Wednesday, February 28

Gordo: Baseball owners must partner with the players, not step on them | Jeff Gordon

So the mindless baseball lockout continues.

After failing to reach a deal with the players Tuesday, the owners canceled the first two series of the regular season, deepened their rift with the players, and alienated more fans.

“Today is a sad day,” MLB Players Association executive director Tony Clark said. “As a former player, as a fan, for our game, today is a sad day.”

Sad is one word for it. Stupid is another.

It’s obvious the owners sought to dump some of the season to maintain leverage on the players. They let months pass, then they set a deadline to settle, then showed no urgency to meet it.

“The reason we’re not playing is simple,” Clark said. “A lockout is the ultimate economic weapon.”

The players came to the bargaining table ready to fight after losing earning power during the last collective bargaining agreement. They came prepared to lose games and money if they needed to be.

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And here we are. No major conceptual differences stand in the way of a settlement, yet no deal has been reached.

It’s about money, yes, but it’s more about the owners wanting to maintain the current power dynamic.

“If it were solely in my ability or the ability of the clubs to make an agreement, we would have an agreement,” baseball commissioner Rob Manfred said.

True, but you do have to deal with the players because the players are the product.

(Full disclosure: As president of the United Media Guild, I’ve helped bargain many collective bargaining agreements from the labor side. I’m trying to be objective here, but every time Manfred speaks my head hurts.)

The owners gamed the last CBA to gain maximum value from young, low-paid players. The players sought to improve pay for those pre-arbitration players, particularly those who excelled like, say, Cardinals pitcher Jack Flaherty.

The owners have offered a nice hike in minimum pay but only a modest bonus pool for those pre-arbitration stars. They haven’t made a serious attempt to resolve an issue of their own making.

The players want a moderate boost in the Competitive Balance Tax threshold to free up additional spending on talent. Although only a few franchises ever get close to the CBT, which serves as a soft salary cap, the owners are holding firm.

Disagreements on these resolvable matters will shorten the season.

This maddening bargaining failure speaks to larger issues. Baseball owners won’t treat players as their partners and the players don’t feel valued.

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A good collective bargaining agreement codifies the owner-player partnership. It defines the sport’s revenue, determines the owner/player percentage split, and creates mechanisms to deliver that split.

Broadly speaking, the NFL, NBA and NHL have reached this sort of arrangement. So why can’t baseball get that done?

Back in the 1990s the NHL still had old-school owners trying to run the sport like it was still the 1970s. The players struck in 1992, then the owners locked the players out for the 1994-95 season.

That didn’t break the union. Neither did the 2004-05 lockout. Nor did the 2012-13 shutdown for nearly a half a season.

While the owners gained some fiscal control of their industry, they also guaranteed the players a worthy stake in the business in the process.

The NHL and its players codified their partnership with a collective bargaining agreement that divvied up revenue. The CBA has both a hard salary cap, which the owners like, and a hard salary floor, which the players like.

This agreement creates a healthier middle class of veteran players and it forces every team to spend significantly on talent. It caps what superstars can make, but also pays entry-level players more than what their baseball counterparts have earned.

Hockey players share in the success of the league when revenues rise. But they also must sacrifice if revenues fall, as they did during the pandemic.

Some NHL teams still tank, but they can’t gut payroll. The lowest spending teams this season have payrolls of $68 million to $71 million in salary cap dollars. The league’s cap is $81.5 million, so the variance is not huge.

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Baseball’s disparity is massive by comparison. The current 2022 Opening Day payroll projections according to “Baseball Prospectus” range from $34.4 million for the Pittsburgh Pirates to $255.5 million for the New York Yankees.

Baseball has had its own epic labor wars over the years. From them, the MLB Players Association emerged as a powerful entity.

But the union has not forced the owners to treat them as partners. Prodded by high-powered agents like Scott Boras, the MLBPA has sought to maintain unfettered spending on top-end free agents while granting the right of bad owners to operate on the cheap.

And still there is no deal in 2022.

At a time when owners and players must work together to improve the product and woo younger fans, they remain estranged.

They will settle this contract at some point. They always do.

But until the owners regard the players as true partners in this business, Our National Pastime will be in big trouble.

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