The MLB players have the owners right where they want them, and shouldn't give an inch

June 01, 2020

Rich Schultz

Let's set the parameters of this discussion for people who, unlike me, have rich and fulfilling lives and are not following the minutiae of the current MLB labor dispute. First, the current MLB plan, if it can be called a plan, is to hold an 82-game season. The owners and the players previously agreed to prorate all player pay, which means that all players, regardless of status, would make almost exactly 50% of their current salaries. It was a sacrifice from the players, but a reasonable one.

Since then, owners have discovered that revenues might be down more than previously expected, particularly since there's no guarantee fans will be allowed into stadiums, or eager to attend even if they are allowed. Despite the fact that a deal was already in place, the owners asked for more—a so-called "tiered reduction" proposal that would see richer players give up more salary, with dollars earned over $20 million being taxed at 80%.

This is tantamount to a salary cap, which the players' union has fought against for decades, and which was a central battle during the 1994-95 strike. There's no way they were going to agree, and they haven't. Scott Boras, the infamous agent, wrote an email to his players telling them to stand strong and not let the owners bully them:

"Remember, games cannot be played without you," Boras wrote to his clients. "Players should not agree to further pay cuts to bail out the owners. Let owners take some of their record revenues and profits from the past several years and pay you the prorated salaries you agreed to accept or let them borrow against the asset values they created from the use of those profits players generated."

He's right: Major League Baseball made $10.7 billion last year, they agreed to prorated salaries in late March, and if there's money to be lost, it's the owners who should lose it, not the players.

But the owners are using a very old trick: By asking the richest players to give up more money, they're trying to work the "greedy player are going to cost us the season" narrative, just like they did in the '90s. In fact, as Jeff Passan told Rich Eisen, and as Buster Olney also reported, several of the owners would like very much to not play this season:

They'll simply cut payroll, reduce staff, and hunker down until normal life resumes. It's already happening—the Pirates have stopped 401(k) contributions, the A's have eliminated minor league salaries. When it comes to either playing and losing money, or sitting out the season and losing less money, there's no doubt what many owners would choose, public be damned. They don't care if it harms the product, and they'll play dirty to get their way, which is why you see their offers repeatedly leaked to the media before the players even see it. As John Feinstein recently wrote, "it’s always easy to blame the “greedy millionaires.” But more often than not, the “greedy billionaires” are most at fault."

There is one thing the owners do care about, though: Public image. If they pull the plug on the season, they don't want the people thinking it was their fault. Hence the endless attempts to pin it on the players, which has already been picked by certain media members who love to bang the "greedy players" drum for all its worth, but never seem to turn their critical eye to the owners. People like that will gladly push the idea that the lost season is because a few players wouldn't give up some money. Others who are more well-meaning, like Buster Olney, still can't stop worrying how the players will look:

"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?"

In fact, I think Olney's got it wrong. I think things are so screwed up, and so catastrophic in so many ways outside baseball, that it really wouldn't make a huge difference if the entire season went up in smoke. I don't think it's top priority right now, and while we'd all love to have baseball back, I disagree with the notion that the working man is going to resent the sport or its players if they can't strike a deal. Later, Olney argues that because times are so tough, people are more likely to take it out on the players than they were in the prosperous '90s.

Again, that seems misguided to me. Turn on the news, and you'll see that sympathy for the mega-wealthy is at an all-time low in this country. People are more likely to be sympathetic to owners in times of plenty, and more likely to resent them in times like these.

The players are in the position of power here, and all they need to do is broadcast a simple message: We want to play, we had a deal, we took a 50% pay cut, we'll be risking our lives in the middle of a pandemic, and it's the owners who are holding the season hostage even though they're making more money than ever. If you don't believe us, tell them to open their books rather than just whining about lost revenue.

That message needs to be polished so there are no more Blake Snell incidents—with that, I agree. But it's an easy message to deliver, and an even easier one to understand. Best of all, it's true. Owners are holding baseball hostage, and if what they want in their heart of hearts is to cancel the season, then the players should make them do it and take the heat. Never concede an inch of ground when the other side is backed into a corner.