A disastrous day for baseball . . . and things could get even worse
Rob Manfred’s "disastrous outcome" became a self-fulfilling prophecy Tuesday when the MLB commissioner did exactly what he promised to do if a new collective bargaining agreement wasn’t agreed upon by his deadline: cancel regular-season games.
Manfred stood at the podium at Roger Dean Stadium, after nine consecutive days of negotiations, and played giggly executioner for not only Opening Day, but the first two series. He didn’t have to do it, as March 31 was still more than four weeks away. He chose to. It’s his lockout, after all.
And this doomsday scenario didn’t seem like a "disaster" to him. The Players Association has believed all along this was the owners’ plan, and they said as much in Tuesday’s response, accusing Manfred’s side of trying to break the union, an explosive allegation.
"What Rob Manfred characterized as a "defensive lockout" is, in fact, the culmination of a decades-long attempt by owners to break our Player fraternity," the union said in the statement. "As in the past, this effort will fail."
It’s true that Tuesday was a terrible day for baseball. Ripping up spring-training games is one thing, but willfully damaging the regular season by Manfred was a major escalation in this bitter fight between players and owners. As bad as Tuesday’s events were, this has the potential to get much, much worse before it gets better. Once you start cancelling games, the next batch comes easier, and the one after that.
Disaster? Major League Baseball, as self-destructive a sport as we’ve seen on the professional landscape, may just be getting started.
The owners’ playbook from the jump was to put pressure on the union, from the Dec. 2 lockout — followed by 43 days of zero contact — to Manfred’s artificial Feb. 28 deadline to preserve the March 31 start for Opening Day. The commissioner took credit for getting the two parties together for the past nine days in Jupiter, Fla., and Manfred even extended the "deadline" after a marathon 16-hour negotiating session stretched until 3 a.m. Tuesday morning.
When those subsequent talks went sour, however, and MLB adopted a more adversarial tone regarding the players — claiming the union’s cooperative stance had shifted after the quick sleep — Manfred easily switched back into battle mode. There was a last, best offer handed to the union before the 5 p.m. deadline, one the owners had to know would be DOA. The players were no longer considered part of the solution. Once the deadline expired, they were the enemy.
Manfred said games had to be cancelled, not postponed to be made up later, because of the interleague schedule’s complications. Of course the players’ salaries would be lost, too, at a rate of $20 million per day, significant savings for teams.
"Our position is that games that are not played," Manfred said, "players will not get paid for."
Along those lines, union chief Tony Clark did not pull any punches later at a Florida news conference with Andrew Miller, Max Scherzer and lead negotiator Bruce Meyer. As strained as relations have been with MLB, all of them dropped any pretense of diplomacy after what they considered to be a slap in the face.
"The reason we’re not playing is simple," Clark said. "A lockout is the ultimate economic weapon. In a $10 billion industry, the owners have made a conscious decision to use this weapon against the greatest asset they have: the players. But the group won’t be intimidated. I’ve seen more unity over the last few years than at any other time in our recent history."
The owners appear ready to put that to the test, based on sizable gap that persists in each side’s respective proposals. MLB’s offer to start the Competitive Balance Tax at $220 million and keep it there for the first three years of the deal was a non-starter for the union, which began at $238 million and gradually increased to $263 million by the final year.
Also, MLB increased the pre-arbitration bonus pool to $25 million, but well short of the union’s $85 million. Distance also remained on minimum salaries, and a philosophical divide on expanded playoffs, though Manfred said they were willing to go down to 12 teams to compromise in other areas.
But this feels beyond the numbers now. If this was only about moving money around, you’d think a deal would be done. And after nine days of trying to find common ground, both sides were only digging in more Tuesday.
"We’re prepared," Miller said. "We’ve seen this coming in a sense. It’s unfortunate, but this isn’t new to us. This is not shocking. It’s unfortunate, but our communication, our willingness to see each other’s point of views and to find solutions and to fight for what’s right is nothing like I’ve seen before, I can tell you that."
Ominous words. And after 26 years of labor peace for baseball, disaster doesn’t even begin to describe what could be next.