A Bad Day, and a Bad Look
Well, OK then. I did tell you the dangers of being optimistic about baseball. As it turns out, my hope yesterday was not just misplaced, it was wildly, completely and utterly out of step with the cold realities of this game they make it so hard to love. Baseball’s owners and players did not reach a deal on Tuesday. Turns out, they did not come close to reaching a deal. The commissioner of baseball, Rob Manfred, canceled games in a travesty of a press conference* that made it pretty clear that both sides will go to the mattresses now.
*More on this in a bit.
I have no idea when they are going to start playing baseball, but the worst case scenario now seems the most likely one.
Being a baseball fan comes not only with heartbreak and disappointment but also the added benefit of being made a fool with regularity. They really do love kicking us in the teeth, don’t they?
And they do it with such menacing glee.
“The concerns of the fans are at the very top of our consideration list,” Manfred said.
Narrator: The concerns of the fans were not on the top of their consideration list.
Wow, they decided — decided, you know, like they had several brainstorming meetings about this — to extend my subscription to watch baseball games at no additional cost to me until they can provide actual baseball games to watch. Oh Earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you.
I guess, in the end, St. Francis of Assisi was right. It really is in giving that we receive.
OK, look, I’m in a foul mood today, my sarcasm seismograph is whirling like a tetherball, and pretty much all of it will be focused on the owners because, as far as I’m concerned, they’re the grinches who canceled Opening Day.
But I do believe it’s important to add here that the players are not innocent in all this. For too many years, I honestly believe, they took their eyes off the ball, focused too much of their energies on getting their top players the biggest possible contracts and not nearly enough on the young players and marginal players who make up the majority of the union. They fought a losing and hopeless battle against drug testing, caved on a salary-capped amateur draft, fell asleep on the minimum salary, traded key points of power for creature comforts and were outflanked on any number of issues related to service time and free agency and teams’ growing understanding of the aging curve.
That’s a big reason why we are here now. I don’t blame the players now for trying to stand up — I absolutely think they’re right to do so. But, despite what the great Tom Boswell wrote, time does not begin on Opening Day. The players’ failures and blind spots the last few years are a part of this story.
As for the real culprits of this catastrophe, the owners, well, we can talk about countless things … but I think you can see it all in one chart — the “Competitive Balance Tax” threshold through the years:
2017: $195 million
2018: $197 million
2019: $206 million
2020: $208 million
2021: $210 million
2022 (proposed): $220 million
2023 (proposed): $220 million
2024 (proposed): $220 million
2025 (proposed): $224 million
2026 (proposed): $230 million
I feel pretty sure you can forget everything else. Forget the minimum salary. Forget the bonus pool they’re putting together for young players who are not yet eligible for arbitration. Forget the amateur draft lottery, forget the removal of draft pick compensation for free agents, forget all that nonsense because none of that costs the owners the only thing that matters to them — real money.
No, look at that chart one more time. Or, if you prefer, look at it this way — with the percentage increase each year:
2017: $195 million
2018: 1.0% increase
2019: 4.6% increase
2020: 1.0% increase
2021: 1.0% increase
2022: 4.8% increase
2023: 0% increase
2024: 0% increase
2025: 1.8% increase
2026: 2.7% increase
Baseball’s luxury tax — which, essentially, has become a salary cap as even the richest teams strain to stay below it — has grown by just 7.6% over the last five years, which is absurd even against simple inflation but particularly so when judged against the huge rise in baseball revenues. Player salaries on the whole have actually gone down since 2017. The owners did not want to share any of their newfound riches (billionaires never do, I guess), and unsurprisingly they did not.
But that’s in the past, and one must admit it does include a global pandemic.
No, the truly galling and appalling part is the future — the owners propose to raise the tax threshold by less than 5% and keep it there OVER THE NEXT THREE YEARS. That is the whole ballgame here. Everything else is smoke and mirrors and lights shining in your eyes. All the other proposals won’t cost the owners any real money. They could raise the minimum salary and put in a bonus pool for young players and pinky swear promise to not manipulate the service time of their most gifted prospects and pay for all that and more just with the extra bucks from their latest get-rich-quick expanded playoffs scheme.
But the real money, the owners know, is in the luxury tax. The owners — and by “owners,” I do mean the ones who don’t own teams in New York, Los Angeles, Boston and maybe a couple of other metropolitan hotspots — have come to understand as long as they keep that luxury tax in place, they will keep salaries right where they are. The luxury tax will prevent the aggressive clubs from spending to their full capabilities or desires. The luxury tax will stifle the free market.
