Lockout Recap: Week One Primer

A not-short reader on the issues at stake in the MLB owners' lockout

Folks, it’s finally here. When the clock struck midnight and the calendar flipped to December 2nd, Major League Baseball’s owners officially locked out the MLB Players Association following the expiration of the Collective Bargaining Agreement signed by both sides in 2016.

Perhaps this deadlock—the first stoppage, as you’ve probably heard, since the infamous 1994 strike—won’t stretch on out of hand. It may be that the two sides are not nearly as far apart as we’ve been led to believe to this point, and that an abundance of common ground will present itself soon enough. If there are some just things in the world, I won’t have to write more than a few of these darn things.

Unfortunately, that’s wishful thinking. If the acrimony of the negotiations in the lead-up to the 2020 season has been forgotten, it likely won’t be for long. It’s been all of five days and there’s already plenty of material to dive into—and, as these things usually go, roll our eyes at. This is our primer for how we’ll be covering the lockout in the coming weeks. Before going into the minutiae of what’s behind the lockout, here’s a rundown of the smattering of post-expiration events that have already transpired.

 

Week One In Review

 

Representatives from MLB and the MLPBA met periodically in the days leading up to the stoppage, though there was little expectation for a deal. The likely lengthiness of this process was reflected in the proceedings of the afternoon of December 1st, when the two sides met for just seven minutes.

 

 

As others have noted, that’s not quite as catastrophic as it sounds: This type of bargaining involves a level of collective decision-making that can only happen with long periods of deliberation, and public information will probably be more fragmented than it was amid the freewheeling chaos of 2020. Some details of the Players’ Association’s final pre-expiration offer were being reported as late as Wednesday afternoon, but it’s not clear how near it fell to ownership demands.

 

 

While we refreshed our timelines constantly last Wednesday night, some poor interns for MLB and MLB.com were busy removing every headshot, photo, and written reference to players currently in the MLPBA:

 

 

Simultaneously, the league released a letter from Commissioner Rob Manfred, in which he falsely claimed that the lockout was a necessary procedural step. He also cynically invoked the previous week’s free agent spending spree as evidence that the current free agent system is functioning as intended, despite the fact that said spree was clearly prompted by the league’s treatment of a lockout as an inevitability.

 

 

Moments later, the Players’ Association released a statement of their own reiterating their own goals and disappointment with the league, going light on the specific and contentious claims made in Manfred’s letter.

 

 

On Thursday morning, Manfred held a press conference rehashing the points expressed in the letter and making new claims whose sincerity can be best described as doubtful, including the suggestion that fans dislike free agent movement and more misrepresentations of the league’s willingness to negotiate fairly.

 

 

Relatedly, the press conference held by MLPBA President Tony Clark and lead negotiator Bruce Meyer focused primarily on the lack of good faith and unseriousness from the MLB side in their negotiations, as well as their refusal to let such tactics intimidate them into another disadvantageous deal.

That just about takes us to the present. Before going into detail about a few things in particular, here are some of the other helpful primers that cover different areas of the lockout before moving on to our own.

Michael Baumann’s FAQ at The Ringer delivers a breakdown of both bargaining positions and the specific sequence of events that led to this moment.

Nathaniel Grow’s write-up at FanGraphs provides an interesting look at possible outcomes moving forward.

Marc Normandin at Baseball Prospectus does a much better job than I do in explaining the disingenuous way that national baseball writers misrepresent key issues in favor of ownership.

 

Things To Keep In Mind When You Read The News

 

The difference between a strike and a lockout:

 

Baumann’s article covers this in plenty of detail: At the most basic level, a strike is a labor stoppage initiated by a workforce, while a lockout stems from the management side of things. Because both of these things may only happen in the event of an expired CBA (which, as we just saw, is often telegraphed well in advance) one might assume that they’re functionally the same thing, even if they do understand that difference.

While the effect is the same from the outside—business as usual grinds to a halt—the implications are very different. Manfred and ownership contend that locking out the players is a necessary step to prevent a repeat of the 1994 strike, but calling back to such history is little more than a media and public relations strategy: Both sides are well aware that the labor dynamics of late 2021 are monumentally different than they were in the winter of 1993-94.

