On Wednesday afternoon, MLB owners rejected a perfectly reasonable plan proposed by the MLBPA over the weekend. On its own, their decision isn’t particularly surprising; it’s just the next step in the song-and-dance routine of good-faith negotiations. The league makes an offer that benefits them, the players respond with an alternative that benefits them, the two sides haggle and quibble and leak to the press, then they reach a compromise. What makes this any different?
Ownership’s rejection of the MLBPA proposal doesn’t have the luxury of existing as a singular event, absent of context. Team owners have a long history of negotiating in bad faith, treating their teams as get-rich-quick schemes, and eschewing all the goodwill they built up, if they had any built up at all, for the sake of lining their pockets.
According to Ken Rosenthal, the league has no interest in sending a counterproposal. To ownership, restarting baseball was never a negotiation: it was a shakedown. For years they tried to break the back of the players’ union, to eliminate guaranteed contracts, to impose a salary cap, to squeeze every penny out of the club for profit while exerting as little effort as possible, to divorce the sport of baseball itself from what they saw as a money-printing machine. They discovered the Altar of Efficiency, constructed by sabermetricians in the early 2000s for the sake of increasing competition, adopted it as their own, and then desecrated it. They made it their false idol, a shrine upon which they could sanctify their commitment to the almighty dollar.
Now, under the backdrop of a pandemic, they see their chance to cross almost everything off their wishlist. Owners are the ultimate opportunists; you don’t accumulate the capital required to secure a major-league team without having a sense for strong-arming. They know they can run out the clock to force the union to fold, or they can just scrub the season entirely. A few owners have already expressed that sentiment as their preferred course of action. Public opinion will be on their side, too. They have friendly writers at their disposal, an in-house spin machine, and fans always blame the players. As Jed Bartlet said on The West Wing, “That’s the problem with the American Dream, it makes everyone concerned for the day they’re gonna be rich.”
Sure, as Commissioner of Baseball, Rob Manfred has the authority to unilaterally start the season. I suspect he would exercise that prerogative instead of letting the season go blank — there’s just too much money at stake. But he’s not on your side, and he’s not on the players’ side. He works for the owners, and he will do whatever he can to make sure they emerge victorious.
“The economic effects are devastating, frankly, for the clubs,” Manfred explained last month. “We’re a big business, but we’re a seasonal business and, unfortunately, this crisis began at the low point for us in terms of revenue. We hadn’t quite started our season yet and if we don’t play a season, the losses for the owners could approach $4 billion.”
Tom Ricketts, who owns the Chicago Cubs, took this line of thinking a step further. “The league itself does not make a lot of cash,” he told Jesse Roberts of ESPN. “I think there is a perception that we hoard cash and we take money out and it’s all sitting in a pile we’ve collected over the years. Well, it isn’t. Because no one anticipated a pandemic. No one expects to have to draw down on the reserves from the past. Every team has to figure out a way to plug the hole.”
Do I actually believe team owners have basements filled with cash and gold, in which they dive and swim like Scrooge McDuck? Eh, I wouldn’t put it past a few of them, but I’m a reasonable guy who understands that they’re taking a pandemic-induced financial hit. It’s not a $4 billion loss, though, and it probably doesn’t have teams scrambling as Ricketts suggests.
Craig Edwards took an objective view, placed the numbers under close scrutiny, and discovered that while teams would lose money if the season is scrapped, it’s not $4 billion worth. They even have a good chance to break even if some form of the season takes place. He concludes his piece with a reminder that teams have more reserves than they would have you believe: “Over the last four years, player payroll has not moved while baseball-only revenues have increased by a $1 billion, to say nothing of baseball-related revenues that have put billions more in owners’ pockets. Keeping EBITDA close to zero is an accounting strategy that reveals little about the financial health of the sport or its value to its owners.”
That last part, that’s the kicker. Owners love to lament the financial state of their organizations. It’s a talking point repeated so frequently that it’s practically become a mantra. You know what that sounds like. Hal Steinbrenner got testy at an owners’ meeting when it came to fan complaints about how the team avoided big contracts prior to the 2019 season:
“With no discussion of our costs, that’s always the problem. I hear everything about our revenues, I hear nothing about our cost. I hear nothing about the gargantuan debt service payment that we have to pay every year [on bonds that financed new Yankee Stadium] ... not to mention revenue sharing.
“This year we need to be under the CBT and that was something we’ve known for more than a year now,” Henry said. “If you don’t reset there are penalties so we’ve known for some time now we needed to reset as other clubs have done.”
They aren’t the only culprits. There are the Wilpons and the Dolans. Chris Ilitch and Derek Jeter, John Middleton and Dick Monfort. There are even company owners like Rogers and Liberty Media. All have slashed payroll, prioritized profit over winning, and repeated the mantra on their quest to a state of enlightenment called Efficiency.
If the 2020 season never materialized because the two sides disagreed on safety standards, it would be a bummer, but an understandable bummer. The health of those involved (players, coaches, production crew, etc) should always come first. But this isn’t the case. This is about money, about economics, about labor. Losing a season over that would be inexcusable.
Earlier this week, the NBA reached the one-yard line on an agreement to restart their season. The NHL announced their plan to resume play recently, too. If those major sports can get up and running, so can baseball, assuming ownership is willing to make the necessary concessions.
All signs point to that not happening. Owners want to get everything their way. I just caution them that while getting what you want can feel like a momentary victory, the lasting effect could leave them hollow. I’m reminded of the words of Leonard Cohen, who once sang: Is this what you wanted? To live in a house that is haunted by the ghost of you and me?
That’s what’s in store for MLB. Failure to act in the interest of the season will leave baseball as the old, dilapidated Victorian, the one about which parents tell their kids ghost stories, of what used to exist there, but does no more. Is this really what you wanted?