And the owners will never have to pay the players more than they are already paying them. They can keep all that juicy gambling money and crypto money and rising franchise value money and advertising patch money for themselves. Also bottom-feeding teams can keep crying poor and cashing revenue sharing checks. Win-win!
Of course, they will cancel Opening Day to do that.
They will cancel as many baseball games as necessary to do that.
All of which puts Rob Manfred in exactly the worst place in the world for him: In front of a microphone.
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There were any number of telling moments in Manfred’s jaw-dropping performance in front of the press as he announced that there would not be a deal made and that he would cancel the first two series of the 2022 baseball season, but I’d like to point out some of them because they get at something about Manfred that baffles me.
I’ve spoken with him at times. He’s certainly a smart guy. Cornell. Harvard Law. He can be engaging in the right setting. So why is he SO bad at this? Why does he say unbelievably stupid things all the time? Why does he call the World Series trophy a “piece of metal?” Why does he say owning a baseball team is not that good an investment? (“We actually hired an investment banker, a really good one, to look at that very issue?” — it’s the “a really good one” part that gets me every time). Why does he have Ken Rosenthal, a reporter as solid as they come, fired from MLB Network because he took offense at some perfectly fair criticisms Rosenthal wrote?
Here’s what I think:
Hey, look, a lot of people are petty. But you can’t let it get in the way of your job. One of the questions Manfred was asked at the press conference was the most obvious set-up question imaginable: Someone asked if the players would get paid for games canceled. I don’t blame the person for asking it — absolutely fair question. But it’s a bait.
And Rob Manfred never saw it coming.
The guy has the worst curveball recognition of anyone I’ve ever seen.
Remember the circumstances here — Manfred had gathered the media together for one of the most sober announcements any commissioner can ever make: He was canceling games. He was putting the season in jeopardy. He was telling the fans who love the game, the baseball people who rely on it, the businesses who build around it, the beer vendors and ushers and grounds crew workers and person who turns on fountains at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, that the game he runs could not get it together enough to play ball.
So how do you answer that question? You don’t. Obviously. You say, “Right now, our entire focus is on coming to an agreement so that we can get back on the field.” That’s it. Remember the job, man! You’re the Commissioner of Baseball! What possible good could come from answering that question?
So, of course, Manfred said that the players would definitely not get paid … because, hey, that’s the best way to create a good environment for a deal. Even if you believe that, why in the hell would you say it right then and there? Even in that somber moment, he just couldn’t stop himself from trying to make things just a little bit worse.
He seems to think he’s only talking to the person he’s talking with.
You’ve probably seen the memes of Manfred smiling away as he announced to the world that Opening Day was canceled.
The story behind that smile is so ridiculous, you wouldn’t even believe it. He called on the New York Post’s Ken Davidoff for a question — and it turns out that Tuesday was Davidoff’s last day as a baseball writer, he’s going to take a turn in his life. Ken’s a good guy, and I wish him the best, but the point here is that Manfred and Davidoff have had their clashes through the years.
So Manfred thought this was a good time to kind of make a jokey reference to their checkered history together, a history known by approximately 11 people in the entire world. It would have been a perfectly fine thing to do if, say, they were conducting a private interview in Manfred’s office or at P.F. Chang’s or something.
But this was at an Armageddon press conference, ESPN had cut in live just so people could watch baseball blow itself up, and what they saw was not a chuckle between two weary adversaries but the goddamn Commissioner of Baseball yukking it up as he set fire to the sport he’s supposed to be leading.
He always seems unprepared for any question that comes along.
I mentioned above Manfred’s inability to read the curveball. It really goes beyond that. He seems constantly surprised by the most obvious questions. Like Tuesday he seemed surprised when someone brought up the incredible stinginess of owners who refuse to move the luxury tax threshold up even to meet inflation. His answer was something like, “Yeah, uh, but that’s how we’ve always done it.”
And it makes me wonder: Does he prepare at all for his public appearances?
The reason this matters is that, left to his own freelancing, Manfred is guaranteed to say something unhelpful. He should know that about himself. He will utter some empty plaudit about how the fans are foremost on his mind, and not realize just how terrible that sounds when you’re canceling baseball. He will talk about how the luxury tax is essential to keep competitive balance and not appreciate that we ALL CAN SEE his league is rife with teams that are not even trying, He will talk about how desperately fans want expanded playoffs when, best I can tell — and I’m happy to see evidence to the contrary — exactly no fans want expanded playoffs.
This is not to say Rob Manfred is the reason we’re here at the precipice. No. He’s just the smiling face of this travesty. The reason we’re here is because there’s a lot of money to be made in the great game of baseball. And the billionaires will let us know when they’ve made enough of it to automatically renew our MLB.TV subscriptions. They’ll alert us by email, I suppose.