“I believe that God/put sun and moon up in the sky./I don’t mind the gray skies/’cause they’re just clouds passing by.” So wrote Duke Ellington, and sang Mahalia Jackson, in his 1943 magnum opus reworked for 1958’s album Black, Brown, and Beige. The lyric was part of a segment called “Come Sunday.”
Come Sunday, this Sunday, the gray skies yield metaphorically as spring training finally begins. And, early-series cancellations notwithstanding, there will indeed be 2,430 regular season baseball games played in a 162-game schedule this year. It might mean a tighter calendar, of course. But, given that, does it now feel as though spring has arrived properly at last?
Baseball’s owners’ lockout, which ended 26 years of labour “peace” needlessly, ended Thursday. Commissioner Rob Manfred called it a “defensive lockout.” Those who believe that might as well believe Vladmir Putin decided to defend himself against Ukranian “aggression.”
The owners could very well have elected to let baseball continue operating while they negotiated and hammered out a new collective bargaining agreement. The now-concluded 99-day lockout was and will ever be on them entirely. But they had the players right where the players wanted them. Sort of.
The players now have the owners accepting the largest hike in the so-called competitive balance tax—too long used by the owners as a de facto salary cap—since the tax was born after the 1994-95 players’ strike. They also have the owners accepting the largest jump ever in the minimum major league player’s salary, and a pre-arbitration bonus pool for young players emerging as early stars that’s worth $230 million new money just over the time span of the new CBA.
Yet the Major League Baseball Players Association’s vote for accepting the terms was a mere 26-12. The Athletic‘s Evan Drellich writes that it was “telling” for “roughly a third of the executive board [feeling] there was more to accomplish right now, in continued negotiations in 2022, not in the future.”
There’s the warning from Hall of Fame baseball writer Jayson Stark: The new competitive-balance tax threshold may not necessarily mean putting the “competitive balance” all the way into it:
You know those seven teams that came within $8 million of going over the [old] threshold last year? They’re likely to do that same thing this year—other than the Mets, who are already well north of it. But if all those teams spend another $20 million or so apiece, that’s a notch in the win column for players, except for one thing . . . teams that weren’t spending money before still have no incentive to spend now.
“All this does is just increase payroll disparity,” said one longtime club official. “Just because the Phillies go up $10 million doesn’t mean a team like the Marlins goes up $10 million.”
In other words, there’s still room enough for continuing tanking. Maybe that was why that one-third of the union’s executive board felt there was still more to get done now, if not yesterday. Remember Hall of Fame shortstop Derek Jeter took a hike from running the Marlins almost a fortnight ago, saying, essentially, that he didn’t sign up to preside over the Fish only to see their “direction” resemble a killifish and not a barracuda.
What, then, of commissioner Rob Manfred, who is probably the single worst salesman in baseball and barely sold it when he proclaimed at a Thursday press conference that he was “thrilled” the lockout was over and a new deal was done?
At least three questions presented to him inquired about future mended relationships between MLB and those who actually play baseball. Manfred actually doffed his stegasaurus-in-the-china-shop cloak to admit he hasn’t been so successful at promoting “a good relationship with our players. I’ve tried to do that. I have not been successful at that.”
Gee, what gave him the clue? Standing with almost no apology for the precept that the general good of the game is making money for the owners? Allowing the owners to go 43 days worth of silent after their lockout began? Dismissing the World Series championship trophy as “a piece of metal” while not quite holding all the Houston cheaters accountable when Astrogate tainted their 2017 World Series title and outraged as large a percentage of players as it did fans?
Saying it was Mike Trout’s fault Trout wasn’t considered baseball’s face outside the game itself? Abetting the owners trying to cheat the players out of their proper pro-rated 2020 salaries during the pan-damn-ically short season? Tinkering like Rube Goldberg with the game’s play, from the free cookie on second base to open each half inning to the three-batter minimum for relief pitchers?
Manfred did at least observe that the new deal should give the owners and the players more than a little room to move on working out such things as doing away with draft-pick compensation for players reaching free agency; and, on establishing a joint committee aimed at addressing issues involving field competition. But . . .
