The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Baseball’s lockout is about economics. What needs to be fixed is the sport.

MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred, left, and union head Tony Clark have many issues to discuss. Will they get around to changing things between the lines? (Ron Blum/AP)
7 min

A work stoppage in Major League Baseball doesn’t matter much in December. In all honesty, the issues at stake in a lockout don’t get to the core of what ails the sport. The players want a larger percentage of the money? They want to get some of that money earlier in their careers? They would like teams to be incentivized to compete rather than tank? Fine, fine and fine.

What can’t happen as MLB and the players’ union negotiate, though, is the actual game they stage being forgotten. Whatever the flaws in its salary structure and the dispersal of revenue, there’s money to go around. Ask Corey Seager, owner of a new 10-year, $325 million contract with the Texas Rangers. Ask Max Scherzer, who will earn more than $43 million annually for three years from the New York Mets. It’s hard for either side to cry poor if they’re giving and accepting those types of deals.

What should matter more than the money, then, has to be the game itself. The game itself is wounded.

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In 2021, major league hitters collectively produced a .244 batting average. Now, don’t confuse the citing of that stat as an endorsement of batting average as a savvy way to evaluate a particular player. It’s not, because it doesn’t account for a player’s ability to reach base by other means or for his power.

What MLB’s batting average can tell you — broadly — is what’s at the core of the game’s problems. It’s not whether a player is eligible for salary arbitration after two seasons or three. It’s this: When I buy a seat and sit in the stands or flip on the television and plop down on the couch, how much action is there?

The last time major league hitters produced an average as low as .244 was 1972. The last time the average fell below that was 1968, when Bob Gibson, Luis Tiant, Denny McLain and others defined the year of the pitcher as MLB posted a .237 average. We know what happened then: MLB lowered the mound to a uniform 10 inches and shrank the strike zone to make sure hitters weren’t overpowered. Voilà! A batting average of .248 in 1969, .254 in 1970. More action in the field. More action on the base paths. More action — period.

It would be nice if that kind of thought and care about the on-field product was a guiding force for these negotiations. The most recent World Series and All-Star Game drew the second-lowest television ratings of all time. Game 1 of the 2020 World Series, which involved the brand-name Los Angeles Dodgers, was the lowest-rated World Series game in history. Those are data points that should be considered in context. That context would reveal a game that has lost its place in the national sports landscape.

“This is slow, like climate change,” one MLB executive said last month. “We’re on our way to becoming hockey.”

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That’s not a knock on hockey as a sport or the NHL as a league. What it is: an acknowledgment of the reality that baseball, if not tended to and cared for and thoughtfully fixed, could be on a path to becoming a niche sport. Hockey in the United States has pockets of dedicated and passionate fan bases in markets both traditional and not. Rarely, though, does it drive the national sports conversation the way the NFL and NBA can. Baseball is on the precipice of ending up in the same place, and the way the game is played on the field is a far greater factor than how billions in revenue are split between players and owners.

So bicker over whether the competitive balance tax threshold is a de facto salary cap, and debate the merits of a salary floor as a way to ensure teams aren’t tanking. Tie free agency to a player’s service time, as is the case now, or his age, an idea that has been knocked around. Those are line items on a budget. They’re not as relevant to the sport’s health as what’s between the lines.

The negotiations that broke off Wednesday afternoon led to the collective bargaining agreement expiring a minute before midnight. Management then decided to lock out the players, putting a halt to what had been a frenetic bit of offseason wheeling and dealing. The continuation of those negotiations is of paramount importance because, should a deal be reached in time for spring training to go on uninterrupted, the sport’s record of labor peace essentially will still stretch back to 1995. That’s quite a run, and it should be acknowledged.

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The acrimony between the sides, though, matters as well — and that’s coming from discussions with people on all sides of the issues over the past several months. What’s distilled is an environment almost defined by distrust. With tenacious negotiators on both sides, discussions over a particular point don’t begin with, “Is this good for the game?” They begin with: “Can we win this issue? And if we give in on this, what might we get in return?”

To an extent, that’s the nature of collective bargaining. But with so many sharp elbows and tongues so motivated to report back to their sides that they have won a dollar here or a dollar there, there’s no sense that anyone is driven by the sport’s overall health. The game has no curator. It’s not Commissioner Rob Manfred. It’s not union head Tony Clark. Their allegiance is to their constituents: the owners and the players, respectively. It’s not to baseball, writ large.

All this doesn’t mean the economics won’t work out, because one way or another, they will. If there was deep concern that revenue would drop, the Rangers wouldn’t have committed $175 million over seven years to a 31-year-old infielder very few members of the American sporting public could pick out if he was sitting next to them at a restaurant.

Hello, Marcus Semien. Enough money for the filet, it would seem.

MLB free agency tracker

Let’s hope MLB and the players reach a deal well before spring training and that hot stove transactions can resume in time for rosters to be solidified and the season can go off as planned. The sport isn’t in solid enough standing in the public conscious to risk alienating fans who have plenty of other places to turn — even without a true work stoppage.

If a new deal is reached, it behooves both sides to come back together and sit down again, this time with a clean slate and an open mind. They must look at their game honestly and openly and ask, “How can we, together, get back to the game we once had?”

That will involve creativity and experimentation, which started last year at the minor league level. It could involve pitch clocks and limits on roster construction. It almost certainly will incorporate an automated strike zone. Move the mound back? Ban infield shifts? Let’s keep the discussion going. There are no bad ideas. The sooner the discourse moves from economics to baseball the better because only then will the issues that truly ail the sport be addressed.