The good news about Major League Baseball’s imminent lockout is that it has created an artificial free agency deadline for many teams looking to improve in hopes that there will be a full 162-game season in 2022.
As of now, unless there’s a labor agreement between owners and the Players Association, all MLB business closes at midnight Wednesday. As a result, we’ve seen a frenzy of signings by aggressive teams intent on improving their chances for 2022.
Through Monday, there had been 16 free agent player agreements with guarantees of more than $20 million (no big splashes for the “deliberate” Red Sox, who spent the last few days buying an NHL team). In the past month, MLB owners have pledged more than $1.4 billion in guaranteed contracts, almost $1.2 billion since Friday.
Former Reds general manager Jim Bowden said it’s been like the July trading deadline and the winter meetings rolled into one. Another way to put it would be to say that baseball is suddenly experiencing something akin to normal NBA free agency.
Unless you’re a fan of the Tampa Bay Red Sox, big transactions have come fast and furious, which is a good thing for any professional sport and its fans.
What is not a good thing is a lockout. Or a strike. Or a work stoppage of any sort. We all know it’s something MLB can ill afford.
Baseball is already in trouble with sagging interest and lower television ratings. The game is struggling to keep its share of the sports market, largely because the people who play the game have no regard for a dreadful pace of play. While players step out of the box and insist on going to 3 and 2 on every at-bat (”grinding” at-bats are dreadful to watch), the game is slowly dissolving before our eyes.
Old guys like me are dying off and not being replaced by a new generation of baseball fans. Few have time for games that last 3 hours 45 minutes. And no one should be asked to endure this as entertainment. It’s bad salesmanship all around.
So now the players and owners are threatening to compound their existing problem with millionaire ballplayers going to war against billionaire owners while inflation-riddled America is still trying to recover from a pandemic. The sport has not had a work stoppage since 1994, but a lockout will freeze all transactions until a new collective bargaining agreement is struck. Get ready for an onslaught of thoughtful essays about “a plague on both your houses.”
I have been down this path. Too many times. I knew Marvin Miller. I covered Marvin Miller at the Doral Inn every day of the two-month, midseason baseball strike in 1981 (Tony Clark is no Marvin Miller). Marvin was Snidely Whiplash with a gigantic brain. He was considerably smarter than every baseball owner of his generation. He beat the lords of the game the way Bill Belichick beats rookie quarterbacks. Marvin created the strongest sports union in America.
NFL players almost never go on strike because careers are too short and the union too weak. Baseball players? They used to go on strike regularly. A strike destroyed the 1981 season and killed the World Series in 1994. I was in a hotel in New York for that one, too. It was one of the saddest days in the history of American sports. Just ask Expos fans; Montreal looked primed to make it to the World Series that year.
So what is this disagreement about, you ask? What are the issues getting in the way of a new collective bargaining agreement?
Baseball’s bargaining points are predictably boring and complicated, things like elimination of direct draft-pick compensation . . . team payroll minimums . . . lowering the luxury-tax threshold . . . competitive-balance tax . . . service-time manipulation . . . salary caps.
You know . . . the usual.
It’s all about money. It’s about sharing the gold.
And it’s about a startling lack of trust. The rich ballplayers think the rich owners are trying to screw them. The rich owners will tell you that they are the ones taking all the risk and that the players are greedy, always looking for more.
The only thing certain is that sports fans have no tolerance for it. Nobody wants to hear about it or read about it. It is the most boring topic this side of UMass football and the MLS playoffs.
We have a sport that is in trouble; a sport with a lot of rich people on both sides; a sport teetering on obsolescence. The sport is coming off 26 years of labor peace. Now this. Prepare for a lot of saber-rattling from both sides between now and February.
Pay no attention to the December/January lockout. February is the next real deadline. This doesn’t get serious until we get to the start of spring training and there’s still no new basic agreement. That’s when there’s a threat to the 2022 season.
Meanwhile, we have no appetite to discuss the issues or take sides. Bleep all of them. We will watch something else.
Knock yourselves out, owners. You too, players. In an era of COVID, rampant inflation, and football mania, be mindful that you are not that important and nobody cares who’s right.
If I may tweak the lyrics of “Take Me Out To The Ballgame”: “Some won’t care if you never get back.”