“The committee can implement rules changes with 45 days notice,” writes another Athletic staffer, Ken Rosenthal, “and with the league holding a majority of members, Manfred can push through any changes he desires. Will he do it, continuing the league’s chest-pounding, zero-sum style? Or will he and league officials show greater understanding that players are the product, and become better listeners?”
They’ve barely understood, if at all, that no fan has ever paid his or her way into a ballpark to see their team’s owner. “Recent history suggests that when the owners give in one area, they take from another, which again leaves the middle class of players vulnerable,” Rosenthal warns. “Don’t hold your breath waiting for the league to suddenly become more benevolent to its most valued employees, though even a mildly less aggressive approach would be helpful.”
But Rosenthal points to at least one team administrator not named Steve Cohen (the deepest-of-deep-pockets owner of the Mets whom enough owners fear for his willingness to invest in his team and its organisation) who has more than a clue. “It’s paramount,” said Twins president Dave St. Peter on a Zoom call to writers covering the team, “that we as an industry do a better job of building trust with our players.”
Coming in the wake of such petty tacks as scrubbing players from MLB’s own Website early in the lockout, St. Peter’s words may sound encouraging on the surface. But it’s wise to remember a remark once made often enough by the maverick journalism legend Sidney Zion: Trust your mother, but cut the cards.
Try not to get too hopped up over the new service-time adjustments, either, which mean rookies finishing with the Rookie of the Year or in second place for the award get a full year’s service time even if he didn’t spent the entire season in the Show. “[A]ny system based on counting days is a system that can be manipulated,” Stark warns. “So why do we suspect we could be back in this same, uncomfortable place in five years, trying to remind the powers that be again that there’s something wrong with a sport that rewards teams for not putting its best players on the field.”
For the moment, we can revel in a few things. The entire baseball family, from the teams to the fans, is watching to see the swift enough movement of the game’s remaining free agents. And we’ll be spared at long enough last the overwhelming, century-plus-old futility of pitchers at the plate wasting outs (those who can hit have always. been. outliers), now that the designated hitter will be universal instead of everywhere but the National League.
At long enough last, we should see a cutback in basepath injuries thanks to coming new bases that will be—relax, ladies and gentlemen—a mere three inches larger than the bases have been in the past, but designed with more give that may mean less leg injuries taking players out for two-thirds of a season or longer.
That twelve-team postseason format? With three wild cards per league? The good news is that the odds of a team with a losing record making the postseason under it aren’t great. Since the first wild-card game in 2013, Stark says, if this format had been in play only once might a sub-.500 team have burglarised its way into the postseason: 2017. (The Angels, the Rays, or the Royals.) And, the extra-card clubs would still average 87 wins.
“So despite this expansion,” Stark continues, “the baseball playoffs will still be the most difficult to make among the four major professional sports.” And still rather profitable for the owners, who stand to pull down $85 million postseason from ESPN with the third wild card. They may also change the trade deadline atmosphere, as Stark observes: “More buyers. Fewer sellers. Less incentive for teams hovering near contention in July to hold those depressing closeout sales.” May.
Myself, I remain in favour of something else: eliminating the wild cards entirely, adding two more major league teams to make sixteen-team leagues, and doing away with regular-season interleague play. But with or without the third of those, 1) divide each sixteen-team league into four four-team conferences; 2) best-of-three conference championships; 3) best-of-five League Championship Series (you know, the way the LCS was from 1969-85); and, 4) leaving the World Series its best-of-seven self.
Goodbye postseason saturation, welcome home genuine championship.
For now, I hope, too, that the remaining 525 pre-1980, short-career players maneuvered out of the 1980 pension realignment won’t be forgotten much longer, either. The lockout also suspended the annual stipend the late MLBPA director Michael Weiner and former commissioner Bud Selig got them—$625 per 43 days’ major league service time, up to $10,000 a year. (It would have been paid normally in February.)
Which would, of course, require what they once called the vision thing. This commissioner and his bosses tend to lack that. Today’s players have it, but they could use a lot more depth. Doing right further for those pre-1980 men whose playing careers were short, but who supported the union in its most critical early years, toward the end of reserve era abuse, and the rightful advent of free agency, would show vision even philosophers only imagine having.