This is the how baseball’s destructive standoff needs to end: The owners, with greater wealth and with the lasting stewardship of the game, need to emerge from their bargaining bunker and extend themselves into the middle ground with an offer of a significant concession. Maybe a season of 81 games — a number of significance, because it’s exactly half of the regular schedule — with a very high percentage of the players’ prorated salary. Maybe not 100%, but something that represents a legitimate good-faith proffer.
If something like this happens, the union leadership cannot miss the opportunity; it needs to recognize genuine effort to get to the middle ground and then build on it. The fact is that the teams are losing gobs of money this year, same as a lot of businesses, and so maybe the players could swap some short-term salary concessions for some artificial mechanisms through which next winter’s free-agent class can be protected (at least a little) from the looming financial regression.
It’s too late to save the industry from all of the damage leaking from the toxic working relationship between the owners and players. The chance to present a united front in the face of national trauma is gone; the opportunity to own the sports stage for a lot of the summer has been squandered. Baseball has generated more disgust than inspiration.
But there is still a chance to move the game forward and generate a product collaboratively. The worst-case scenario for all of them is no baseball at all, but a close second is an owners system rammed down the throats of the players, with the labor problems merely deferred to a later date.
As soon as the armistice is forged — and that’s probably all it will be, a short-term cessation of hostilities — both sides need to take the time for an internal audit and ask themselves: What did we do, on our side, to help create the absolute mess we have made and damage the golden-goose product of baseball? And, moving forward, how can we be better when we attempt to pick up the pieces of our 2020 disaster?
Each side will blame the other for the bulk of the horror show Major League Baseball has put on this year, of course. The owners are epically frustrated with what they perceive to be the intransigence and lack of imagination in the current union leadership; the players believe the owners have lied to them repeatedly about their money.
But if the owners and players attempt an honest and earnest postmortem of their own actions and decisions, mistakes will be uncovered — mistakes that should not and cannot be repeated when the two sides resume sparring in the pivotal year of 2021, when the Collective Bargaining Agreement is set to expire.
• The players should form an independent team — labor lawyers from other sports, economists, statistical analysts, etc. — to assess union strategy over the past five years and, in particular, Tony Clark’s approach of brinkmanship negotiation, of standing on demands rather than the barter-and-deal style of the late union leader Michael Weiner.
Players are accustomed to being evaluated through metrics — on-base percentage, velocity, exit velocity, ERA. And the union’s metrics in recent years are ugly. MLB has had four CBAs since the start of the 2003 season, and the player salary trends of recent years are distinct from all other seasons. Paul Hembekides of ESPN research sent along these numbers from Baseball Prospectus:
The players have lost enormous financial ground since the 2016 CBA talks, and just as hitters and pitchers constantly make adjustments on performance evaluation, there needs to be a full review of the brinkmanship strategy. Upon the conclusion of those ’16 talks, appalled agents immediately called attention to the inequities they predicted would cost the players many hundreds of millions of dollars: the shockingly low competitive balance tax thresholds, which have been treated as a soft salary cap by big-market teams such as the Dodgers and Yankees; the failure to address the problem of tanking; the failure to address service-time manipulation. The ripple effects from that negotiation undercut free agency in subsequent winters.
But once again, in this current situation, the leadership resorted to brinkmanship — and while it’s possible the players will get a short-term win, in the form of more 2020 salary, the choice to eschew the kind of collaborative route that Weiner favored could set the players up for long-term losses through the next CBA.
That task force formed by the union could review internal documents, past negotiating schedules and the financial data to give an evaluation of what was done in recent years, and to provide recommendations for how to proceed.
• Similarly, the owners should initiate an independent committee review of industry business practices since that 2016 CBA victory, and whether they have contributed to the current labor trouble.
One example: the tanking.
Some folks in management were greatly surprised that the union didn’t press for tanking adjustments in those ’16 talks — some kind of draft lottery or some mechanism to discourage the practice of some teams slashing payroll to the bone for multiple seasons in an effort to finish near the bottom of the standings and bank money.
But should MLB have moved to address this problem on its own in 2017 or 2018 or 2019, in a time of enormous prosperity, rather than let it develop into a cancerous issue with the union? The Houston Astros famously finished the 2013 season with one player making over $1 million, and as the tanking strategy became more popular, other teams followed suit. Individual teams made more money with tanking — but has MLB’s overall product suffered, particularly as the union’s distrust has now fully manifested?
And then there’s the question of service-time manipulation, a longstanding source of anger for the players and the epitome of bad faith on the part of teams. Consider the case of George Springer, whose big league career began with an act of bad faith.
In 2013, Springer — a first-round pick by the Astros two years before — had an OPS over 1.000 playing in Double- and Triple-A. Nobody could argue with a straight face that Springer wasn’t a major league caliber player and not among the organization’s top 30 players when September call-ups were chosen.
But not only did the Astros keep him in the minors at the end of that season, but they held him out of the big leagues until April 16 of the following year to delay his free agency by a year. Forget the arbitration case that was decided earlier this year: Everybody in baseball understands why it is that Kris Bryant’s rookie-season debut didn’t happen until April 17, why so many of baseball’s elite prospects magically transform into big leaguers after two-plus weeks in April.
