New York Yankees president Randy Levine looks on during a...

New York Yankees president Randy Levine looks on during a press conference to introduce Aaron Boone as the new Yankees manager at Yankee Stadium on Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2017. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

Yankees president Randy Levine boldly went where no MLB official has dared to tread lately — short of commissioner Rob Manfred — when he chose to publicly go on the record for Michael Kay’s ESPN radio show.

Levine is a veteran of the labor wars, dating to the 1994-95 strike that shut down baseball for 232 days, killed the World Series and birthed the darkly comic era of replacement players. Monday marked the 96th day of Manfred’s lockout, the owners were annoyed by the union’s Sunday offer — described as "backwards" by their camp — and MLB probably was hours away from canceling a second week of the regular season.

Honestly, Levine came off more diplomatically than I would have expected, although some of his financial claims were highly questionable, to put it nicely. What struck me in particular, however, was a question toward the end of the half-hour interview, when Levine was asked if he believes there is a chance this labor conflict will wipe out the entire 2022 season.

"I don’t even want to think about that," he said. "I couldn’t think about that. That’s a mind-boggling, horrid, horrid thought. Shame on all of us if it ever gets to that."

The troubling part is what Levine left out of his answer. He didn’t say "no."

And that’s what cut to the heart of Levine’s conversation about these stalled collective bargaining agreement negotiations. Amid all the talking points regarding compromise, competitive balance tax, minimum salary raises and the owners’ economic hardship (!), Levine wasn’t going to go all unicorns and rainbows, either, regarding the relationship between the owners and players.

There’s a reason baseball is at this point — Levine described the state of affairs as "embarrassing" for everyone involved — and it mostly boils down to the distrust that has percolated among the teams and their own players over the past five years. Levine correctly talked about the union feeling burned by the previous CBA, and strangling each other over salaries during the 2020 COVID summer only fueled that anger.

No one is disputing that MLB has included raises in a number of key economic areas during these talks. The players just don’t view them as proportionate to the revenue growth of an $11 billion industry. And Levine countering with "there’s not endless money" isn’t going to score many points at the negotiating table, especially coming from the president of a franchise that was valued by Forbes at $5.25 billion last year.

"Teams are very expensive to run," Levine said. "They appreciate in value over the long term, they really do. And at the end of the day, there is not endless money, people writing endless checks all the time. That’s just not the way it works in the real world — in any sport. In football and hockey and basketball, there are actually caps that demonstrate that it doesn’t work."

Ah, yes. The salary cap. Coveted by MLB for decades, the Players Association has successfully fought off the dreaded cap at every turn, aside from the CBT getting a foothold in 1997. All this time later, the players say the CBT works as a cap anyway, which is exactly what the owners want it to do — and why the union is so fiercely protective of that number in these negotiations.

The importance of the threshold is crystal-clear. Maybe fewer than a handful of teams actually dare to venture past the boundary and pony up the taxes for a winter’s shopping spree, but plenty stack up a few million short of the line, like planes circling during rush hour at LGA.

Rational observers can look at MLB’s proposal for a $220 million threshold and the union’s $238 million request and see a middle point there. But the fact that the owners want to stay there for the first three years, and increase by only $10 million over the life of the deal, equates to an average gap of $27.4 million over each of those five years.

The players already have bargained the owners down to keeping the tax rates at status quo. That’s a win in itself. But they obviously believe there’s more ground to gain, and the CBT — really a soft cap — is worth digging in for.

Levine said he sees a compromise here, a deal to be made. And you can bet the mortgage the Yankees don’t want to be flushing all these games (i.e. mountains of cash) down the toilet with another week of the season about to be lost.

But the longer this lockout goes, the risk of legit blowback from the irate fan base increases, and Levine should understand that after what he witnessed following the 1994-95 strike.

Is Levine afraid that people could get angry enough to turn away from baseball again?

"Yes,’’ he said, "very afraid."

So far, though, both sides seem OK wrestling in the sport’s bonfire, and the flames are only getting higher.

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