Labor peace is a lie, pt. 4: Selig cries poor, then colludes once more

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Over the next few weeks, I’ll be publishing sections of a larger story, titled “Labor peace is a lie.” Here’s part four, on MLB’s owners changing their tactics and approach to bargaining, in a way that reverberates in today’s game. If you missed any of the first three parts, you can find them here.

The owners change their tactics

No more would the owners directly attack player salaries and earnings. Baseball had been saved in 1998 by sluggers chasing history, and Bud Selig knew that a return to the wars of years past would bring baseball to ruin once more.

For the 2001-2002 CBA negotiations, Selig and the owners came to the table with what Doug Pappas described as “unusual foresight,” focusing heavily on increasing concepts already contained within the CBA:

Instead of talking about the need to cut player salaries, the owners spoke in terms of “improving competitive balance.” The commissioner’s hand-selected “blue ribbon economic panel” recommended greater revenue sharing and a higher luxury tax in a report released with great fanfare by MLB. Except for the aborted attempt to contract by two teams, most of the owners’ opening offer in the 2002 labor talks was taken directly from the blue ribbon panel report.

The players, on the other hand, had no real demands for the first time since the days of Robert Cannon’s toothless mission statement. The owners were prepared, had changed their messaging in a way that had both fans and the media behind them according to Pappas’ writing at the time, and were, maybe most alarmingly, unified. The players, on the other hand, rested on their previous victories, seemingly as fatigued as the fans were by labor battles. This began their downfall as the most powerful union in sports.

This isn’t to say that the players or the union stopped caring or suddenly didn’t know what they were doing. That’s far too simplistic, and frankly, unfair to the tireless work put in its members and central figures. However, the players had been in control of the proceedings for years due to their solidarity. Selig recognized this, and brought ownership to the same mindset, away from their clear disunity and public bickering. The union didn’t adjust well to suddenly capable opponents, and they were put on their heels in a hurry, too: teams tried colluding once more in 2002-2003, and it was nowhere near as significant a story was it had been in the 80s. The paid a settlement to the players in 2006, but that settlement came without the league or owners admitting any wrongdoing.

It was a lesson in getting away with breaking the rules, and at little cost: $12 million and not having to admit that you colluded isn’t punishment, it’s just incentive to collude again. There were collusion concerns in 2007, too, once again pertaining to the sharing of information between teams, and in 2008, a grievance was filed (and eventually abandoned) for the sake of Barry Bonds, who it was believed had been quietly blacklisted by the league, forcing him into retirement.

This grievance was dropped because teams can’t be forced to sign players they don’t want to, which made a successful grievance without tangible proof that the league had colluded to keep Bonds unemployed impossible. This isn’t the same thing as saying MLB’s owners were innocent, however, unless you truly believe that, say, the 2008 Rays couldn’t have used a league-minimum Barry Bonds as their designated hitter — Bonds offered to play for the minimum, so that’s not some pie-in-the-sky, hindsight-enabled example.

In addition to the possible repeated attempts at collusion in the aughts, there was steroid usage. Selig threw the union under the bus to clear his own incredibly guilty name and weaken the MLBPA’s negotiating position. Selig knew about the steroid issue at least as early as 1995 when the Los Angeles Times’ Bob Nightengale asked him about it for a story, but then lied to the press about how he wasn’t aware of steroids in baseball until 1998, when andro and Mark McGwire briefly became the story of the season. Despite this on the record evidence to the contrary, Selig continued to detach himself (and his legacy) further and further from steroids and their place in the game, and laid more and more of the blame on the union’s failure to agree to more and more draconian drug testing that would put a stop to it all.

According to Jon Pessah’s research on this subject for The Game, the union was put in a position where they had to keep giving in to more and more of the league’s demands when it came to drug testing, or face even more horrific public relations nightmares with fans who already blamed players for just about everything going wrong with the game. It was an impossible place to be in.

Selig and MLB’s owners learned key lessons throughout this decade. If the league controlled the press, they could control the union. They could get the press and fans to sympathize with them by constantly talking about how close to failing MLB was, refocusing all discussions about money into a very zero-sum game format in which the players were receiving so much of the pie as to damage the foundations of baseball itself… despite evidence to the contrary, and a blue ribbon economic panel report that, for the most part, didn’t hold up under scrutiny.

They got away with colluding at least once in that decade, and possibly up to three times. They beat back the union repeatedly in drug testing negotiation by leaning on literal friends in Congress (Hello, Senator Bill Mitchell) and riding the wave of anti-player sentiment in the media. The MLBPA wasn’t suddenly without power or use, but they were no longer running the show as they had in the 90s, and it was all because of Selig’s (successful) decision to go all bully pulpit on them, with a unified ownership class to back him up.

Meanwhile, this period is described as one of labor peace, simply because there were no strikes. Do you see how meaningless and biased in favor of management the entire concept is?

Think of what’s happening in the present, and how it ties into what went down to start this century. Too many fans and media members are defending teams’ decisions not to spend on free agents, even though we just watched a team spend a ton of free agents and bully their way to a World Series championship. Even though we just watched the Cleveland Indians win the AL Central basically by default in a division full of teams that weren’t even pretending to try, setting up Cleveland to do the same in 2019, only with even less effort than before. Even though there are a number of teams in the league that could add Manny Machado and Bryce Harper without going over the luxury tax threshold, never mind teams that could afford to add just one of the two and be able to say the same. Even though, once again, MLB recorded record revenues, this time of over $10 billion. And the reaction from some circles of the media, already, is openly questioning why the MLBPA would be putting aside funds for a potential work stoppage in 2021, and pleas for the players to do what’s right and “good for the sport” by giving in to even more of what ownership demands, just to make sure baseball games are still played in 2021.

No wonder teams don’t think they need to bother even pretending to try anymore.

Part five of this story will focus on Rob Manfred and his inheritance of a fan base that doesn’t seem to care what’s happening to their sport.

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