In 2012 Bruno Mars put out a song called “Locked Out Of Heaven,” and this sensual piece of work had nothing to do with baseball. Or, for that matter, Baseball Heaven. But I’m trying to come up with a clever lead here. Put me down as a strikeout.
As expected, MLB’s owners have locked out the players. And they deemed this necessary because the players and owners failed to settle on a new labor deal by the Dec. 1 deadline.
Not exactly a shocker. How can you shake hands on a collective bargaining agreement when the both sides – collectively, of course – don’t make an effort? Evidently the players and owners agreed on one thing … to do absolutely nothing.
So yeah, if you believe in the concept of “Baseball Heaven” – which is St. Louis baseball scripture – the gates are closed. You are hereby locked out.
Here’s the question: by the time the opposing antagonists get around to making a deal that increases the wealth of both squabbling parties – will “Baseball Heaven” even exist?
Assuming that these sparring factions actually want to make peace before spring training, the lockout may create pressure to speed up the negotiations.
Well, that’s the theory espoused by MLB commissioner Rob Manfred – who apparently thought of this when he wasn’t ordering another round of doctored baseballs. For now, the players appear oblivious to Manfred’s strategy; it’s too early for panic at the disco – or the country club. Perhaps players will begin to sweat their anxiety when this standoff gets closer to spring training.
But if anything I believe the opposite is more likely to occur. Why? Because spring-training games have become a luscious revenue source for the owners. It wasn’t like this 25 years ago, but The Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues generate easy money for the ownership class. Communities have built many stadiums in Florida and Arizona, and teams agreed to play more games in the new ballparks. (More than 30 games in some spots.)
Teams don’t pay player salaries until the regular season gets going, so the owners get to rake in all of the revenue from tickets, concessions, parking, etc. So if this labor quarrel lasts long enough, the owners will get twitchy. They won’t want to waste their moneymaking opportunities provided by exhibition games. And if spring-training games are still on, then there won’t be a delay to the start of the 2022 regular season.
With the lockout we’re in the preliminary round, which as expected opened with the release of tough-guy statements:
Owners: “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.”
Players: “This shutdown is a dramatic measure, regardless of the timing,” the MLBPA said in a response statement. “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.”
And … away we go.
It seems that the strategy is to play rough, and the egos are puffed up in preparation. This will be a difficult process, with metaphorical war paint and an excess of whining.
Once the sides dig in on opposite sides of the MLB theater, the goal often becomes all about winning, and it gets personal. Instead of doing what’s good for the game, the labor competition becomes all about beating the other guy.
And there are no saints on either side. Whenever Manfred speaks publicly he loses customers for the sport. Tony Clark, head of MLB Players Association, has to save face this time around after his frequent capitulations to the owners. Clark and the union hired a negotiator, Bruce Meyer, to take on the owners this time.
I’m almost always pro-player in these situations. But my support isn’t unconditional.
For example, I recently saw a quote from reliever Andrew Miller, the former Cardinal, who is a member of the MLBPA labor committee. He’s a terrific guy with sincere interest in advancing the players’ cause.
“The owners, they’re in it to make money,” Miller told The Athletic. “As much as we’d like to say they’re in it to win championships and they’re in it for the fans and all that stuff, I think their actions show that the money is incredibly important. They’re all very wealthy because of that. We’ve got some work to do there.”
Oh. And the players aren’t in it to make money?
So far this offseason we’ve seen six free-agent contracts worth at least $100 million; last offseason there were only three $100 million deals.
MLB teams have spent an estimated $1.6 billion on free agents this offseason, with another $600 million in contract extensions.
In 2021 players collected an estimated $3 billion in total salary from MLB teams – as they should have, because the revenue has never been higher, and the owners can afford to invest in players. I’m all in favor of players receiving as much money as they can. And it takes two sides to make a deal.
Yes, under the current system young players have to wait to get paid the big money. (More on that in a minute.) The average MLB salary in 2021 was $4.1 million. Just about everybody is making money, OK? So let’s stop with the posturing.
From the players’ standpoint, here are the top priorities in the current CBA stalemate, as capsulized by my friend, the baseball analyst Joe Sheehan:
“The two CBAs combined created a rule set for the last decade under which teams have been able to make money while competing less hard — and at a lower cost — for talent. Based on leaked proposals, we can say that the league is looking to largely keep that structure while pressing their advantage to further limit player pay, while the players are looking for significant changes to the compensation structure that better maps how players are valued today.”
