Understanding 1994, the owners’ leverage, and a shift in media tone

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The benefit of assuming that there would be no deal by the time MLB’s self-imposed bargaining deadline passed is that, now that there is officially no deal and the first two series of the 2022 season have been canceled, there is less catching up to do around these parts than elsewhere. The downside to that level of preparedness is that “where to begin?” in a post-cancelation world is a much more open question: we’ve got much to think about.

Let’s start simple: by recapping a bit. On Monday, Baseball Prospectus ran a feature of mine titled “1994 Explains What ‘Labor Peace’ Never Could,” with the idea behind it being that the owners’ goals in 1994, and how those goals ended up playing out, are far more instructive to us in the present than the decades of “labor peace” are. You can’t think about what’s happening now in terms of how CBAs were negotiated in 2016, or 2011, or even in the aughts. The owners have a goal here, and it’s to crush the union. That, to them, is the goal. It’s the only “fair” outcome in their minds, and anything less is worth sacrificing season to avoid.

You can read the whole thing for free (it’s only locked behind a “Basic” subscription, meaning you just need to have an email address and free account in order to view), but I can still pull a key point from it here:

The “mistake” of 1994 wasn’t beginning the season without a CBA in place, or a failure to lock the players out. It was the assumption that the owners could just bully their way to the CBA they wanted, and that they could either break the union or outright replace them if that failed. While Manfred and the owners of the present aren’t going to make that exact same mistake, you can certainly see similarities between the plans of 1994 and now. Like the lockout and collusion as lead-ins to ‘94, these players have the very public and very bad faith negotiations of the pandemic-shortened 2020 season on their minds, and the exploitation of every loophole found in the 2016 agreement as well. The owners forced a direct conflict by negotiating just enough to avoid setting off the legal version of “bad faith” bargaining, then locked the players out when time, to the surprise of no one paying attention, ran out on the previous CBA. They then waited 43 days to schedule their next bargaining session, and have mostly used the illusion of movement as their ally while waiting for the union to give up on their demands and/or capitulate entirely. If you think those $5 million bumps to the pre-arbitration bonus pool are meaningful progress in negotiations, consider that $5 million divided by 30 teams is $167,000 each. You can’t even get a top-end pilot for your private plane for that amount. The owners are still just wasting time, and waiting for the union to crack… just like Selig and Co. in 1994. Considering the players seem as unified and (justifiably) angry as they’ve been in ages, you should probably settle in for a very long spring, while recognizing, too, that there might not be a magic bullet proposal out there that’ll end this thing.

Rob Manfred made sure to clarify in his press conference on Tuesday that the owners did not, in fact, say “last, best proposal,” which is a phrase with legal connotations that would start to move things even more in a 1994-1995 direction, when they submitted their final pre-cancelation proposal to the union. So, they aren’t quite at the stage where they think outside parties have to be involved to force a resolution, but you have to imagine that, if the players still haven’t been broken by the time the regional sports networks start to wonder where their games are, that could change in a hurry.

And now we have a date in mind for when that could occur. Ken Rosenthal, in his Wednesday morning column for The Athletic, had this detail tucked away within:

April is typically a month of low attendance and revenue for many clubs, particularly those in colder climates. Local television contracts generally do not require clubs to issue rebates to their networks until about 25 games are missed, according to a source with knowledge of such deals. And the big money in the league’s national-television contracts comes from the postseason.

The “generally” there means there might be some TV contracts with less patient language written in there, and some with more, but once some teams are impacted, they might as well all be, in part because of how one team’s loss could impact revenue-sharing values and its impact in lifting all the proverbial ships, and also because the split that exists between owners — and a split does exist — will only widen if some teams are losing more from their big-ticket revenue streams than others. This little section really deserves its own article to really break down all that it could mean, so… look forward to that future piece, I guess.

For now, I’d like to shift focus a bit and use Rosenthal’s column as a segue to discuss how the tone of much of mainstream MLB media has shifted quite a bit in the last week or so. Seeing the way MLB operates in bargaining every day for over a week, and how the league leaks to certain reporters to shape the story the way they want it to be told, certainly helped with this change. The aforementioned Rosenthal piece lays all the blame for what’s happening at the feet of the owners: it’s far more damning and pointed than his mild criticism of commissioner Rob Manfred that had him placed in MLB Network’s timeout corner in 2020. And it’s the follow-up to Rosenthal’s previous piece on Manfred, which also correctly placed blame where it belonged, without attempts to couch his criticism or force a narrative where the players must share in the blame. It’s been heartening to see the shift from Rosenthal, considering his standing within the industry and the influence over readers that comes with it.

It’s not just Rosenthal, though. I also appreciated Jeff Passan unloading his entire arsenal at once on the owners lately: I tend to think some readers don’t appreciate the situation he is in given where he works — meaning, at an incredibly powerful outlet that has partnerships with the leagues it covers and tries to keep reporting and editorializing as separate as possible because of arrangements like that, and even has strict guidelines regarding social media — but things have apparently reached a point where he can justifiably murder an unarmed pro-owner shill like David Samson in cold blood on Twitter, and emphasize that its the owners who have set flame to the 2022 season in his actual site work. A welcome turn of events, if you ask me.

Given I just co-authored a piece at FAIR — whose tagline is “Challenging media bias since 1986” — with Neil deMause on the slanted both-sidesing coverage of the lockout, obviously I’m here for the Rosenthals and Passans of the industry deciding it’s time to throw down. Of course, I don’t want to make it seem like it’s just happening in the industry now. Writers like Emma Baccellieri, and Michael Baumann, and Craig Goldstein, and Patrick Dubuque, and Hannah Keyser, and Deesha Thosar, and Tom Ley, and R.J. Anderson, and… I could do this for a while, there are lots of great writers out there! But it’s always good when you don’t have to worry that some talents with massive platforms are going to accidentally leave some paragraphs in that try to avoid blaming one side too much even when it’s very clear that blaming the owners isn’t necessarily a matter of bias. Then we can just focus on the ones who do it on purpose, like Olney or Heyman or Local Crank. Things are much tidier for me that way.

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