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Olney: It's not just the 2020 season at stake, but the future of MLB

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Published in Baseball
Sunday, 31 May 2020 08:01

Many of the folks inside baseball but outside of the Zoom labor negotiations assume that, eventually, cooler heads will prevail in the talks between the owners and the players' union. Because they have to -- right?

Because the alternative -- no attempted restart of baseball in 2020 because of a failure of the two sides to agree to terms -- bears catastrophic consequences, now and in the sport's future. The leaders on both sides have to see that -- right?

They have to understand this nuclear option is no option at all -- right?

They have to understand how baseball might need a generation or two -- decades -- for some fans to forget or forgive this ill-timed squabble over money, at a time when so many have lost jobs and increasingly struggle to meet the cost of shelter and food. Baseball's owners and players can't be so deeply mired in distrust and doctrine that they don't see this -- right?

But here we are, in a countdown to utter disaster for Major League Baseball, and sources of moderation on both sides are having difficulty identifying the path through which the parties will leave their respective bunkers to reach the agreement the industry must have. As distasteful as the terms might be for the owners and players, they should all recognize that while concern over player and staff safety could ultimately prevent games from being played, they must settle the question of player compensation -- whatever form that takes -- and shake hands on the deal and smile for the cameras. (Actually, please be sure to get it in writing that everybody acknowledges -- more later on how the failure to do that has contributed to the current stalemate.)

If that doesn't happen -- if they can't agree on a deal to play in 2020 -- baseball will become a loathed presence on North America's sporting landscape, scorned by many fans. The labor fight will merely be deferred, with escalation in some form all but assured because of the unresolved issues.

Next spring, with only months remaining in the current collective bargaining agreement, the players are more apt to use the threat of a strike. Owners, already damaged by the money losses this year, could be more inclined to dig in and wait out the players, aiming for a lasting reconstruction of baseball's financial model. The labor fight could go on and on, and by the time it all plays out, it's impossible to know how many fans, feeling alienated or disgusted, will leave baseball behind once and for all.

The only sure thing is that the owners and players will lose, unless they settle this standoff that risks mutually assured destruction.

So they have to make a deal. Right?

The fractures between the lead negotiating groups -- led by commissioner Rob Manfred and union chief Tony Clark -- have developed into a gaping chasm of suspicion and frustration. But each side will also have to work through competing internal forces.

Sources say there is a group of owners perfectly willing to shut down the season, to slash payroll costs and reduce losses, and the disparate views among the 30 teams have been reflected in the decisions to fire and furlough. The Pirates' Bob Nutting used the shutdown as an avenue to suspend team contributions to employee 401K plans -- savings best measured monthly in the tens of thousands of dollars rather than the millions that would actually be difference-making for a franchise probably worth at least $1 billion. The Oakland Athletics' John Fisher decided to eliminate the $400 weekly salaries of minor leaguers, which might save the franchise about the amount of the team's unpaid stadium rental bill. On the other hand, clubs such as the Tigers, Padres and Royals demonstrated greater humanity, with the Royals' John Sherman deciding to pay his minor leaguers.

The clash of clans on the players' side was illuminated this week by the Twitter spat between Trevor Bauer and Kyle Lohse, client of Scott Boras, after Bauer tweeted, in so many words, that Boras should butt out of union business. Over the past 2½ months of social distancing, raw exchanges like these have me wondering how we are so technologically advanced and yet so many seem unable to place a direct phone call.

I know what you're thinking: "OK, Boomer. That conversation stuff is so old-school." But better communication will be needed to overcome the union's internal division, to band the baseball brothers together and present a united front that was once a reflex position among the players.

The labor-relations scars of Hall of Fame pitcher Tom Glavine are well-earned from his time as a union front man during the '94-95 players' strike. He has never had a sledgehammer personality, so the message he seemingly tried to impart in an interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution the other day was subtle and indirect but hardened. "If it were to come down to an economic issue and that's the reason baseball didn't come back, you're looking at a situation similar to the strike of '94 and '95 as far as fans are concerned," he said. "Even if the players were 100% justified in what they were complaining about, they're still going to look bad."

Keep in mind that the players' strike in '94-95 took place during a time of relative national prosperity. There was no global pandemic, record unemployment or growing civil unrest.

Looking back, Glavine said, "The accessibility thing was a miscalculation on my part. I just felt like if I did an interview on the radio or TV, or if I had five or 10 minutes, I could make somebody understand what was going on and come to our side. That just wasn't going to happen."

From the early-April interviews Boras gave to the statements released by Clark to Blake Snell's Twitch feed, it's as if there has been an effort to win a public relations fight. If asked -- and yes, the union would be well-served to seek the counsel of Glavine, David Cone, Todd Zeile, Johnny Bench and others who helped to construct the world's strongest union the current players inherited -- Glavine would seemingly tell them: Don't bother; you're not going to win in the court of public opinion.

Perhaps old union warriors Don Fehr and Gene Orza could offer useful reviews of the players' association's current logjam, given their knowledge of the baseball landscape and their decades-old understanding of the owners and leverage. Clark played 15 years in the big leagues, accomplishing things Fehr and Orza could only dream of -- 251 big league homers, the stature of a respected clubhouse leader. But Clark does not have a legal background, and in his one major negotiation, the CBA talks of 2016, the union lost enormous ground in agreeing to a deal that effectively fostered soft salary caps and continued tanking.

