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'They need to stop treating us like we're idiots'

2nd of March, 2022

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    ESPN’s Jeff Passan

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      • MLB insider on ESPN
      • Author of “The Arm: Inside the Billion-Dollar Mystery of Sports’ Most Valuable Commodity,” “The Arm: Inside the Billion-Dollar Mystery of Sports’ Most Valuable Commodity”

Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association entered the bargaining room early Tuesday morning, nine days into a marathon negotiation session that has left both parties exhausted. MLB was pressuring the union to reach an agreement on a new collective bargaining agreement in the wee hours of the morning. Behind the scenes, team executives were passing on positive rumors to anybody who might pass them on to the general public. On the other hand, there was a union on the opposite side of the table that would never accept a poor offer.

One experienced player told ESPN, “They need to quit treating us like we’re stupid.”

Real, substantial communication entails much more than talking, presenting, and proposing. Listening is a talent that has been in short supply throughout MLB’s player lockout, and baseball’s refusal to modify that paradigm is one of the fundamental reasons it has arrived here today, threatening to self-immolate in front of all eyes.

Commissioner Rob Manfred postponed the opening week of the regular season on Tuesday after the two sides failed to reach an agreement by a self-imposed deadline to settle a labor dispute that has lasted almost 100 days. He had warned weeks before about the “disastrous result” of losing games, and here he was standing in front of a microphone in Jupiter, Florida, after more than a week of negotiating had gone utterly awry, attempting to spin the league’s offer as significant enough.

It was for the league. “We’re not kidding,” the players said of the league’s too-low competitive-balance tax levels, which drove them to walk away from the league’s last offer and into a cloud of uncertainty. Owners must trust players when they say this, since the opposite is unproductive.

The players have always been encouraged by the league’s attitude, both during and before these discussions. In response to MLB’s revelation, the MLBPA issued its first statement, accusing the organization of attempting to “destroy our Player brotherhood.” While every union faces the possibility of splintering, particularly when salaries are missing, there is compelling evidence that player unity can be overcome. Star players have made it clear to the rest of the team that they are prepared to skip the whole season. The statement from the union concluded: “This attempt, like others before it, will fail. We are united in our desire to reach a fair agreement.”

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There has always been a basic divide between the owners and the players, and it has become much more evident in these discussions. Everyone needs to do more listening and less talking. There is no subject so important that it justifies jeopardizing not only the opening week of the season, but the whole season. Compromise is possible, and the players’ and commissioner’s remarks on Tuesday laid out a path to it.

League executives had been wondering what the union actually intended to accomplish for months as the union offered a series of demands. Players have been saying that all along, and executive subcommittee member Andrew Miller reaffirmed it on Tuesday: “The main purpose in these discussions is to promote competitiveness.”

The union established four basic precepts that created limitless chances for issue solving: competition, addressing service-time manipulation, getting players paid sooner, and abolishing spending limitations. MLB attempted to address each, first with plans that had a little chance of being adopted, and then with more serious measures. Only as the MLB deadline approached did there seem to be genuine compromise, even on issues that should have been shared priorities.

There were some triumphs. MLB agreed to the union’s request to award top Rookie of the Year finishers a full season of service time, even if they begin the season in the minor leagues. Another victory was the adoption of a five-team draft lottery. The league’s readiness to go from a 14-team playoff plan to the union’s favored 12 was the finest illustration. Teams would be less likely to invest in free agency if they could sneak into the playoffs with average seasons, according to the players.

That postseason expansion, which the league values at $100 million for 14 teams and less for 12 teams, is a critical addition for the owners, and it has become much more so now that Manfred has said that the league would take away games. The union’s senior negotiator, Bruce Meyer, repeated that regardless of how many games the league cancels, players should be compensated for the whole 162-game season. Any deal that does not contain extended playoffs will be yanked by the union.

The league loses more games the longer it waits to provide in some areas. It is less likely to pay the entire 162 if it loses more games. And the risk of missing hundreds of millions of dollars in extra playoff money over the life of a deal should be enough to make players pay attention when they speak out.

If that isn’t enough, consider the players’ second, more visible bargaining point: refunds given to regional sports networks that provide local broadcasts for games that aren’t played. To avoid rebates, a team must broadcast between 138 and 150 games, depending on the team. It serves as the foundation for a commonly held belief among players that clubs are perfectly OK missing the first month of the season due to the rebate threshold and poor April attendance.

A-brief-history-of-MLB-labor-stoppages

An oral history of the 1994 Major League Baseball strike, which almost ended the sport. Tim Kurkjian is a writer who lives in New York City.

However, if the owners are really worried about current income, the players should provide a remedy. If the CBT is actually the point of contention between the parties, the players may agree to lower criteria in the first two seasons in return for higher ones thereafter. With their five-year plan of $220 million, $220 million, $220 million, $224 million, and $230 million, the league signaled a willingness to chart this route. Something more in line with the league’s desire for the first two years (say, $222 million and $227 million) and more in line with the union’s request for the final three ($237 million, $247 million, and $257 million) gives the league the short-term revenue fix it wants while also expanding the CBT in later years to be more commensurate with revenue growth.

The last request requires the union to take a modest leap of faith, one that the league hasn’t necessarily earned via its treatment of players. “My greatest wish is that we can reach an agreement fast,” Manfred remarked. For months, both parties have blamed the other of not wanting to reach an agreement, and this perception that their efforts were futile has been one of the most poisonous aspects of the negotiations.

It’s a cynical concept that’s becoming more deadly by the day. The repercussions of failing to strike an agreement in the next weeks will be disastrous. More games will be canceled by Manfred. It will become logistically near-impossible to reschedule games and have players compensated for 162. The more they wait, the more any kind of season is jeopardized.

This is no Chicken Little scenario; baseball’s sky is figuratively falling, and now that Manfred has started canceling games, the only way to stop it is to act quickly. Otherwise, the sides will dig in — out of pride and spite, and the emotional friction that has the potential to completely skew the 2022 season. Every day that there isn’t a game, players are expected to lose $21 million in income. Teams are getting closer to having to offer refunds to their RSNs every day there isn’t a game.

As important as it is to discuss, it is much more critical that the players and owners listen to one another, that their words do not pass through the cochlea of skepticism but rather through the cochlea of comprehension. If the players insist on being ready in three weeks of spring training, the league should seriously consider it. If the owners declare they need more doubleheaders to make up for the games they lost this week, the union must assist them.

It’s not like any of this is unfamiliar territory. These same parties found out how to transform a three-week spring training and doubleheader-filled schedule into a genuine season in 2020, at the most terrifying phases of the epidemic. None of it was perfect, but the possible consequences of Manfred’s cancellations aren’t exactly typical either.

Chaos is a poor alternative for diplomacy, which baseball cannot afford. When even a deadline isn’t enough to get a deal done, it’s evident that the issues are systemic and that the method has to be changed. There is a solution here, a deal to be reached, an accord still possible, a method to avoid the “disastrous conclusion” predicted by Manfred. It’s visible, tasteable, and audible to them. All they have to do now is pay attention.

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