come to understand that players heading into their 30s offer decreasing value as they age out. Since you can't really force clubs to act in an irrational manner, pretty much all you can do is negotiate a shorter wait for free agency. Clubs are very unlikely to give up that control. If I was the union, I would shoot for an end to holding a player in the minors for a period of time to gain an extra year of control. Maybe that could be something they barter in return for some limited financial concessions now.

As Rosenthal points out, a July 4 startup for baseball is probably out of reach already. Indeed, the way both sides are posturing, it's going to be very difficult to make any progress at all towards playing ball this season. MLB can continue their Public Relations offensive to hang everything on the players, and that will probably work to some extent. The players have always been the face of Major League Baseball, and will probably earn the lion's share of anger and resentment from the hardcore fans. Ultimately, though, if the fans turn on the players it will be the game itself that suffers. Nobody is going to win that one.

If cooler, more moderate heads prevail, and we see some actual negotiating that leads to a return of baseball this summer, much of the damage to the general perception of the game of baseball can be washed away and forgotten. If things continue on the course that we've seen over the past 3 weeks, the vast majority of the public is going to say "screw this" and turn their attention elsewhere. Other sports are committed to coming back, and they will fill the void baseball has left. When baseball does get their sh*t together and finally returns, those inside the game shouldn't be surprised if that return is met with a resounding yawn.

I'm out for today. Thanks for stopping by. Stay well, stay safe, take care. I hope to see you back here soon.

 Follow me on Twitter @MikeSteffanos

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