 

 

Instead, invoking the specter of a strike to justify a lockout reveals the core of MLB’s position: Manfred and league owners are unilaterally resistant to any structural changes that would be a net benefit to the players. The owners’ economic philosophy requires instant winners and losers: Anything that’s good for the players is necessarily a bad thing for the owners. To pre-empt the MLBPA from striking months before it becomes a necessity is an admission that their bargaining strategy will ultimately leave players no recourse but to strike. This might seem dubious or obvious, but however it feels, it does not signal good faith from Manfred & Co.

Why MLB teams abuse the system—and why players want to change it:

 

No matter how we got here, the question is of who gets to take credit for all the money that’s being made in baseball, and accordingly, who gets to keep what cut of the profits. Naturally, the players think they should be entitled to a large share of revenues because they provide the labor that is creating value for the owners. The owners, as investors looking for continuous growth, are always seeking ways to minimize that share that goes to the players.

Enter Bill James:

 

 

Let’s go back to the owners’ economic philosophy. As a collective, MLB owners are capitalists. Not just capitalists: Those with the means to purchase professional sports franchises are typically some of the most aggressive, radical capitalists in the country. That’s not a controversial statement. Just a mundane fact.

That being the case, owners and front offices are incentivized to treat players as faceless, interchangeable parts, because compartmentalization and division of labor is the key tool used by capitalists in any industry to keep payroll costs low—and profits up. In heavy industry, that might mean hiring multiple people to build individual parts of a machine for a fraction of what it would cost to hire one person to put together the whole thing. In baseball, it means teams forgoing All-Star free agents and veterans in favor of minimum-salary platoons put together under the direction of people like James. The purpose is the same: If you minimize the contributions of individuals, you don’t have to pay any individual what they’re worth.

It’s natural that players would eventually get fed up with being taken advantage of to this degree. All of the debates about service time and reaching free agency and arbitration and minimum salaries revolve around that tension: the owners have found ways to collectively pay players less than their work is worth, and as a result, the players are demanding a change to the system that enables it. They may be demonized for it, but this is precisely the purpose of a union. Somebody needs to make sure the owners don’t use their power to take more than they deserve.

 

 

But in spite of how teams may treat players, how media might portray players, or the convoluted numbers and figures owners will throw at us to justify taking the majority of the profits, it’s always going to be the players on the field who create the game and all revenues stemming from it. When owners talk about cutting up the revenue pie, remember that the players are what people pay for. Whether it’s through TV and licensing deals; ticket, merchandise, or parking sales; or any other revenue source you can think of, it’s all traceable back to the game being played by the people on the field. When it grows, the only truly vital source of that growth is the players themselves. Without them, it all disappears.

If MLB as we know it ceased to exist tomorrow, players would still be able to make a living through baseball. The owners would have nothing. The numbers in that tweet don’t lie: Players aren’t being compensated proportionally to the value they are creating. It’s why it should be considered ridiculous when the league floats proposals that secure billions of dollars in profits for teams in exchange for a fraction of that for the players.

 

Why should I care? Aren’t they all millionaires?

 

No, they aren’t.

 

 

Also, the difference between a million and a billion is gigantic.

 

@humphreytalksThis took me hours don’t let it flop #billion #money #personalfinance #rice #xyzbca♬ original sound – Humphrey Yang

 

This line of thinking distracts from the issue. We can frame this in ways that have nothing to do with baseball. Imagine you got a job with a company right out of high school or college, and you spent the better part of a decade helping build that company into one of the biggest in its field. Even if you’re not being paid commensurate with the value you’re providing, you might not necessarily feel upset or exploited. You can’t ask for it all on day one!

Even so, you’re still moving through your life with the expectation that at some point you’ll be rewarded for providing value and generating exponentially growing revenue for an organization that’s bigger than any individual. If you’re good at your job, you expect a promotion or a raise after a while. That’s just how things work!

