Labor peace is a lie, pt. 5: Rob Manfred and the rise of tanking

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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 five (of six), on Rob Manfred and fans choosing owners over players. If you missed any of the other five parts, you can find them here.

Rob Manfred takes control while the MLBPA loses it

Rob Manfred is the current commissioner of baseball, but like his predecessor Bud Selig, his early work came on the labor scene. He was outside counsel for MLB during the 1994-1995 labor battle, and by 1998, Manfred was the Executive Vice President of Economics and League Affairs. He negotiated the first drug-testing agreement between MLB and the MLBPA, and was MLB’s lead negotiator for the collective bargaining agreements of 2002, 2006, and 2011 before becoming COO in 2013. He was also the head of MLB’s Biogenesis investigation, which, if you remember your recent history, involved MLB maybe obstructing a federal investigation just so they could get enough (stolen) dirton Alex Rodriguez that Selig could extend his victory lap into his final year as MLB commissioner.

That last point was raised so you get a sense of who the MLBPA was dealing with at a time when they seemingly felt as satisfied with their hand as they had ever been. Manfred is perfect for his job, because he’s willing to do what it takes to secure victory for MLB, even if it means playing dirty. Manfred, following the path Selig approved, is the reason the union continued to lose ground in every collective bargaining agreement since the 2001-2002 negotiations that first saw players lose significant ground compared to the owners both publicly and in practice.

Under the guidance of Manfred and Selig, MLB owners saw the luxury tax more widely implemented, and compensation packages that limited free agency due to the loss of draft picks became more of a focus. That’s until MLB got to the 2010s, where the qualifying offer was introduced and damaged players’ markets to the point where they were forced to sign in-season after the compensation period had ended. Kyle Lohse, one of the free agents impacted by the qualifying offer, was a critic of the system. “The market goes from 30 teams to like two or three. I don’t think that’s the idea of a free market.”

The players also negotiated away the rights of amateur players by agreeing to a cap on draft spending, and then, in the most recent collective bargaining, severely cut back on spending for international players by introducing a stricter bonus pool with harsh penalties that limit player acquisition — that’s how Japanese phenom Shohei Ohtani ended up signing for a relative pittance last winter instead of for a massive deal like another former Japanese star, Masahiro Tanaka managed to, just a few years earlier. Tanaka signed for $155 million in 2014, while Ohtani received a bonus just over $2 million and will be paid the league-minimum in 2018.

The MLBPA might have thought that, in the long run, they were helping with the earnings of their members. What they were doing, though, is weakening the future of the union in order to bolster the present: the idea behind agreeing to limited spending on amateurs and international players was that the money saved would be funneled back to veteran free agents. This worked, for a time, but the 2017-2018 and 2018-2019 offseasons have finally revealed the problem with this strategy.

Teams no longer need to spend significantly on amateur talent, whether domestic or international. Free agency is the only arena in which they can spend major dollars, and they seem to have collectively decided at the moment when free agency became the lone arena for the MLBPA’s members to earn a fair contract that free agency was a poor investment. That’s how we get Logan Morrison and Mike Moustakas signing $6.5 million, one-year contracts after hitting 38 homers a piece in 2017, and how Moustakas signed another one-year deal this February. It’s why it took until spring training was already going for stars like J.D. Martinez and Yu Darvish to sign, and why the MLBPA hosted their own spring training for the remaining droves of free agents so they wouldn’t fall behind in their season preparations. It’s how the vast majority of free agents are signing one-year deals for less money than expected, or are having to ink minor-league deals just to get their foot in the spring training door even if they’re still capable big-league players.

And it’s why, a year later, a perfect combination of youth, talent, and future production like Bryce Harper is still out here waiting to be signed while spring training is underway, and veterans like Adam Jones are basically forgotten about by both teams and the media. Harper will get his money, eventually, but it didn’t need to happen like this, and his inevitable signing doesn’t erase the destruction of MLB’s middle class, either.

And the fans do not care

The United States is a country where the people too often side with the rich over the worker: teachers looking to be paid a living wage are looked at as greedy when they go on strike in the hopes they can have health insurance and maybe won’t have to pay out of pocket for classroom expenses, so the idea that baseball players making a minimum of half-a-million dollars per year or tens of millions in the best cases needing support to make more is a hard sell. Given corporate profits continue to climb while wages fail to follow — not just in baseball but literally everywhere — you’d think that your average fan would see the correlation. If they did, though, then that last sentence wouldn’t be so relevant.

