It just screenshot, captures a fleeting expression that does not reflect the overall tone of his address to the media on Tuesday. But it may prove to be the image that Rob Manfred remembers, on the day that might define his tenure as Major League Baseball commissioner.
A smile. A wide grin as he announced that the league and players’ union had not yet reached an agreement on a new collective bargaining deal so the first two series of the regular season, which was due to start on March 31, were cancelled.
Spring training delayed, Opening Day postponed: this is jarring for a sport that derives much of its appeal from the comfort of rhythm and ritual, the metronomic tempo on the field and its daily presence on the calendar and American popular consciousness from spring to fall every year, ever since.
Manfred had warned less than three weeks ago that this would be a “disastrous outcome”. It is highly doubtful that the team owners agreed, as they locked out players last December but waited 43 days before starting any meaningful dialogue. The players are resolute and the owner is not in a rush – the latter is a very wealthy individual who can afford to take the hit. This is not a recipe for smooth and fast discussion.
Players took to the gallows on social media on Monday. Joey Gallo from the New York Yankees has joined LinkedIn. Bryce Harper of the Philadelphia Phillies offered his services to the Yomiuri Giants in Japan. By Tuesday, the mood had turned to anger. “Manfred has ruined our game playing dolls for his owners,” Chicago Cubs pitcher Marcus Stroman ventilated in twitter. “Manfred has to go.”
The players’ union issued a statement claiming the lockdown was “the culmination of decades of efforts by the owners to destroy our player fraternity” adding that “players and fans around the world who love baseball are disgusted, but sadly not surprised.”
You might say that a sport with a regular season of 162 games can miss some games. But if the club’s billionaire owners don’t seem too bothered about missing a week or so of games, why should the general public react with nothing but apathy whenever baseball returns after the first work stoppage since the strike that canceled the 1994 World Series?
“I think it’s a big deal because of the fans more than anything else,” said Eduardo Perez, a former player for six MLB teams who is now an ESPN analyst. He was a young infielder with the California (now Los Angeles) Angels during the 94-95 strike. “It really left a dent on a lot of fans,” he recalls.
While uncertainty grips the sport, players are sure of one thing: they deserve better. “The average baseball player plays less than five years in the big leagues. It is true that 63% of players in 2019 had less than three years of service,” Perez said. “The players have a point when you look at the data and they didn’t perform too well in the last collective bargaining agreement. [in 2016]no one hides that fact.”
There is no formal salary cap in MLB, but also no minimum spend per team, unlike the NFL, NHL, and NBA. “Major League baseball is a significantly worse deal at this point for players than any other major league in the US,” said Victor Matheson, a professor of economics at the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts.
The average age has dropped as teams prefer younger – cheaper – players over more expensive veterans. Hot prospects are sometimes held in the minor leagues to save money and delay their eventual free agent eligibility, when they can demand a big raise or go to another team.
The union wants its members to qualify for salary arbitration sooner, which will lead to higher wages for younger players. It calls for an increase in the minimum wage, which is $570,500 by 2021. It agitates for an increase in the luxury tax threshold to reduce the financial penalties imposed on the biggest spenders. And it calls for the draft lottery to prevent teams from tanking to secure a high draft pick.
The strategy was adopted by the Houston Astros. Four years before they won the 2017 World Series they lost 111 games with a squad that was paid around $25 million. That was $4 million less than Alex Rodriguez’s salary, then from the Yankees.
In a country where the federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, views are complicated when a representative like pitcher Max Scherzer, who agreed a three-year $130 million contract with the New York Mets last November, is one of the faces. unions who complain that the $570,500 annual salary is stingy.
But the problem is how income is distributed, not whether the level of income increases remarkably compared to the wages that ordinary people earn doing ordinary jobs. (Or minor league, for that matter.) Elite baseball players may inhabit a different economic planet than the rest of us, and there’s something right about these negotiations taking place in a Florida city called Jupiter. However, they are entitled to fair and proportionate treatment – and many of them do not enjoy long careers, so need to maximize their income while they can.
