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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Lennon: Stealing an early look at both sides' collective bargaining positions

FILE - In this Oct. 16, 2018, file

FILE - In this Oct. 16, 2018, file photo, Houston Astros starting pitcher Dallas Keuchel throws against the Boston Red Sox during the first inning in Game 3 of a baseball American League Championship Series in Houston. Pitchers Dallas Keuchel and Craig Kimbrel, the last two top free agents on the market, can sign starting Monday, June 3, 2019, with their new teams having to forfeit amateur draft picks as compensation. Both turned down $17.9 million qualifying offers in November, Keuchel from Houston and Kimbrel from the World Series champion Boston Red Sox. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip, File) Photo Credit: AP/David J. Phillip

We’ve entered into a state of perpetual labor negotiations in Major League Baseball, a sport that seems to spend more time discussing what’s wrong with the game than actually enjoying the events taking place on the field.

In that regard, we’re not entirely blameless. The media, after all, tends to be the group asking the questions. But here in the middle of this Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) -- which doesn’t expire until after the 2021 season -- the two sides have expressed the unprecedented move of sitting down earlier than usual to possibly amend the document in place.

Commissioner Rob Manfred repeated this week that he’s only responding to the overtures of union chief Tony Clark, who has been trying to convey the percolating anger of the players since another winter of free-agent discontent. And despite the public discourse, Manfred insists that Clark has yet to present MLB with a list of ideas/concepts to work with them on.

So what we’ve had instead is some saber-rattling on both sides, which ramped up again during the All-Star break, as Manfred and Clark took turns addressing the Baseball Writers Association of America on a number of topics. As you might expect, they failed to see eye-to-eye on just about everything, but their respective viewpoints did provide some insight into where baseball is headed in the coming years.

Not to worry. I don’t envision a work stoppage. We’re too far removed from those militant days and there’s too much money to be had. Neither side has the stomach for such things anymore. But here’s a breakdown of those flashpoints discussed, minus the conversation about the actual baseball itself, which we already talked about earlier in the week.

Why no NBA-like hoopla for MLB free agency?

On the surface, this would seem like a legitimate question. The casual observer looks at the frenzied pace of the NBA’s white-hot, headline-hogging free agency period and wonders why MLB has to slog through an ice-cold “hot stove” session that stretches for five months. Or in the case of Dallas Keuchel and Craig Kimbrel, eight months.

Obviously, MLB would prefer the attention, and its players certainly would like to know their future employer before the holidays (baseball’s free agency kicks off in early November). But there’s a reason the NBA enjoys that intensely packed, hyperactive signing period: it’s called a salary cap. Basically everyone knows what money they’re getting, and when they’re getting it, so the only thing left is deciding on a destination. Or who they’re partnering up with, an NBA trend that’s become more prevalent in recent years.

Clark responded to the NBA question by stating how that league made a conscious shift to market its individual stars in the 80s and 90s, with Magic, Bird, Jordan, etc. But he also made a regrettable statement when comparing the NBA’s supernova free-agency cycle to that of MLB.

“It would be great if our free agency functioned the same way,” Clark said. “Those midnight phone calls, the helicopter views of players driving from the airport. That can happen. It can happen right now in our system. And it can happen in such a way that we rule the offseason and the hot stove is officially hot. The commentary we got from players is, why can’t that happen from our end? Wouldn’t it be great if it did?”

When told of Clark’s comments, Manfred swung like Pete Alonso at the Home Run Derby.

“If we all went to the winter meetings in San Diego and we had a non stop run of press conferences where all our major free agents signed and we owned that week, that would be good for the game -- I 100 percent agree with that,” Manfred said. “The NBA has a system that’s very different than ours. We’re more than prepared to discuss with the Players Association that system or any other system.”

Manfred couldn’t help but smile at the kicker there, and later said, again with a grin, that he’s confident the owners would agree to a salary cap and salary floor. But the commissioner also described baseball’s system as the “freest free agency in professional sports” and that is influenced by basic economics, so the “fantasy world” he laid out for the winter meetings isn’t possible.

“When you negotiate that kind of market, the market is going to play out how the market plays out,” Manfred said. “In contrast, when you have a system where everybody knows there’s a very limited calendar, everybody’s playing in the same sandbox -- minimum payroll, maximum payroll and what you can spend on any individual player -- that system is going to play out differently.”

The growing specter of collusion

Clark used the term “coordinated” when criticizing MLB’s teams for the glacial pace of free agency the past two years, as well as stagnated salaries overall, aside from the megadeals for Mike Trout ($430M), Bryce Harper ($330M) and Manny Machado ($300M).

The union chief would not say collusion, fully aware of the word’s radioactive meaning in this context. When it was suggested that older players were now being frozen out, with the money being given to the younger stars, Clark wasn’t on board with this merely being a redistribution of revenue.

“The goalposts have been moved,” Clark said. “I’m also saying that $550,000 is a minimum. You can pay your players more than $550,000. Teams are choosing not to. If what we’re being told is accurate, that teams are more efficient at what they are doing, that they have more restraint than they’ve had before, it’s more structured and more coordinated. If that’s the case, then we should have less restraints, not more.”

Clark referred to feedback from agents describing similar stories that were troubling by their uniformity in what is supposed to be a free market economy. It was interesting to note, however, that Manfred didn’t necessarily object to Clark’s assessment, but cited permissible (in his mind) reasons for the trend.

“No. 1, let’s not lose sight of the fact that our free-agent process, whether it’s perfect or not, has produced more $100-million guaranteed contracts than the rest of professional sports combined,” Manfred said. “Secondly, do clubs manage their player signing behavior differently than they did 10 years ago. Yeah, they do. they manage it differently because they manage it based on data, analytics, algorithms that did not exist 10 years ago. I think there is more consistency in the way clubs approach and value individual players. but that’s the product of them using data and better management techniques.”

Gambling with baseball’s future?

It’s obvious why MLB, despite the Black Sox scandal and Pete Rose banishment, now has cozied up to gambling partners, like the recently-signed deal with MGM Resorts: stacks upon stacks of money. But Clark expressed concerns about player harassment in this unexplored territory, and a fear of unforeseen consequences.

“I can tell you that I’ve received texts from players who on their social media were suddenly being followed by book houses,” Clark said. “That’s a different dynamic. Over the course of the last couple months ... a player, not in our sport, who had to have somebody arrested because of the death threats he was receiving as a result of gambling in the sport he was participating.”

Clark also mentioned the new revenue to be generated -- on the backs of the players -- so the economics of it will be a big bargaining topic. Manfred, for his part, pointed out that MLB initially fought against widespread legal gambling. But once the Supreme Court cleared the way for states to implement sports betting, every league quickly moved to get a piece of that pie.

“I do believe that new reality can be managed effectively,” Manfred said. “We have gone through and made investments, updating our rules, increasing our ability to monitor gambling activity, working with gaming enterprises to make sure we understand what we’re doing.

“Gambling takes place, we all know that, whether it’s legal or illegal. You can make a good argument that at least in the legalized context, the threat to players is lower because it’s regulated than when you’re dealing with illegal gambling.”

We’ll see. Can the MLB adequately protect thousands of minor leaguers that could be reached by a criminal element? How about official scorers that might affect prop bets? More gambling typically leads to more problems that can be tough to contain.

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