Not enough thought goes into the idea that if a fan sides with the players over the owners, they’re siding with the laborer over management: baseball is seen as a kid’s game, and one that pays well, so why should there be any sympathy for the players, even if they’re the ones whose labor is what makes the owners rich and the game successful? It doesn’t help that the narrative about the price of attending a baseball game being tied to player salaries persists, even though it’s repeatedly been proven wholly false by the likes of Nate Silver and Neil deMause, the latter in Baseball Between the Numbers.

Baseball games are expensive because owners are charging the most the market will bear regardless of what they happen to be paying players: fans continue to pay the price of attending baseball games despite the ever-increasing costs, and the owners will keep testing the limits of that because they can. This isn’t the early 1900s, when the take-home at the gate was the only way a team could earn revenues. If a team fails to sell a ticket for an entire season, they’ll still get revenue-sharing, they’ll still earn money from their regional television deal, they’ll still get a cut of merchandising from the central fund, and they’ll still get their share of the MLB Advanced Media dollars that continue to roll in as MLB pushes further and further into the digital sports realm.

Fans have been conditioned to side with ownership, however, with the baseball-specific reasons coming back to the labor disputes of the 90s. Bud Selig realized sympathy for the plight of the rich was never going to be enough for the owners to get what they wanted, so he instead spoke of the future of the game. Baseball, as a game, was going to fail if things didn’t change. Fans didn’t want baseball to go anywhere, the media went along with the story, and the support for the players and the union no longer existed, just like support for unions everywhere else in the United States fell.

It’s not the reason, but the infiltration of the statistically inclined into both the media and baseball’s front offices have also helped secure the owners’ victories. All 30 teams can benefit from what is essentially a legalized form of collusiontoday, while hiding besides talk of poor investments and fiscal efficiency that MLB’s own television network and website gleefully integrated into their coverage as the popularity of sabermetrics rose independently of MLB’s involvement. Combine the normalization of spending efficiency over all else with the rise of front offices and ownership groups dominated by Wall Street types and a new CBA that benefits the owners above all, and you’ve got the last two offseason.

We’re at the point where tanking, when a team blatantly strips their roster down to save money and lose while they wait for inexpensive prospects to be acquired and blossom, has been normalized by MLB’s commissioner, Rob Manfred. Manfred, speaking to Dan Le Betard in late-2017 in a heated interview about the Marlins’ most recent fire sale, spoke positively of the development as a way for teams to rediscover winning:

“The strategy that, apparently, the Marlins have adopted is one that is tried and true in baseball. I’m not saying it’s without pain. As a matter of fact, I think the fans in Houston endured some bad seasons. But it was a process that ultimately produced a winner, and that process is really dominant in terms of the thinking in our game right now, in terms, particularly, of smaller markets’ ability to win.”

The success of previously tanking teams like the Astros and Cubs has allowed MLB to say that teams like the Marlins, who are clearly just trying to pocket as much money as possible from their investment rather than field a competitive team, are actually trying to win. Sure, they’re going to lose again and again for years before they are competitive again, but it’s all being done in the interest of winning, and therefore, every team is trying to win all the time. Unassailable logic, right?

Some Marlins fans care, but many others also have bought the lie being sold to them: the only way the Marlins were going to survive was by breaking up arguably the best outfield in baseball and refusing to add any of the pieces that could have helped them compete in a division where just one team appeared to be giving it their all. It’s now a year later, and the NL East still looks winnable for a hypothetical Marlins team that had added instead of subtracted, and yet, Marlins’ executive Derek Jeter is allowed to say he’s impatient to win without being laughed out of the room.

The good news is that fans’ attitudes have shifted just enough with a second offseason of broken free agency that Manfred no longer feels like he can openly promote tanking. Of course, now he’s gone back to a Selig special instead, and is blaming Tony Clark and the union for pointing out issues that exist. It doesn’t seem like Clark and Co. plan on taking that abuse anymore, though.

Part six — the final part of this series— will focus on the players finally trying to change their tactics and the bargaining conversation.

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