Bruce Meyer, Clark's right-hand man, has been in baseball for less than two years. The perception of Bauer, many other agents and management officials is that Boras is in a position of high influence right now, and while Boras is the most celebrated player representative in U.S. sports history, with record-setting deals, he also lacks front-line experience in negotiations that possess such long-standing ramifications for this and the next collective bargaining agreement.

Clark, Meyer and Boras have stood firmly behind an assertion that the late-March agreement between the union and MLB made clear that players would be paid their prorated salaries for any games, even without fans in the stands. On the other hand, management contends that the agreement contained an understanding that the question of player compensation would be revisited if there were no fans in the stands, and Joel Sherman wrote recently about the contemporaneous internal management memo that backs this position. There are players and agents who would like to see comparable documentation from union leadership, in the form of memos and emails.

The talks between the two sides are stalled over this important point, and if clear-cut language recognized by both sides does not exist, "it's the fault of the lawyers," said one agent. "The result is devastating."

One way or another, this issue has to be resolved. A question asked by moderates on the players' side: Who will make a deal?

And a question asked on both sides: Is it possible for the owners' side to refrain from the destructive practice of leaking offers to the media? This practice has repeatedly undercut the effort to construct a bridge of trust and shaped the perception of owners' motives. After MLB's most recent proposal was published before it was presented, pitcher Jake Diekman wrote on Twitter, "It's getting very irritating that all of the information regarding the start of the baseball season is getting leaked before 95% of the players can even see it."

On Memorial Day, union moderates thought some conceptual traction had started to build toward a deal, with some salary considerations swapped for some protection of the upcoming free-agent classes. But because the offer was so stark, with the highest-paid players asked to take cuts of up to 80%, and because of how it leaked, many moderates thought that the owners' offer backfired and pushed the players closer to Boras' position -- that negotiations about salary are over. The highly respected Max Scherzer, a member of the union's executive committee and a Boras client, tweeted that "there's no reason to engage with MLB in any further compensation reductions," citing conversations with "the rest of the players."

Thus, 80 days after baseball was shut down over the coronavirus pandemic, the two sides are completely at odds -- the owners asking for major salary concessions without being willing to opening their financial books, and the union leaders settled behind what might be an unsettled issue, depending on what the negotiated language says.

Meanwhile, they're like two second cousins arguing loudly in the back pews during a memorial service. Everyone watching the spat is mortified and embarrassed for them.

They have to work it out. Don't they?

• Paul Hembekides sent along some notes about baseball's financial landscape:

1. MLB's financial proposal would be a big financial hit for high-earning players (obviously), but that is a really small subset. There were 1,410 players who appeared in an MLB game in 2019. There were 124 players who earned at least $10 million in 2019 (9% of the player pool); there were 140 scheduled to earn at least $10 million in 2020. Forty players earned at least $20 million in 2019 (3% of player pool); there were 47 scheduled to earn at least $20 million in 2020. (This does not account for those who did not play a game in 2019, such as Yoenis Cespedes.)

2. Over the past decade, the value of the average MLB franchise has increased by approximately 300%, to $1.85 billion. The annual contract of the average MLB player has increased by about 40%, to $4.4 million. As The Associated Press reported, salaries have stagnated over the past five years.

3. Baseball is a young man's game. The percentage of players by current service time (from 2019 40-man Opening Day rosters):

0-1 year: 30%
1-2 years: 16%
2-3 years: 11%
3-4 years: 9%
4-5 years: 6%
5-6 years: 6%
6+ years: 21%

Note: This does not add up to 100% because of rounding.

• If the two sides forge an agreement and baseball is played in 2020, it will be interesting to see if some players eligible for free agency in the upcoming offseason choose to not participate for reasons similar to why some NFL and NBA prospects bypass combines and bowl games -- out of concern for short-term risk.

Let's say a 29-year-old pitcher is set to become eligible for free agency in the fall and is leery about the possibility of injury, perhaps enhanced by the odd work schedule this year or some performance struggles in what promises to be a small sample size. That player might choose to sit out whatever season is played, opting to take his 2019 résumé into market.

Baseball Tonight Podcast

Friday: Mike Farrell and Brian Rivera, co-directors of the E:60 feature Imperfect: The Roy Halladay Story, discuss Brandy Halladay's decision to talk with them, how they discovered an important video element and the ways Roy's story could impact others; Todd Radom's weekly quiz, and a discussion about PNC Park.

Thursday: Mark Teixeira gives a clear-eyed take about the ongoing negotiations between the owners and the players; longtime media relations director Jay Horwitz discusses his new book about his time with the Mets.

Wednesday: Yankees third-base coach Phil Nevin brings the stories from his time in baseball -- about Aaron Boone's impersonations, that confrontation he had with his former GM, and the best baserunner he has ever worked with. Paul Hembekides has numbers that back up Nevin's belief and discusses a dark day in baseball history.

Tuesday: Matt Vasgersian, Sunday Night Baseball's play-by-play man, offers his top five signature home run calls among current announcers and discusses the state of baseball; Sarah Langs of MLB.com talks about historic short-season performances.

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