1) With front offices putting less value on aging players once they reach free agency, the union wants players to be paid more when they’re young and in their prime. Get to the big money sooner.
2) Players want to put an end to the service-time manipulation by teams that keep top prospects in the minor leagues for an extra period of time to pause their “clock” and give the teams an extra year of contract control. Think of Kris Bryant in his rookie season with the Cubs.
3) The players want tanking to end, which likely means a mandatory payroll floor for teams inclined to spend minimal sums on players. Over MLB’s last four full seasons, teams have lost 95+ games 23 times – and that includes 13 instances of 100+ losses. Almost all of those clubs have been near the bottom of the payroll scale.
4) A substantial change in the artificial version of a salary cap. This is otherwise known as the competitive-balance payroll tax, which penalizes teams that go over the current $210 million spending threshold in a season.
As ESPN’s Jeff Passan reported: “Before the meetings, the league had proposed a 14-team postseason in a package that included an increase of the competitive-balance-tax (CBT) threshold from $210 million to $214 million — with growth that would increase to $220 million. The union’s proposal had included a reduction from its previous ask of a $248 million CBT to $245 million.”
5) Hopefully both players and management can work together to improve the quality of the game to increase the action and entertainment values. This should be a common goal, with minimal rancor. Please: do not blow this chance to do a major service to enhance the sport and make it a more enjoyable experience for fans.
So what’s the timetable? I have no predictions. I’m a realist and this won’t be easy. But I’m not going to go nuts over this every day. Not now. And eventually the two parties will come to their senses – and an agreement.
It’s fair to scrutinize the players’ demands and call them out for certain things, I’m on their side as a basic matter of fairness. Money is pouring into MLB, but we’ve seen an increasing imbalance in how the money is distributed.
Twenty-five years ago, the players had a 52 percent share of the revenue compared to 48 percent for the owners. The owners weren’t happy with that, so they pushed the players for concessions in future CBA negotiations.
The owners got their way, chiseling away to hold player salaries down, relative to the overall revenue gushing in. And now? According to the great baseball writer Peter Gammons, today the split is 57 percent owners, 43 percent players.
I don’t fault the players for trying to level that out.
The timing of this showdown is unfortunate and harmful. Once again MLB is killing the buzz in another offseason, which is both stupid and costly.
The Hot Stove League — with all of the trades and player movement and rumors — is an entertaining vehicle for promoting the game and keeping baseball in the headlines. The just completed tsunami of spending commanded great interest and gave the game valuable media exposure across all platforms. And fans were excited. Really excited. That all comes to an end until the two sides make a deal. At that time many players will be seeking jobs, so we’ll see more signings that get fans fired up. And that will give MLB some momentum and a chance to recover – but only to a point.
After an extensive stretch of labor peace, this bizarrely self-destructive sport is heading to the background, with the sports nation turning its attention to the cycle of NBA, NHL, college football, college basketball, Olympics, etc.
Just as the game was starting to rebound from the heavy hit to business during the 2020 pandemic season, the owners and players are heading down a hazardous path.
If the poison of a needless labor dispute oozes into the spring and wipes out the popular, fan–driven spring-training circuit – or causes a delay to the start of the 2022 regular season – MLB will give fans a reason to go to other sources for entertainment to do their spending. During the pandemic a lot of folks realized that they could live without baseball — and were in no rush to hurry back.
It’s one thing for a pandemic to shut down the game, and the pandemic is still a factor now. But if the owners and players shut down the game for reasons of pure avarice, MLB will pay a terrible price for being so hopelessly out of touch with the times.
If this goes on and leads to a loss of games and widespread alienation of customers, the healing will take a long time, and some of the wounds will never mend. I find it hard to believe that the owners and players would plummet into irresponsibility and sabotage their sport after 26 years of relative labor calmness. But this conflict is already getting serious, and the chasm is wide. That’s ominous, but it’s too soon to assume the worst.
Thanks for reading …
Bernie invites you to listen to his opinionated sports-talk show on 590-AM The Fan, KFNS. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and Friday from 4-6 p.m. You can listen by streaming online or by downloading the “Bernie Show” podcast at 590thefan.com — the 590 app works great and is available in your preferred app store.
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For the last 35 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.
While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.
Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.