FORT MYERS, Fla. — In October, just before the start of a World Series game at Minute Maid Park in Houston, a man named Glen Caplin made his way through the press box introducing himself to reporters.
Caplin had been hired by Major League Baseball earlier in the year to handle public relations during negotiations for the new collective bargaining agreement and was preparing for the task ahead.
Caplin is a political operative by trade, a spokesman for New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand for a few years and, before that, for Hillary Clinton when she ran for president in 2016.
Four months later, we know why the league wanted its own operative. There was spinning to be done, and we don’t mean a curveball.
The first two series of the regular season have been canceled, and MLB would have you believe it acted on behalf of the fans and made a fair offer to the Players Association. That was the message commissioner Rob Manfred sent Tuesday after talks broke off in Jupiter, Fla.
But the battle for public perception has already been lost by the league. Even a casual fan can see the game has gone in the wrong direction the last five years, becoming less engrossing on the field and more contentious off it.
Instead of promoting young stars, teams conspire to restrict their earnings, and have turned the luxury-tax system into a salary cap in the name of competitive balance.
Manfred unquestionably has a difficult job juggling the desires of 30 disparate ownership groups. But of late he seems to be working hardest for those teams with the least ambition.
Owning a baseball team is a can’t-lose proposition. The value of every franchise only goes up, and there’s more wealth on the way with legalized sports betting and streaming television. Yet salaries have declined for players.
As a reference, consider J.D. Martinez. He has hit .297 with a .917 OPS in four seasons with the Red Sox, yet turned down every opportunity he’s had to opt out of his contract.
Free agency was once something players hungered for. Now many have come to fear it, even All-Stars.
The owners have had the upper hand for years and decided now was the time to further strangle the union with it instead of finding a way to work together to get the sport back on track. It was a blunder that an army of PR flacks wouldn’t be able to explain away.
MLB’s latest offer was salted with what seemed to be advantages for the players, but barely moved on the luxury tax, adding only $10 million the next three seasons, $14 million in 2025, and $20 million for 2026. It was trying to sell a car based on the sound system and floor mats, not the engine.
Now games have been canceled for the first time since 1995. Opening Day will not be March 31 at Fenway Park. It could be April 7 at Yankee Stadium instead. Or maybe April 15 at Fenway Park.
The owners once counted on the public having little sympathy for well-compensated professional athletes, a strategy that worked years ago. Now, in the age of social media, players send messages directly to fans without a filter.
When MLB leaked the idea that the union had suddenly changed the tone of the negotiations, the players fired right back. Manfred, and not the stereotype of a greedy player, has become the face of the lockout.
This is a loss for everybody, even those Scrooge McDuck small-market owners who are surely happy to lose sparsely attended games on cold April nights.
Spring training will be a rushed wreck whenever it starts. Opening Day, usually a joy, will be more of a relief. Unbalanced schedules will enter the conversation as the playoffs approach, and the canyon of distrust between the league and the union will only grow wider.
After two years of COVID-19 injured lists, limited capacities, coaches wearing masks, and a running count of who is vaccinated, baseball needed a normal 2022. It needed to get back in the fight of holding its audience and maybe, just maybe, even finding new fans.
Wait till next year.