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Changing the MLB Owners vs. Players narrative

Boiling it down to "players vs owners" leaves too many parties out

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MLB players reject latest offer, ask league to set 2020 season schedule |

There is more good will between a snake and a mongoose than there is between the MLB Players Association and the Owners right now. And the fans are the mouse liable to get eaten by either of them.

After months of arguing in the press, the MLB Players Association seems to be finally fed up, so they are calling the league’s bluff. In a statement released Saturday night, executive director Tony Clark said, “Further dialogue with the league would be futile. It’s time to get back to work. Tell us when and where.”

That’s like Wesley saying, “As you wish,” but with none of the “I love you, Buttercup,” subtext. It’s a strong counter because it calls the owners on their bluff that they will, absent a formal agreement, unilaterally institute a 48-54 game season. If they were that foolish, not only would it be a bad look for them, it would destroy any shred of trust left leading into the post-2021 Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations since it would almost certainly result in the union filing a grievance with an arbitrator.

And maybe that’s part of the problem: both sides are so distrustful of the other, and what should be a negotiation about getting on the field safely has turned into a proto-CBA negotiation. Because the players got raked over the coals in the last CBA (a former player described it as, “We got a working agreement with Whole Foods, and they got a salary cap.’’), Clark seems to believe the only solution is to hold the line, regardless of the fallout. The owners, set to lose money without ticket sales, would rather send the same proposal in different containers than, say, start with the number of games they believed they could play while paying full pro rata and negotiating from there.

And around and around we go and the only ones getting sick on this tilt-a-whirl are the fans. Which makes the current players vs. owners narrative increasingly irrelevant.

Players vs. owners leaves the fans behind

We’ve seen a lot of digital ink spilled on why the owners are in the wrong and the players are in the right. Call it a contrarian streak, but I tend to seek out a more fully orbed narrative.

The fact is, this is not a CBA negotiation, but an unprecedented situation in which baseball has an opportunity and a need, for the short- and long-term health of the game, to get back on the field, a negotiation around safety and compromise. But because both sides refuse to come off their position and would rather negotiate out in public, we risk not getting anything more than a sham 2020 season.

But it’s not just the fans who lose. Consider the hundreds of non-union employees on each team who won’t have work if there is exactly no baseball, or the hundreds of minor leaguers who are already out in the cold without a season, regardless of what the league and the union come up with.

It all comes back to the March agreement which the two sides interpret in diametrically opposed ways: the players that they are entitled to full pro rata salaries, the owners that they can re-negotiate in good faith if they cannot play in front of fans. While we sit here arguing about who has the moral high ground in a business negotiation in which two sides are trying to determine losses and damages, the recalcitrance of either side to put forth a good faith effort threatens to send the season careening over a cliff.

As Tim Kurkjian pointed out in his Saturday column (How with each passing day Major League Baseball keeps missing the point | ESPN), there was a time, under former union chief Michael Weiner, when a CBA would be finalized before anything was leaked to the press. The brazenness of both sides to allow negotiations to take place more or less in public does neither of them favors (though, save for petulant emails and claims of “not that profitable,” the owners seem to have a better knack for negotiating publically). Again, the biggest losers are those who don’t have a seat at the table, like the other team personnel but especially the fans.

A different narrative

How does this affect the Rockies? Well, for starters, Dick and Charlie Monfort do not show up on this list of 20 richest MLB owners, which means they’re likely not among the cadre of owners who have the ability to weather a season without fans. Without the ability to sell tickets to games (which, in business terms, are the owner’s “capital,” much like a store owner’s merchandise is her capital), it’s the smaller teams and the less-wealthy ownership groups that are put in trouble and need to recoup as much as they can through local and national TV deals.

The Yankees and Dodgers, who own major stakes in their regional sports networks, will likely be fine with or without games. This has consequences going forward, since they will be better positioned to spend on what promises to be a buyer’s free agent market the next few seasons anyway, making the rich and talented clubs that much richer and more talented. Teams like the Rockies, Twins, Rays, and Marlins (assuming they don’t just get all of their revenue from revenue sharing, anyway) are in far worse positions, since they aren’t just funneling revenues into yacht collections.

So when you hear that some owners are willing to cancel the season now, think about who those teams are likely to be and which ones are likely behind the league’s entrenched bargaining position. We could do the same calculus for the players side—the established players don’t have nearly as much to lose from a lost season than the pre-arb guys, or the ones on the fringes of the roster, or the ones fighting to stay in the league that never got that big free agent contract—but I think you catch the drift.

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The current narrative is tired. It doesn’t take into account that the union doesn’t represent all labor, and it treats it as given that one side or the other has (or must have) the moral high ground. This is a business negotiation between, frankly, two parties who don’t seem to be interested in negotiating in good faith.

Players vs. owners is a tired narrative. But people are narrative making creatures, and we especially like underdog narratives. So perhaps a better narrative isn’t “owners vs players,” but “big teams vs small teams” or “players with influence vs those without influence.” And that narrative tells us that some teams, no matter what happens, stand to benefit more (or at least lose a lot less) than others. But the biggest losers will be the fans.