But what if that isn’t how it works? What if you spent years of your life making your company far more money than you’ve ever made yourself, but when it comes time to get yours, they simply say no? What would you do if your boss went to the company website and deleted all of your information solely for having the audacity to ask for anything? What if you couldn’t even go apply for a job somewhere else because every boss in the industry is buddies with your boss, and they aren’t going to undercut each other?

Why does it matter that some of the players involved are also really rich? Fixating on how well-off they are doesn’t solve much. Personally? As someone who doesn’t make a lot of money, I think of it like this: If bosses are willing to do this to multi-millionaires, what are they willing to do to you or me?

 

One more thing on the media (and the appearance of being neutral):

 

I won’t mince words: Some of the most prominent baseball writers in the industry are heavily biased towards ownership and front offices, and their articles and arguments aren’t neutral, even though they’d claim the opposite.

 

 

There are entire other books and articles to be written here about access journalism. Broadly, there is a trend in how major news is reported. National writers like Rogers, Buster Olney, Jayson Stark, Ken Rosenthal, Bob Nightengale, Tom Verducci, and Jon Heyman—and plenty of old-guard local writers with nationwide footprints of the likes of Joel Sherman, Paul Sullivan, Dan Shaughnessy, Bob Klapisch, and Marc Topkin—are highly dependent on their league and front office sources to break news. As a result, they often take dubious claims and unfiltered perspectives given to them from the ownership side and present them to readers as if they might be statements of fact.

That might seem like an exaggeration if we didn’t see it so clearly in the summer of 2020. Remember when Rosenthal was transparently pushing ridiculous ownership proposals fed to him by league sources and passing them off as his own ideas? Or when Olney wrote articles from the literal perspective of Rob Manfred and scolded players for refusing ridiculous offers from ownership without spending a word on why they were being rejected? It amounted to promoting ownership talking points without disclosing that that’s in fact what they are.

 

 

When Jayson Stark described the league and the players as preparing to “drive baseball over the cliff,” it implied that the two sides bear equal responsibility for the consequences of contentious negotiations. But as recent weeks have re-confirmed, the league simply isn’t negotiating in good faith. So when Jesse Rogers tweets things like the above, it should stand out when he publishes things like the following:

 

Players feel, with the emergence of analytics within front offices, that fewer and fewer second- and third-tier players are getting paid when they finally become free agents after six years of major league service time… The system also favors keeping players in the minor leagues for several weeks extra to slow down their major league service time. Players hate that. Additionally, they feel the cycle of teams rebuilding (aka tanking) is limiting payrolls… [But] as long as there is no salary cap, the system will always pay the best of the best — something the league likes to emphasize. Owners haven’t even offered a hard cap during negotiations.

 

Notice how everything is presented as a matter of opinion or preference. Mid-level veterans not getting paid after reaching free agency isn’t something players feel, it’s a thing that’s actually happening. Service time manipulation is presented as an annoyance when it’s a bad faith decision that costs players tens of millions of dollars. It may seem like nothing, but unless you’re following the nitty-gritty details, it can make a big difference to see the idea of payrolls reduced by tanking as something that the players think is happening, rather than an easily verifiable fact.

We’re going to see a lot of the same in the months that come. The game won’t be made better by allowing Manfred and the owners that he represents to continue lying to us and enriching themselves at the expense of the people who create the game we love. Don’t let shoddy suggestions from reporters with a vested interest in not criticizing the league tell you that the future of the game is dependent on the players accepting unreasonable proposals. For the final time, what’s good for the players is ultimately good for baseball; what’s good for the owners serves no purpose but to make them richer at the expense of others. That being the case, all we can do in the coming months is remember that the owners are relying on people like you and me to turn on the players once the going gets tough. Don’t let junk journalism push us to do the owners’ job for them. Staying strong benefits us all.

Photo by James Black/Icon Sportswire | Design by Michael Packard (@designsbypack on Twitter @ IG)

Zach Hayes

Zach is based in Chicago and contributes analysis and coverage for Pitcher List and South Side Sox. He also co-hosts the Shaggin' Flies podcast with Ben Palmer, and enjoys reading, Justin Fields highlights, and people-watching on the CTA.

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