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Gamesmanship by MLB owners, union has overtaken the game

MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred answers questions at a

MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred answers questions at a press conference during MLB baseball owners meetings, Thursday, Feb. 6, 2020, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux) Credit: AP/John Raoux

Too often these days, it feels as if playing baseball is just something the industry does to pass the time between negotiating sessions.

We know baseball is a business. They never let us forget it. Ever. And we bring this up again because the owners and the Players Association are back to discussing the fate of the 2021 season, or at least the non-coronavirus parts they have control over.

This week was supposed to be the winter meetings — baseball’s annual offseason carnival — but it was moved from Dallas to our living rooms, for obvious reasons. Rather than schedule the usual media availabilities during this period, however, MLB has pushed them back until next week, presumably to sort out how the game is going to be played in 2021 before the managers and GMs are besieged with questions about such matters.

But constantly talking about rule changes — whether it’s the DH or ghost runners or seven-inning doubleheaders or roster sizes — is getting to be a buzzkill for a sport that can’t afford killing any more of its shrinking supply of buzz.

These rules aren’t being discussed along the lines of what’s best for baseball. They’ve been reduced to bargaining chips in a multibillion-dollar poker game between the owners and players.

Last year, the COVID-19 pandemic spurred these emergency talks, well ahead of the CBA’s December 2021 expiration date, because both sides had to figure out a way to play under extraordinary circumstances. Despite taking until late July to get started, and a number of scary outbreak-related pauses, MLB and the union (somewhat) successfully navigated their way through the World Series.

Personally, I liked the rule changes — except for the three-batter minimum for pitchers — and felt vindicated to a degree after advocating for the universal DH for more than a decade.

But now that MLB has sent a memo reminding teams that those rules evaporated with the end of the 2020 season, as The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal first reported Monday, and to assume the DH will not be used in the National League in ’21 (for roster-shaping purposes), it feels as if we’re back sitting at the negotiating table all over again — the national pastime of our National Pastime.

Locally, the DH helped facilitate the breakthrough season of the Mets’ Dominic Smith by making it easier for him to share a daily lineup with Pete Alonso. Wasn’t it far more entertaining to see either of them hit, while preserving starters such as Jacob deGrom to maximize his efforts on the mound?

We could go on and on about the benefits of the universal DH, but we already have in this space, frequently.

The problem is, the DH is part of a negotiating package now, a shiny coin of labor currency, and MLB won’t just leave it in place, not without extracting something from the union, such as a version of the expanded playoff format from last October. Ultimately, that still could happen.

But in this near-constant battle over the bottom line, I can’t help but think of Theo Epstein’s warning last month about the existential danger to baseball. Epstein was talking specifically about how the arms race over analytics — a movement he helped greatly accelerate — was hurting the product on the field.

"It’s the greatest game in the world," Epstein said. "But there are some threats to it because of the way the game is evolving, and I take some responsibility for that because the executives like me who have spent a lot of time using analytics to try to optimize individual and team performance have unwittingly had a negative impact on the aesthetic value of the game, and the entertainment value of the game."

I was just glad Epstein finally said it, because whenever others did — especially media members — they instantly were branded haters of the sport. Nothing could be further from the truth, of course. What’s so wrong about wanting to see the best possible version of baseball? The powers that be, however, seemingly never can agree on ways to make that happen.

Instead, we get more and more negotiations. And rather than resulting in rules designed for the betterment of the game, they feel like concessions or trade-offs.

As of now, the DH is being held hostage despite its encouraging trial run during the 60-game season. And that’s not fair to anyone, from the front offices to the players to the sport’s paying customers.

"I just think for the overall quality of the game, the excitement level of the DH is the right thing in the National League," Mets president Sandy Alderson said last month.

It shouldn’t be this complicated. But with baseball, it always is.

New York Sports