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On Baseball

Baseball’s slow crawl toward a delayed Opening Day has seemed inevitable. But whom should we blame?

Rob Manfred has helped shield the owners, who waited six weeks before offering a proposal.Julio Aguilar/Getty

TAMPA — That the baseball season wouldn’t start on time has seemed inevitable for almost two years now.

As the pandemic raged in 2020, baseball could have started an abbreviated season in July and provided an extra month of entertainment to a fan base stuck in quarantine.

But bickering over how much players would get paid postponed Opening Day until August. Instead of 82 games, only 60 were played.

That was a dress rehearsal for this winter.

Once the collective bargaining agreement expired in December, there was little chance the owners and the union would quickly put aside differences that have been festering for years.

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Spring training has been on hold for two weeks and Opening Day was in danger on Monday as the parties negotiated across the state in Jupiter.

Optimism that a deal would be struck increased as the night went on and the sides made progress. Call it a late-inning rally.

That it took three months to make tangible progress spoke to the division within the sport.

Fight the temptation to blame both sides. This is almost entirely on the owners.

The lockout was imposed by the owners on Dec. 2. Then their negotiating team waited six weeks to make a proposal.

Throughout the process, the owners have ducked behind Rob Manfred, who as commissioner is less a steward of the game and more a staunch defender of the financial status quo.

The union is asking for a necessary balancing of the books. The average salary has dropped over the last four years and free agency is less profitable because of the guardrails installed to keep even the most competitive teams from spending.

Teams delight in finding ways to hurt their own players financially, manipulating their service time to delay free agency or fighting them through arbitration over what is often a relatively small amount of money.

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There are GMs who refer to their players as “inventory.” Like they’re cans in a warehouse.

Players once accepted the idea that they would earn less the first few seasons of their careers, then make it back at the end.

Teams routinely awarded long-term contracts to their core players knowing that while the final few years of the deal might not be particularly cost-effective, it was the fair thing to do given how they were underpaid earlier.

Now a new generation of data-crunching, bloodless general managers has abandoned that blueprint; they either trade their second-tier stars before they become expensive or let them walk.

Once they become free agents, the market is awash in similar players. There are also fewer options because there are always at least two or three teams intent on losing for a few years so they can stockpile high draft picks.

Technically, baseball has no salary cap. But even large-market owners treat the competitive-balance tax threshold like one, spending up to the first limit but not exceeding it, as the Red Sox did last season.

The penalties, both financial and in restricting access to amateur talent, are such that getting under the limit after a few years essentially becomes necessary.

The union wants better compensation for younger players, measures put in place to discourage tanking, and more payroll space under the luxury tax. None of that is unreasonable.

The owners were determined to grind the players down and the players were unified in their dislike of Manfred. It’s a bad mix.

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The players prepared for a fight, the union withholding their annual licensing checks to build a robust war chest.

Pitcher Max Scherzer (left, back to camera), former player Kevin Slowey, and former player Andrew Miller gathered for negotiations last week. The MLBPA has created a war chest that will help players avoid breaking ranks.Greg Lovett/Associated Press

As the sides bickered, baseball drifted a little further out of the national consciousness. But once an agreement is reached, spring training will start and fans will get engaged again.

But look for infighting to continue as Manfred seeks to impose rule changes to improve the pace of game and correct the damage done by executives who have used analytics to turn the sport into an endless spin cycle of strikeouts, walks and ground balls into a shift interrupted by occasional home runs.

Baseball is a business, not a public trust. But the owners should care about the aesthetics of the game and work with the players on making it better. The people in uniform know better than anybody that the game is getting harder to watch.

Yet many of us still love it because you never know what will happen when you go to a ballpark or turn on a game. We overlook all the nonsense because the good parts are worth it.

But the lockout will make it harder for some people to remember the good parts, and they won’t bother trying.

At this point, who could blame them?


Peter Abraham can be reached at peter.abraham@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @PeteAbe.