MLB lockout: Owners’ short-sightedness is what got us here

May 24, 2021; New York City, New York, USA; A fan of the Colorado Rockies with a message to the team's owner Dick Monfort during the third inning against the New York Mets at Citi Field. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
May 24, 2021; New York City, New York, USA; A fan of the Colorado Rockies with a message to the team's owner Dick Monfort during the third inning against the New York Mets at Citi Field. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports /
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It’s all too easy to cast the current stalemate in the MLB collective bargaining negotiations as a petty feud between millionaires and billionaires and blame both sides evenly as the MLB lockout rolls along. It would also be wrong.

It’s true that even the minimum Major League salary is 10 times as much as most Americans will ever earn in a year. It’s also true, though, that a large percentage of the players’ union will never earn more than the minimum in their career, and that many of those careers will not last long enough to qualify for arbitration, let alone the riches of free agency.

So, asking a guy whose window for earning serious money might be two or three years to give up part of one of those years so that the luxury tax threshold is $250 million instead of $210 million is something of a reach. In order for the union to make any headway, that’s what needs to happen, because, according to Spotrac’s salary figures for 2021, 59% of all Major League players made less than $1 million last season.

It might be even more of a reach to ask a player barely hanging on to his roster spot to put much thought into what is best for the long-term interests of the game, let alone be willing to sit out games to help make that game better after their career is over. In the general model of capital and labor, labor is seldom expected to act as the steward of the business, except as it protects job security.

In baseball, as in most businesses, there are generally two reasons for ownership to ask the workforce to consider the long-term welfare of the enterprise. One is to convince the players to make concessions at the bargaining table; the other is to help rescue the owners from their own blunders.

This is where we find ourselves at the present time. The rampant tanking, the manipulation of service time, the deterioration of the games themselves into an unwatchable slog, and a free agency system that makes fans of small-market teams hesitant to get attached to their favorite players: all of those problems were brought about by the owners. Now we have a lockout because the owners want the players’ help in fixing them.

Owners will, of course, say that they need help to restore financial stability. That might appear to be the case, until you consider that the average value of a franchise has increased from $286 million in 2002 to $1.9 billion last year, according to Statista. That’s an annual return of 10.5%. By comparison, the Dow Jones over the same span has returned 4.5% annually.

Time and again, for decades on end, baseball owners have ignored the welfare of the sport in favor of short-term gains. They have treated the players as adversaries rather than partners, seeking to win the negotiations instead of improving the game. They have given no indication that the current round of talks will be any different.

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Which likely means that, not only will we find ourselves without baseball come April, but the work stoppage will do little or nothing to fix the issues confronting the sport.