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christopher l. gasper

A win for the owners in this labor dispute will be a big loss for baseball

Spring training sites such as the Pirates' complex in Bradenton, Fla., sat idle while negotiations continued on a collective bargaining agreement.Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

Battered baseball needs a win. In order for that to happen, MLB owners have to lose the total control of the game they won in the last collective bargaining agreement in 2016. They have to do what’s in the best interest of baseball the game instead of their best interest.

That’s a big ask of any group of billionaire business folks used to taking what they want when they want and exploiting every possible advantage. It was too big an ask, as MLB announced the cancellation of the first two series of the season after its self-imposed deadline for a CBA agreement — and its tepid final offer — came and went Tuesday.

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But another victory for commissioner Rob Manfred and the owners will be a loss for baseball and probably mean losing more games from the 2022 season to a labor dispute. MLB and the MLB Players Association made enough progress in a 16½-hour marathon of back-and-forth negotiations in Jupiter, Fla., Monday/Tuesday that the owners extended their arbitrary deadline for a new CBA to 5 p.m. Tuesday. Hope sprung eternal. Then it sprung a leak.

It was the bottom of the ninth (consecutive day of negotiations) with a runner in scoring position, and owners and the players union couldn’t cross home plate.

The onus is on owners to get this done. They’re the ones who initiated a lockout. They’re the ones that set arbitrary deadlines. They’re the ones who have issued at times insulting offers (countering to raise the odious competitive balance tax by $1 million over a previous offer). They’re the ones that have to yield the high ground to level the playing field and put the product back on solid footing.

Do they want total victory or do they want baseball? They can’t have both.

The owners and Manfred have worked assiduously over the years to swing the balance of power and defang what was once the most powerful union in all of pro sports. They succeeded last time as former Red Sox first baseman Tony Clark, executive director of the MLBPA, produced the labor equivalent of striking out on three pitches in 2016, setting up this inevitable showdown.

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Clark’s epic whiff crafts the tenor of the current baseball brinkmanship.

Bruce Meyer, chief union negotiator, left, and Tony Clark, executive director of the players association, arrive at Roger Dean Stadium at the start of Tuesday's negotiations.Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

The Players Association is trying to undo as much of its prior folly as possible. It’s trying to go from flat on its back to the Captain Morgan rum position with the game’s economics as the barrel beneath its foot all in one swift motion. Good luck, gentlemen.

The MLBPA can’t afford to capitulate in the manner it did in 2016. That’s why it’s really the owners and Manfred who have the proverbial bat in their hands. In the words of Red Sox manager Alex Cora, they can do damage.

The choice is do they try to do damage to the union and the sport for their benefit or do they try to do damage to the labor deadlock?

If we get a deal, it will be because owners were willing to loosen their vise grip on the sport and their purse strings.

The value of MLB franchises has risen to the point that Forbes values all of the 30 teams, except the Miami Marlins, as worth $1 billion or more, and the Kansas City Royals, the 28th-most valuable franchise, sold for $1 billion in 2019.

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Meanwhile, an Associated Press study showed that the average player salary has fallen 6.4 percent since the start of the 2017 season — the inaugural year of the last CBA — and the median salary point has dropped 30 percent since 2015.

This is why it was disingenuous of Manfred to imply that baseball ownership constitutes some sort of financial hardship and a poor ROI (return on investment). Please, the commish’s nose grew to the size of a Louisville Slugger on that one.

Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred practices his golf swing as negotiations continue with the players' association Tuesday in Jupiter, Fla.Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

These franchises are toys, the trappings of wealth. Do you demand your yacht or your private jet make money each year and be constantly appreciating assets? No. Players shouldn’t be forced to subsidize franchises.

Sorry, commish, but the Players Association has already experienced its disastrous outcome. It’s called the last CBA. In tandem with the prevalence of analytics and groupthink, it begat a brand of boilerplate baseball in which players are devalued commodities and processes and approaches take priority.

Harnessing market inefficiencies has created a more cost-effective version of the game and a less entertaining and compelling one. It’s also one that’s harder to emotionally connect with when procedures are promoted over players like Mike Trout, Shohei Ohtani, and Mookie Betts.

The Holy Grail for owners has always been a salary cap. They got a de facto one in the CBT. That’s the crucible here.

The CBT and its harsh financial and draft-pick penalties have dictated and diminished the spending of even baseball’s richest clubs like the Red Sox, Yankees, and Dodgers, creating a trickle-down effect.

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MLB started with a hard line on its silver bullet mechanism, basically refusing to bump up the threshold from $210 million, where it was in 2021, and proposing Draconian increases in the financial penalties to 45 percent for first-time offenders, 62 percent for repeat offenders, and 95 percent blowing past the threshold three straight seasons.

But there was meaningful movement reported on that front. With MLB agreeing to stick with the current penalty structure (20 percent, 32 percent, and 62.5 percent) while agreeing to raise the threshold to $220 million, still far from MLBPA’s starting point of $238 million in its last offer.

However, the problem is that MLB wants to freeze the threshold at $220 million for the first three years of a five-year CBA and cap it at $230 million. The last CBA featured a $15 million jump from year one to year five.

Other big-time issues include minimum salary, pre-arbitration bonus pool, expanded playoffs, and an international draft. But the CBT is the wrench in the gears of baseball’s labor machine.

The players are not blameless. My blame-pie split is 75 percent owners/MLB and 25 percent players. The players seem Hades-bent on treating the symptoms of their economic decline instead of the disease. Plus, they’re obstinate about common-sense rule changes on the field.

Tony Clark, second from left, executive director of the baseball players association, appears at a Tuesday news conference with pitcher Andrew Miller, left, Bruce Meyer, chief union negotiator, second from right, and pitcher Max Scherzer, right.Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

They’ve become paranoid about tanking. So, they’re blocking a 14-team playoff that would generate more revenue. They’re fixated on a draft lottery that should’ve been done at five picks weeks ago.

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Worst of all, they won’t accept reality. A salary cap by another name is still . . . a salary cap. That’s how the CBT has functioned, as a ceiling. So the prudent approach to boost spending would be to force teams to have a spending floor.

But because of ideological intransigence, they won’t even consider a salary floor. Dumb.

It’s also baffling that the MLBPA doesn’t simply demand the CBT threshold be tied to a percentage of baseball income. That way, they don’t get stuck with disproportionate growth, as in the last deal.

But this brand of hardball is the owners’ game. They possess the pre-1969 pitcher’s mound high ground. If they’re willing to cede some of it, we’ll have baseball.

If not, the self-inflicted hits to the sport will keep on coming.


Christopher L. Gasper is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at christopher.gasper@globe.com. Follow him @cgasper and on Instagram @cgaspersports.