The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Baseball’s history of selfish, shortsighted owners adds another sorry chapter

The Post's Chelsea Janes explains what led to the lockout between the MLB players union and team owners, which has already resulted in canceled games. (Video: Joshua Carroll/The Washington Post)

So much about the Major League Baseball lockout is sad that it’s hard to know where to begin.

It’s a fact that baseball has been shedding fans over the past 30 years. It’s an absolute fact that the players don’t care all that much about the well-being of a game they have played their entire lives.

And more than anything, it is an absolute screaming, indisputable fact that the 30 owners don’t give a damn — not even a little bit — about the future of the sport. They are billionaires who live by one creed: Show me the money.

The issues in the current debacle, which MLB says will force the cancellation of regular season games, all come down to money. It’s very much worth noting that one major debate is about when a player’s arbitration clock can start. Why is that an issue? Because owners manipulated the rules to keep future stars in the minor leagues — when they should be in the majors — to delay the start of their arbitration clocks. The players want that loophole eliminated. How dare they!

MLB cancels regular season games as labor negotiations with players union implode

The real negotiations should focus on fixing the sport: making games take less than three hours (or four in the postseason); convincing the networks to start postseason games so they end before midnight on the East Coast; finding a way to cut down on commercial breaks; limiting the number of pitchers allowed on each staff; and on and on.

Instead, the two sides keep fighting about how high the luxury tax should be — and how harsh the penalties should be for exceeding it. Give me a break.

That MLB’s owners remain singularly focused on money isn’t new; it has always been the case. When Curt Flood first challenged the reserve clause, owners fought for it all the way to the Supreme Court — and won. The reserve clause, for those who don’t remember, was baseball’s way of tying a player to a team for life. Not all that different, as Flood pointed out, from the way enslaved people were once tied to plantation owners. The pay was better, the principle just about the same.

When Catfish Hunter, Dave McNally and Andy Messersmith were declared free agents by an arbitrator in 1974 and 1975, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn said free agency would destroy baseball. In English that meant, “It would be bad for the owners.”

Kuhn’s successor, Peter Ueberroth, urged owners to collude not to pay free agents top dollar in the 1980s, a strategy that worked until the owners were forced to pay the players hundreds of millions of dollars in damages for their collusion.

The one commissioner who tried to convince his employers to deal with the players union reasonably was Fay Vincent, who saw very clearly what another work stoppage would do to baseball’s already damaged image.

In the spring of 1992, I sat with Vincent during an exhibition game in Dunedin, Fla. Vincent loved baseball, and he spent a lot of that beautiful afternoon marveling at the rebirth of the game that spring training symbolized. But when the subject of the owners’ recent hire of a union-busting New York lawyer as their lead negotiator came up, he shook his head sadly.

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“I’ve tried to make them understand that another work stoppage will be viewed by most fans as a bunch of greedy millionaires fighting over money with a bunch of greedy billionaires,” he said. “We can’t let it happen.”

Of course, it did happen when the owners, urged on by their lawyer, tried to impose a new collective bargaining agreement on the players after skipping the rather crucial element of actually bargaining.

This is the new deal, they said. Take it or leave it. The players left it, and the disastrous strike began. It didn’t end until federal judge Sonia Sotomayor ruled that you couldn’t impose a CBA without including the B. This came after the last third of the 1994 season, the playoffs and the World Series had been lost and the owners had made plans to start the 1995 season with replacement players — known in union terms as scabs.

By then — April 1995 — Vincent was long gone, forced out by the owners in late 1992 for not being a willing accomplice to their scheme to break the union. He was replaced by — who else? — an owner, Bud Selig.

The current commissioner is Rob Manfred, who wasn’t an owner but clearly understands — just as Kuhn and Ueberroth did — who pays his eight-figure salary. Manfred has gotten very good at shaking his head sadly and talking about how terrible the lockout is for baseball, but his words are disingenuous, especially when you take a closer look at the owners’ tactics.

As in 1994, the owners have been spoiling for this fight. Within minutes of the CBA expiring Dec. 1, they announced the lockout. Then they scheduled no negotiating sessions for the next 43 days.

Should the players have been more publicly aggressive about insisting on bargaining sessions? Yes. But it takes two to tango — and to negotiate. The owners had no problem dragging their feet.

Here’s something else that is vitally important to the conversation: The owners did not have to lock the players out. They could have kept (or started) negotiating while allowing spring training to open under the current CBA. But they didn’t want that because a lockout — losing spring training and losing games — is their hammer.

Owners have lifetime contracts: There is no limit to how long they — and their descendants — can own a team.

Players have a limited window. People tend to focus on the small handful of $30 million annual contracts, but most players make far less than that — and for them, the clock is always ticking.

Not so much for the owners. And if an owner swears he can’t possibly afford the current financial climate, he could always sell his team for (at the very least) hundreds of millions of dollars — more often into the billions. Players don’t have the option to walk away and get paid millions or billions.

Most players can’t afford to lose a year of their jock-life to a work stoppage. That’s why the NFL always has won its negotiations with the players. NFL careers are so short that no one wants to give up a game, much less a season. A loss of games in baseball, while still significant, is not as critical.

No one is innocent in this bloodletting. The only people who deserve sympathy — those who work in ballparks and around ballparks and, wait for it, the fans — have zero say in the whole thing.

But before you start screaming about spoiled players, remember this: The owners always start it. Always. And they’re also the ones who could end this — right now.

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