In a non-pandemic year, the NHL is estimated to amass a total of $5 billion in league revenue. That’s about half the gross MLB. But the NHL minimum wage is $750,000, albeit with a smaller roster. Manfred said Tuesday that the league is offering $700,000 and an annual bonus pool for young players worth $30 million.
“It’s weird to back the underdog when the underdog is the guy who might be making $30 million a year, but that year’s $30 million player is still badly hurt by the billionaire owner,” Matheson said. “The owner will always have far more power than the union because the owner can exist for 50 years; a player has a very limited career so it’s quite difficult for a player to say, ‘I’m going to sit here for a year to try and earn more money in the future’.”
Even though a handful of stars amassed a staggering amount, overall, the paychecks stagnated, and even sank. Baseball salaries for a 40-person roster in 2021 are down 4.6% from a 2017 record high of nearly $4.25 billion, according to information obtained by the Associated Press. On Opening Day last year, the median salary was about $4.17 million, down 6.4% from 2017, while the median was $1.15 million – down 30% from its record high in 2015.
Rising incomes and falling salaries are a recipe for labor unrest in any field. At its core, it’s a familiar story about the middle class being hollowed out by the very rich tycoons who want to get even richer. Today, baseball may just be “American entertainment” for nostalgia, but its income inequality is the perfect epitome of today’s American capitalism.
Any concessions to players when a deal is finally reached will likely be offset by new revenue streams that promise quick windfalls for owners but cost the product, such as expanded playoffs further undermining the relevance of the regular season, and advertising on uniforms, breaking one of the last taboos.
Gambling promises to be a useful source of income in the years to come. And with traditional broadcasters scrambling to keep subscribers in a fragile and volatile media landscape, the sport is still at a point where media rights deals are on the rise, increasing franchise value, even as ratings decline. Nearly a quarter of the US population watched Game Six of the 1980 World Series. Game Six last year was watched by 4.3% of the country.
“For a lot of people, baseball was the perfect sport for radio, the perfect sport for the olden days, everyone’s grandfather’s favorite sport, but it’s not the favorite sport of an 18-year-old,” Matheson said. The fan base is aging, with a median age of 57 in 2016 according to a Sports Business Journal study, versus 50 for the NFL, 42 for the NBA and 40 for the MLS.
And there is a shortage of products in the field.
Despite efforts to speed up play, last year’s nine innings lasted an average of three hours and 10 minutes. Game One of the World Series, a 6-2 win for the Atlanta Braves, finished in nine innings but dragged on for four hours and six minutes, ending after midnight on the east coast.
Fans probably won’t be too nervous if there’s plenty of on-pitch action and riveting battles between the famous early pitchers and sluggers – as there was in the captivating (albeit doubtful, performance-boosting) years following the 1994-95 strike. But the league-wide batting average in 2021 fell to 0.244, the lowest since 1968, as teams got better at deploying advanced data, such as individually adjusted defensive agile shifts.
The spectacle of aces starting dueling pitchers deep into the game becomes an anachronism. Managers cut and change, stop the momentum and subject the narrative of human interest to the colorless imperative of statistical probability.
A sport that has long been marred by cheating scandals – whether steroids, mark stealing or sticky substances – can’t afford to detract from its charms any further with tactics that sterilize drama.
Last May, Miami Marlins manager Don Mattingly described baseball as “unwatchable”. Tuesday’s news means that for now, that’s the literal truth. And every day debating the dollar is a day not spent tackling baseball’s structural problems.
Together, lockdowns and levels of entertainment do not represent an existential threat but a danger that sport could lose its totem status further in American life, experiencing cultural degradation as it fades into a form of background noise: still important to many, but unimportant to most. It’s nothing to smile about.
MLB becomes completely unwatchable due to baseball self-sabotage again | MLB
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