The Lockout and My Deepest Fear
You have probably heard that baseball’s owners and players are supposed to meet every day this week as they finally get at least somewhat serious about saving Opening Day. In retrospect, I supposed it had to end up this way.
I will admit being foolishly optimistic back in December when the owners first locked out the players. It seemed to me that there was enough common ground between the two sides — everybody wanted a universal DH, everybody seemed willing to expand the playoffs, everybody agreed that the best younger players probably should get paid more, everybody wanted to do at least a little something about teams tanking and manipulating service time — that while they might hem and haw and threaten and insult, they would not actually put spring training in jeopardy, much less Opening Day.
What I did not see coming was that the owners would simply refuse to engage until the threat of losing Opening Day was very real. That’s on me: I simply had not watched enough episodes of “Succession” back then. It’s clear now that you don’t lock out the players unless you have every intention of taking the fight to them. And that fight isn’t real until you can hear the time bomb ticking.
It’s ticking now, ticking loudly, and not just because there’s only about a week left to get Opening Day started on time. No, there’s a much scarier threat here. Right now, the fight is just over money. It might be a lot of money, but it’s money just the same — as many of us have written, there are no overriding disagreements on principle. The players are not pushing for more liberal free agency. They are not fighting to eliminate the onerous luxury tax that, more and more, serves as a soft salary cap. They seem to even have given up the idea of moving arbitration up a year.
Yes, they are trying to soften some of those things — raise the luxury tax limit, create a fund to pay younger players before they are arbitration eligible, raise the minimum salary — but again, that’s money, not foundational change. I’ve told the story of Mike Brown, the Cincinnati Bengals owner, and a long and bitter negotiation with a young quarterback. They went back and forth for weeks, insults were hurled through the newspapers, threats were made and bigger threats were hinted at, and it looked like they would never come to an agreement.
And then they did. They met exactly in the middle. Because that’s what negotiations about money are — and that’s usually where you meet.
“If you guys were just going to meet in the middle,” we asked Mike afterward, “couldn’t you have saved all the time and grief and just done so right away?”
“It’s unfortunate,” he said, “but it’s the fact.”
So, that could still happen — and the fading optimism in me believes it will happen because they’re finally feeling some urgency, and they’re meeting more, and they all know that postponing or canceling any part of this season over money would be such a dumb and self-destructive act. And, my optimistic self says, they don’t have to get ALL THE WAY there, either; they could get to basic agreements, and the owners could lift the lockout and work out the rest of the details while baseball goes on.
I want to believe that could still happen.
But, as mentioned, the optimistic side of me fades, and in its place rises a powerfully uneasy feeling that something else might happen: They could make little to no progress, the season will get delayed, ill-feelings will emerge, and the players will decide, “OK, fine, if we’re going to lose games anyway, we’re going to fight to win.” And then, things would get REALLY bad.
I’m not saying that WOULD happen. I’m just saying that it is now a contained fight over:
Minimum salary (Owners offer $630,000 with incremental increases; Players want $775,000 with incremental increases).
Bonus pool for young players not arbitration eligible (Owners offer a $20 million pool for 30 players; Players want $115 million for 150 players).
Luxury tax threshold (Owners want the threshold to be $212 million with a slow rise to $220 million by 2026 and increased tax rates and penalties for those teams that go over; Players want the threshold raised to $245 million, rising to $275 million by 2026, and no increase on tax rates or penalties for teams that go over).
Lottery in amateur draft (Owners have raised their offer to include the bottom four teams in a lottery; Players want eight teams included).
That’s pretty much it. And the last thing anybody wants is for the fighting to be expanded. All morning, I’ve been thinking of a movie scene, and I haven’t been able to place it. Finally I have: It’s the scene from “Jerry Maguire” where Bob Sugar is firing Jerry for suggesting that they calm down on the money part of being a sports agent and focus more on doing the right things for their clients.
Sugar: “I came here to fire you. … I know. It sucks. I suck. You did it to yourself. You said, ‘fewer clients.’ You put it all on paper.”
Maguire: “You’ll lose.”
Sugar: “You wanted smaller.”
Maguire: “I’m over it. Now I want all my clients and yours too.”
