Rob Manfred declares war on the MLBPA

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For decades, MLB’s owners, regardless of who actually comprised that group, attempted again and again to break the union: they failed, and eventually developed more subtle measures to combat the MLB Players Association. Those plans, supported by unity among the owners despite their various differences, has helped lead us to where we are today, with the MLBPA once again fighting from well underneath as they try to even things up with the bosses.

Over the last two years, much of what I’ve written on MLB’s labor issues has been coming from the assumption that the owners were planning on eventually, once again, declaring open war on the Players Association. We might have seen the first salvo, even, thanks to a report from Craig Calcattera at NBC’s Hardball Talk. MLB and the MLBPA are already discussing changes to the collective bargaining agreement, over two years from the expiration of the current one, and in one of those talks, Manfred reportedly told the PA that there is “not going to be a deal where we pay you in economics to get labor peace.” Since the entire point of opening up the discussions early was economic in nature, and, 50 years in, the major sticking points of the CBA are going to be economically based as the nature of the game’s economics and revenue streams continue to evolve and grow, this is a real problem for anyone who harbored optimism about these and the coming CBA talks.

It’s difficult to think that this is a misinterpretation of what Manfred meant by those words, either, since he reportedly also told the union representatives that “maybe Marvin Miller’s financial system doesn’t work anymore.” Manfred agrees with the MLBPA that the current setup isn’t working, but given the previous statement about not giving any economic concessions in order to achieve labor peace, you can be sure Manfred and the owners have very different ideas about what’s wrong and what’s to be done about that broken setup.

As Calcaterra reported:

Those briefed on Manfred’s comments tell NBC Sports that the impression left by them was that the league plans to take a hard line with the union and is unwilling to make any concessions on the numerous pocketbook issues about which the players are concerned, including tanking, the glacial pace of the free agent market, the Competitive Balance Tax, and qualifying offers.

The comment about “Marvin Miller’s financial system” was interpreted by those briefed on the negotiations as a suggestion that the league may, for the first time in over 25 years, seek to institute a salary cap or to seek other fundamental changes to the arbitration and/or free agency systems which have been in place since the 1970s.

The last time that MLB seriously pushed for a salary cap was 1994, and it brought on the ‘94 strike that eventually canceled the World Series. That wasn’t a lockout, but it might as well have been: MLB’s owners and then-commissioner Bud Selig forced the issue of a salary cap with the intent of breaking the union’s stranglehold over collective bargaining victories, which in turn forced a strike the owners relished the prospect of crushing. It was about the salary cap, of course, but Selig and Co. also felt they could wipe out free agency and salary arbitration by essentially pretending the CBA didn’t exist mid-strike, and also attempted to bring in scabs to replace the striking players, until district judge (and now Supreme Court Justice) Sonia Sotomayor put them in their place with her ruling that ended the strike and the owners’ dreams of grinding the Players Association and its collective power into dust.

Why a strike, instead of a lockout? For one, it was easier to place the public blame on the players if there was a strike initiated by them than yet another lockout by the owners, the last of which was in 1990 and was an embarrassing disaster for the league’s owners. Second, though, is that teams could get strike insurance to help financially weather the work stoppage: lockout insurance isn’t a thing. Insurance companies aren’t handing over massive policies to owners who are absolutely going to cash in on them through their own doing. At least with a strike policy, the vote to strike came from the workers, so in a technical sense — the favorite kind of sense for insurance companies — the work stoppage wasn’t directly caused by the owners. Even though, you know, it was.

This time around, though, we’re likely looking at a lockout. MLB ownership has put themselves in a position to, by spring of 2022, publicly declare that they’ve been trying to avoid a work stoppage with the players for three years now. The CBA will expire during the offseason, which gives MLB a chance to lock the players out of spring training before the regular season begins, before the players can vote to strike, in the hopes of defeating the union in a hurry before the real chance at profits is impacted. MLB won’t have lockout insurance, as stated, but they should still have revenues to rely on as a lockout drags itself into the regular season, even if they aren’t at the level they’d receive with business as usual.

It’s going to take real digging to confirm one way or the other, given the nature of secrecy surrounding teams’ regional television deals, but it’s possible that the league is in a much better position to wait out a work stoppage and break the players than they’ve ever been in. Television deals include carriage fees, which means these TV contracts might be generating money for clubs even if there isn’t a brand new game to show on them. Whatever share of advertising plays into the contracts would go down, sure, since selling ads against replays of games or talking head sports panel shows won’t have the allure of the DVR-proof live sporting event, but when the teams also don’t have to pay players, less money is needed to get by. Plus, the NFL negotiated its television deals in the past so payouts still existed even in case of a lockout: MLB might have done the same with their deals.

On the other hand, so much of MLB’s franchise value is wrapped up in hypothetical dollars and beholden to investors who demand a payout. One of the major strengths of the owners in the last 20 or so years has been their unity: it’s a tactic Selig learned from the MLBPA, and it worked, but now there are now so many minority partners and soon-to-be additional investors that expect payouts and need to exist in order to keep franchise values up and franchise ownership desirable, that this unity might, in the end, be lacking. Pressure from underneath might erode the unity of the 30 primary owners, and in the end, benefit the players. There’s also external pressure from the banks many recently sold teams have debt with: if all available revenues are going to debt service and limited ownership partners, the primary owners might start to get antsy about their lost revenue streams.

In short, the owners either have enough revenue coming in to hold out against the players forever, or they’re in danger of overplaying their hand and giving the players exactly the kind of concessions they want to avoid in order to avoid seeing their minority investors that help inflate franchise values bail.

Regardless of which scenario we’re in line for, it’s clear that the owners want a second crack at a 1994: a chance to officially institute some kind of official spending cap, and maybe even irrevocably weaken the union in the process. It’s also entirely possible that this squeezing of the minor leagues is maybe tied to an inevitable work stoppage, since MLB’s disaffiliation of 42 teams in 2021 will create a class of unemployed ball players who might be desperate for another chance at the majors, or, create a class of unemployed baseball players who would fill in for any of the still-employed scabs from the minors willing to escape the horrendous MiLB conditions even if it means being labeled a scab and a non-union player from there on out. Hey, it worked out for Kevin Millar. There are over 6,000 MiLB players, and MLB only needs 750 of them to have no problem with ignoring solidarity in order to fill out all 30 teams’ rosters.

Scabs would also solve the problem of a lack of live baseball for all of those regional television deals, too, which would mean MLB’s work stoppage revenue stream might be indefinite in nature, and their investors’ desires sated. It’s no wonder MLB is willing to declare war once again: they clearly think they have everything they need in order to get what they have wanted for decades. What they want, of course, is the kind of control they had before the Players Association and “Marvin Miller’s financial system” came to be. Whether they’ll get it is entirely up to the kind of fight the union puts up.

I’d bet there’s more to this iteration of the Players Association than MLB’s owners are giving them credit for, and inevitably, we’ll see who was right about that. For now, though, just keep adding Manfred’s words to the long list of reasons why we’re likely to begin the first post-CBA season of 2022 with a lockout.

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