This gesture of bad faith has already cost Springer tens of millions of dollars. He should have been a free agent last fall, and might have gotten a contract in the range of $150 million to $200 million. But instead, he was just a few days short of free agency before a winter in which Max Scherzer, Anthony Rendon and Stephen Strasburg set new contractual benchmarks. And now, after a truncated 2020 season, he’ll reach an open market that has been completely reshaped by the global pandemic and the labor strife.
The Astros handled his situation within the rules, sort of. But a good question for the internal audit would be: Have these bad-faith gestures that seem like small victories actually contributed to the distrust and suspicion that is currently eating away at any chance of a collaborative partnership with the players?
Imagine how Astros owner Jim Crane would feel if Springer manipulated the rules to protect his own interests in a 2020 restart in the way Houston did in 2013 and 2014.
All Springer needs to reach free agency is another day of service time. One more day. What if Springer played one game this summer — and then left the Astros, citing a sore hamstring or foot, or some kind of phantom injury? If Springer is injured severely playing in 2020, or even moderately, the potential earnings in his free agency could take a big hit. If he were to start the season slowly and then drift into a deep slump, in keeping with the inherent risk of failure in the sport, that small sample of struggle would probably affect offers, given that Springer turns 31 in the fall.
Given how his career started, with Springer tethered to the minors through a professional lie, who could really blame him?
Crane would be livid; any owner would be furious. But management should ask itself whether the scheming front-office practices that it has rubber-stamped in recent years — tanking, service-time manipulation, injured-list machinations — have helped to lead them to this moment in which their relationship with players is so bad.
Doug Glanville explains how important it is for athletes to take a stand and provide leadership in speaking out for social justice.
Having witnessed the power of sports and athletes through the years, some thoughts…
Since the death of George Floyd, the painful and truthful refrain is that the national attentiveness to racism is sporadic. A shooting, a death, a murder sparks moments of outrage and isolated protests, but then the conversation drifts away, until the next tragedy.
The major sports leagues, teams and players have the power and the influence to lead the enduring conversation that is needed to create lasting change, particularly because of how they connect so well, directly and indirectly, with the youngest generations.
We’ve already seen that potential borne out in the past week. The Celtics’ Jaylen Brown drives 15 hours from Boston to Atlanta to join a protest. The Pacers’ Malcolm Brogdon speaks out. LeBron James tweets Killer Mike’s passionate speech and draws more than 135,000 likes. Pete Alonso posts a message on Instagram: “To anyone who faces this type of discrimination, I will fight for you and be an ally. I will always stand with you.” And so does Justin Turner: “We will use our voice to speak out against racism and stand with you all.”
This can be institutionalized and organized, for all leagues, teams and players. We’ve seen it in the anti-bullying campaigns. We’ve seen the power of Stand Up To Cancer moments, with the most important games of the season paused to pay tribute, to reaffirm, to refocus. The same thing can happen in sports in the fight against racism, against the violence aimed at black people.
Any parent of a teenager knows all about the omnipresence of video games in their homes — Madden, NBA 2K, MLB The Show, etc. The major sports leagues have the power to ask their licensing partners to include messages about equality as part of in-game advertising. Just as you see a Snickers advertisement in the pause of a Madden NFL game, maybe you can see messages from Patrick Mahomes, Tom Brady and Lamar Jackson about racism, and about how you treat others. Halftime of an NBA 2K game might be a good spot for 15 seconds from Steph Curry, and maybe the seventh-inning stretch is a natural place for Mike Trout’s voice about standing up to prejudice. Each of the sport’s unions can push to make this messaging happen.
The words “Remember George Floyd” could be on the game covers. The words “Remember George Floyd” could be placed on uniforms, for one day, for every day, because those words can and should bear meaning beyond this moment. Each league could have an annual George Floyd Day, with his family members invited to participate.
Similarly, spots about racism can be mandated in every broadcast. Pre-produced elements. Words built into the crawl. In-game reports or features. Maybe one or two of the many teases for the next show, the next game, can be traded for anti-hate missives.
At the stadiums or ballpark, there can be regular PSAs with the home stars speaking out. There can be signage, built into sponsorship deals. There are so many ways to go with this, so many ways to help and turn the conversation into the steady drumbeat it needs to become.
• My friend Doug Glanville wrote this beautiful essay for Outside The Lines that is well worth your time:
— Outside The Lines (@OTLonESPN) June 5, 2020
Baseball Tonight Podcast
Friday: Tim Kurkjian discusses the latest twists in the labor negotiations; the empire strikes back in Todd Radom’s weekly quiz; and a conversation about the Cincinnati ballparks.
Thursday: Clinton Yates talks about baseball cards and the Lerners; Paul Hembekides discusses players who are historically fast and slow starters and the math of George Springer or Mookie Betts sitting out a short season.
Wednesday: Jesse Rogers discusses his conversation with Cubs owner Tom Ricketts, and the state of the labor talks.
Tuesday: Eduardo Perez on broadcasting KBO baseball and the owner/player stalemate; author John Shea talks about his new collaborative book with Willie Mays.
Monday: Jeff Passan on the MLBPA’s proposal to return to play; MLB.com’s Sarah Langs on the slugging feats of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa during the record-setting summer of ’98.