MLB is ready to cancel games over labor dispute, unless they’re not

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MLB and the MLBPA met on consecutive days this week, which sounds like it’ll be the norm for a bit as the two try to work through bargaining issues without putting entire weeks in between sessions again. Reports on the meetings ranged from the discovery that Dick Monfort put his foot in his mouth so hard on day one that he wasn’t medically cleared to attend day two, to the players being angry at not just Monfort’s crying poor, but MLB’s clear plan of pretending their awful offers were magnanimous instead of making bad situations worse, and MLB Network’s Jon Heyman tweeting that “it’s good they’re talking” as he “reported” on salary numbers I covered in this space nearly two weeks ago.

There’s quite a bit to cover from these two days of meetings, and I will certainly be doing so between now and whenever the next sessions end up being. First, though, let’s take a look at a specific report, courtesy of The Athletic’s Evan Drellich, the meaning of which MLB is already saying we’re all misinterpreting.

In a meeting with the Players Association on MondayMajor League Baseball deputy commissioner Dan Halem said that MLB is willing to lose games over some of the outstanding issues the sides have, people with knowledge of the talks said. Whether Halem was issuing a threat, or merely providing a statement of the obvious — the owners did start a lockout, after all, and there’s been no agreement since, so what else would happen if there’s no movement? — depends on whom you ask. Some on the players’ side indeed thought it was notable that Halem would verbalize the possibility of missing games, that it did amount to a threat, while the commissioner’s office disagreed.

Glen Caplin, a former political operative who serves as MLB’s spokesperson for collective bargaining, wrote in a statement that The Athletic’s “reporting about comments from our negotiating session is mischaracterized and not a fair representation of the discussion.”

“We think the parties’ decision not to have a public back and forth and keep our discussions private has been a positive,” Caplin said. “It’s unfortunate that someone has chosen a different path and we are going to remain focused on making an agreement.”

An MLB employee lamenting that there are leaks is extremely funny, considering leaks is like, half of their entire plan in bargaining, and has been for ages. It’s how they try to stay ahead of the story, and they’ll leak or make public statements that they know aren’t true, solely to shape public opinion. Look at the negotiations for the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, for instance, where MLB publicly whined about player salaries and tried to force the union to make further concessions on their pay, even though an agreement was already in place between the two sides on the matter.

Anyway, on to the substance of said leak: Dan Halem said that MLB was willing to “lose games” over the bargaining issues at hand. Why does MLB feel the need to deny that? As Drellich pointed out, they started this lockout, so what do you think is going to happen if the two sides don’t sort things out in time? My guess is that MLB still wants to be considered the defender in this situation, so while they can remind the players or threaten them — honestly, it doesn’t matter which, that’s not the fascinating part of what’s going on here — about the fact that they’re willing to sacrifice part of the season in order to get the deal they want, letting the public connect the dots of who is in the position to determine whether games will be missed or not is far less appealing to them.

The owners and commissioner Rob Manfred want you to consider this lockout to be a defensive maneuver, not an offensive one, even though, inherently, lockouts are offensive. It’s a preemptive strike, at best: MLB doesn’t want the players to strike by the time the season begins, so they fire off the first shots of the war instead, and then claim it was all in self-defense even though there were still months and months of time to negotiate between the moment those shots were fired and when the players would have been able to authorize, never mind actually go on, strike. The players know this. MLB hopes that the fans don’t, which is why they bothered to publish that terrible, misleading letter from Manfred on their website moments after the lockout began.

So, someone leaking that Halem reminded, threatened, pointed out the obvious, whatever you want to call it, in regards to MLB being willing to lose games in order to get the deal they want… well, that’s not something MLB’s public relations squad can handle, because it goes against the narrative they’re spinning, that they’re playing defense, that they’re at the mercy of the players, that the lockout is a defensive measure.

Honestly, MLB might not be willing to lose games, even if they are saying otherwise to the players, but they need the players to believe that they’re deadly serious here, or else the lockout has no teeth. If the players know it’s all bullshit artistry and posturing, then they can simply wait for the moment when the owners are going to cave because they don’t want to miss out on spring training broadcasting revenue or whatever in order to get a better deal. You know, like the owners are hoping will happen to the players first, that they’ll be concerned about the possibility of losing out on 2022’s paychecks and will trade in long-term changes for short-term benefits, i.e. the entire point of starting this lockout in the first place.

Whether MLB is actually willing to miss out on games or not is kind of besides the point. I wouldn’t say it’s immaterial or anything that definitive, but the real story here is MLB’s insistence on continuing to control this narrative they’ve been working on. MLB acts like massive bullies to everyone they can, flexing financial and political capital again and again against players, cities, whomever is in their way on a given day over a given subject, but then they have to run to the media and say, “I’m not mad, please don’t put in the newspaper that I got mad” in order to continue to pretend that they’re just a little guy like you. Don’t fall for it.

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