That’s what the cynical side of myself fears will happen with the players if this thing keeps going the way it’s going. They’ll feel backed into a corner and will develop a siege mentality and decide to go to the mattresses on this fight. I’m over it. Now I want earlier free agency and earlier arbitration and, dammit, why are you guys regulating how much your owners spend on players?
And then we could lose the season.
That’s highly unlikely … I tell myself.
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Finally, there’s this: the blurrier this fight gets, the more it favors the owners. What they want — what they THRIVE on — is fans saying, “Billionaires vs. millionaires, who cares?” and “A plague o’ both your houses.”*
*This is the original line in “Romeo and Juliet.” It is what Mercutio says repeatedly after being stabbed. But you almost always hear it now as “a pox on both your houses.” I don’t know why “plague” became "pox,” though I will say that “pox” is an excellent word.
When fans don’t know who to blame, they mostly will blame the players. Why? I’m sure there are a million psychological reasons, but one that resonates with me is that most of us baseball fans didn’t dream of owning a team. We dreamed of playing ball. We didn’t want to be the Judge, we wanted to be Roy Hobbs. We didn’t want to be Ted Turner, we wanted to be Ted Williams. We didn’t want to be John Henry, we wanted to be Henry Aaron.
I mean, it’s not that fans like the owners — almost universally fans despise owners for being too cheap, too passive, too meddling — but we don’t have any expectations that owners will do the best things for baseball. They’re extremely rich people who live private-jet, yachts-on-the-water, multiple-mansion lives, and whether or not they even like baseball is mostly unimportant to us. We know they want to make more money. We know they will do whatever they can to make that happen. We’re not buying their jerseys.
But baseball players — we relate to them. We love them. We envy them. We thrill in their triumphs. We suffer in their failure. We feel closer to them, and because we feel closer to them, we want them to feel closer to us. We want them to take less money so they can continue to play in our town. We want them to love playing ball so much that they would do it for free. We want them to be happy … not necessarily in the macro sense of happiness but more like we want to believe that being a ballplayer is the best possible life.
An aside: When I went to my first Super Bowl, I was surprised by how tedious and soulless and vapid the week-long experience was — a million dumb questions and a whole lot of pointless yelling and very little of anything that resembled substance. I called a friend and began telling him some of this and he stopped me cold.
“I don’t want to hear any of that,” he said. “I’ve been dreaming of going to the Super Bowl my whole life. I’m living it vicariously through you, and I need you to be telling me how much fun it is.”
I agree with him — I think it’s part of my job to enjoy the lucky life I’m living and have that enjoyment come through in the writing. I don’t know if all ballplayers feel the same way, but I do know fans want to believe that playing baseball for a living is the greatest thing.
And so, in these fights, sure, I think most fans believe the owners are probably being unreasonable. But, to be frank, they don’t care all that much. What they care about is that baseball gets played. And, whatever the owners want, it’s out there that the best players are getting paid a lot of money (exact amounts available on demand), and they’re doing exactly what we’d love to do if we’d had the talent and determination, and they should be grateful enough to play ball and not fight for the last dime.*
*And also sign autographs and be perpetually nice and not say political stuff we disagree with and play through pain and come through in the clutch and give 100 percent every moment and tell us every now and again how lucky they are.
Is that fair? Of course not. But it’s real, and it has been in the owners’ playbook since the dawn of the game. When the Yankees made a pathetically small offer to Joe DiMaggio after two of the greatest opening seasons in baseball history, the fans booed HIM for holding out. Of course they did.
As Marvin Miller once told me, “When people tell me the fans are against the players now, I say, ‘Who cares?’ They have never given a damn about the players.”
It’s too much of a generalization — many fans have advocated for the players. But Miller was largely right … and the owners know it. Look at this situation now: They locked out the players but are blaming the players for the delay in spring training. They concede that the players have a point about tanking and young players being underpaid, but want to do as little as possible about it. They want and expect more revenue from an expanded playoffs but they don’t want to share that revenue with the players in any meaningful way.
But it will be the players who will carry the burden of blame if the season gets delayed or worse because … that’s just the way it is. When the lockout was first announced, I was hopeful that, well, it’s silly to think now about why I was hopeful. It’s pretty clear now that the whole owner strategy was to get to where we are now, with a game of chicken and baseball in the balance.
Will there be a breakthrough this week? I sure hope so. But for the first time in all this I worry, sincerely, that things will get a whole lot worse before they get better.