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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

For players, owners in MLB lockout, the name of the game is business

Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred speaks during

Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred speaks during a news conference in Arlington, Texas, Thursday, Dec. 2, 2021. Owners locked out players at 12:01 a.m. Thursday following the expiration of the sport's five-year collective bargaining agreement. (AP Photo/LM Otero) Credit: AP/LM Otero

It’s not a game to them.

And the sooner everyone realizes that — it’s hard to believe some still haven’t by this point — we can do away with any romanticized notions of doing what’s best for baseball. Or the fans, for that matter.

Less than two years ago — 21 months, to be exact — MLB’s owners and players waged a ferocious public battle over eight-figure salaries in the midst of a pandemic that paralyzed the United States and killed hundreds of thousands.

All the people wanted was baseball to watch so they could think about something other than COVID-19 for a few hours between Zoom calls.

But I don’t begrudge the owners and players for that. It’s their money and there were billions at stake. They had reason to fight.

The same holds true now. This latest round of negotiations didn’t fall apart over the DH or a pitch clock. Commissioner Rob Manfred said he was reluctant to bring up any on-field changes out of fear that they might sabotage the real business at hand:

How to divide up the money.

Again, it’s their business. If the owners and players feel the need to blow up the current economic system, which expired at midnight Wednesday, then get to work. We’ll see you on the other side, hopefully in time for spring training to start in mid-February. At worst, by early March, to salvage Opening Day.

But spare us the open letters and the smarmy rhetoric. There is no public-relations war to win here. Regardless of how the two sides try to spin this lockout, the fans should be equally annoyed by both, especially coming off the most wildly entertaining free-agent period I can remember.

One minute, teams were spending $1.7 billion in new player contracts. The next, Manfred pulls the plug on the hot stove, killing the fun instantly.

Obviously, the gold rush of free-agent signings doesn’t happen without the looming threat of the lockout. But for all the millions they raked in, it wasn’t a great look for the players, who railed about baseball’s broken economics yet sprinted to get contracts signed under the current system before it was changed in the post-lockout era.

The strategy worked out just fine for them along with teams such as the Mets, as owner Steve Cohen dropped $254 million on four players and set an average annual value record ($43.3 million) to lure Max Scherzer to Flushing. That surely didn’t go over well with Manfred or many of the other owners, who need all the leverage they can get in these negotiations. Throwing money at their opponents doesn’t help in this scenario.

Then again, regardless of MLB’s company line, no one was expecting a hedge-fund billionaire to cry poverty. It was amusing to have Cohen busy making friends on the other side at about the same time Manfred was scribbling out his MLB.com lockout letter to fans, demonizing players in the process.

"To see Steve show the fortitude to go past [the luxury-tax threshold] and do whatever it takes to win, that’s music to my ears," Scherzer said.

A few hours later, the owners and players broke off their last series of talks in Dallas and Manfred declared the lockout, effective at 12:01 a.m. Thursday. Shortly afterward, the MLB.com team sites were scrubbed of all of the players’ photos and the stories from one of baseball’s best weeks in recent memory were wiped clean as well — as if those giddy signings never happened.

Manfred explained Thursday morning that it was a lockout-related legal issue, but the move still came off as petty in the minds of the fans. Some players changed their Twitter avatars to the same blank gray likeness on the MLB state-run sites in a display of solidarity and Manfred spent his early lockout hours trying to spin the darkly comic situation into part of the negotiating process.

"People need pressure sometimes to get to an agreement," Manfred said Thursday at his Dallas news conference. "Candidly, we didn’t feel that sense of pressure from the other side during the course of this week."

Don’t expect that pressure anytime soon. The Players Association just got $1.7 billion richer the past few weeks, and the regular season doesn’t start for another four months.

Scherzer spent some of Wednesday’s Zoom news conference talking about the union’s sizable war chest created specifically for this CBA showdown. Union chief Tony Clark took issue Thursday with Manfred’s lockout-explaining letter to fans, citing "misrepresentations" at his own news conference.

"It would have been beneficial to the process to have spent as much time negotiating in the room as it appeared was spent on the letter," Clark said.

So here we go. Buckle up for baseball’s nuclear winter. Just hope there’s a game left for you come spring.

New York Sports