The lockout is on

Before you start cringing while you lament the lockout, try to keep one thing in mind: It hasn’t canceled any games, regular, postseason, or World Series. Yet. If there must be a “work stoppage” for baseball, let it happen during the off-season. Let yourselves be fooled not one moment, either, that baseball has ceased going to work entirely.

About the only work that’s been stopped is contract offerings and signings between the owners and the players. Be advised that team front offices and staffs will continue going to work and players will continue their customary off-season routines preparing for the season to come.

That slightly surreal rash of tradings and free agency signings leading up to the deadline for the lockout—right down to the Red Sox trading Hunter Renfroe to the Brewers to bring home Jackie Bradley, Jr., he of the modest bat but the immodest outfield defense—is halted. That portion of the annual winter meetings involving the Show is pre-empted.

The lockout, as The Athletic‘s Evan Drellich observes, was somewhat inevitable “for months now, even years.” It’s the first “work stoppage” Major League Baseball has seen since the 1994 players’ strike.

That strike was pushed and provoked by the owners then. This “stoppage?” “Players have grown increasingly dissatisfied with club behaviors and the CBA that enables at least some of them,” Drellich writes, “and owners have shown little interest in making the concessions the players seek.”

Talks broke off a few hours before the Wednesday/Thursday midnight deadline after the owners refused to consider any economic proposal from the players unless the players agreed “in advance” to cease certain demands. Those demands, Drellich writes, include the time it takes a player to achieve free agency and changes to the current revenue sharing system.

The players believe with plenty of good reason that the current revenue sharing ways enable too much tanking, teams refusing to rebuild on the fly in favour of just throwing in the towel, allowing the major league product to perform like the St. Louis Browns while (it is alleged) they rebuild from the ground up.

Now hear this: Only two teams are known to have tanked successfully, meaning they tanked to rebuild and ended up in the Promised Land: the Astros and the Cubs. The Cubs tanked to build their 2016 World Series champion within just a handful of seasons; the Astros tanked likewise to build their long-since tainted 2017 World Series champion.

Time was when teams tried to urge certain star players out of the lineup the better to enable them to reach particular milestones before the home audience. It’s a lovely thing to behold when a man does it at home, but when his team tries maneuvering him into it it besmirches the competitive mandate.

That kind of tank usually drew a fury of indignation against the team that put coffers ahead of the honest competition, ahead of the presumption that a team must and does put its best possible lineup forth in the best interest of winning an honest contest.

Today’s tanking teams put coffers ahead of an honestly competitive season. In perhaps one of the top five perversions of “stop us before we over-spend/mis-spend/mal-spend again,” the owners would rather see a small handful of teams abuse their fans than demand such teams do what needs to be done to ensure at least an effort to compete.

Commissioner Rob Manfred audaciously calls it “this defensive lockout,” needed because the Major League Baseball Players Association’s vision for the game “would threaten the ability of most teams to be competitive.” If you believe that, my Antarctican beach club’s sale price has just dropped another hundred grand. “It’s simply not a viable option,” Manfred’s statement continues. “From the beginning, the MLBPA has been unwilling to move from their starting position, compromise, or collaborate on solutions.”

The union says the lockout was anything but “defensive”—“It was the owners’ choice, plain and simple, specifically calculated to pressure players into relinquishing rights and benefits, and abandoning good-faith bargaining proposals that will benefit not just players, but the game and industry as a whole.”

“This drastic and unnecessary measure,” says a statement from union director and former first baseman Tony Clark, “will not affect the players’ resolve to reach a fair contract. We remain committed to negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement that enhances competition, improves the product for our fans, and advances the rights and benefits of our membership.”

Do you notice that the owners through Manfred didn’t mention the fans but the players through Clark did? Do you notice the owners didn’t mention enhancing competition but the players did? The player are also concerned, rightfully enough, with younger players getting their major league earnings due and with younger players no longer subject to arbitrary whims that include suppressing them in the minor leagues when they’ve shown themselves Show ready.

“There’s also a feeling among players that front offices have become very good at manipulating the system to their advantage,” says the union’s chief negotiator, Bruce Meyer. “We want to make changes designed to incentivize competition for players, and remove disincentives for that competition. We want to find ways to get players compensated at an earlier stage of their careers when the teams are valuing them the most. And we want to preserve the fundamental principles of a market system.”

Tanking to one side, both sides have a couple of troublesome competition proposals. The owners are said to want a fourteen-team postseason; the players are said to prefer twelve.  Both should be rejected out of hand, no further questions asked, because postseason competition needs no further dilution than has happened in the wild card era.

Not long ago, there came a proposal for four-division leagues that might require expanding the leagues to another team each. I’ll see and raise: expand each league with one additional team each (and, this time, please do make damn sure there’s a real market for major league baseball in the new locales), but return each league to two divisions.

You’d actually have something resembling baseball the way it once was, after its first expansion: eight-team divisions, two in each league. Now, eliminate the damn wild cards and make it plain enough that either you’re playing for first place or it’s wait till next year, and don’t even think about tanking any longer.

Then, you remove the number one reason why the postseason loses its audience the deeper it progresses—saturation. Today’s postseason involves a maximum forty-two games. This still isn’t as crazy as the National Basketball Association’s maximum possible 98 postseason games, but it’s insane enough. In two divisions of eight teams each, baseball could (should) re-align itself to best-of-five League Championship Series and leave the World Series its best-of-seven self.

Guess what? In that re-alignment, you’d have a maximum of seventeen games, and the postseason wouldn’t even think of sneaking into the wee small hours of the month of November.

No, I’m not angling to become baseball’s next commissioner, but I’m only too well aware that the postseason has become a plaything through which the common good of the game becomes even more equal to making money for the owners and provoking the players to demand their cuts of it, too.

“[B]oth sides, after years of discontent, could be interested to test the other’s resolve,” Drellich says of the lockout now on. “The owners, as well, might believe that the free agents who remain when the lockout concludes will feel pressure to sign quickly, and therefore, at a discount.”

Don’t believe for one nanosecond that the owners should get away with crying poverty. Not when such new deals or extentions come forth as those recently handed to a Mets trio of Mark Canha, Eduardo Escobar, and (especially) Starling Marte; plus, Sandy AlcantaraJavier Baez, Byron Buxton, Wander Franco, Avisail Garcia, Kevin Gausman, Jon Gray, Robbie Ray, Corey Seager, Marcus Semien (is it me, or did the Rangers just drop about $512 million on new signings including Seager?), and (especially) Max Scherzer.

Unfortunately, the mid-level players often get bypassed during collective bargaining issues and often bear the brunt of whatever new CBAs cost. The talks usually involve “a league minimum and free agency eligibility,” as ESPN’s Buster Olney observes. “The players’ middle class, which has seen salary diminishment as a lot of teams apply analytics and identify cheaper replacement-level players, while other teams adopt the tanking strategy and cut payroll dramatically, has mostly been left out of those conversations.”

Scherzer isn’t the only player concerned about that plus making sure the owners can’t further suppress real competition and the full free agency picture. “Unless this CBA completely addresses the competition (issues) and younger players getting paid,” Max the Knife says emphatically, speaking as a member of the union’s eight-member player subcommittee, “that’s the only way I’m going to put my name on it.”

More competition issues? How about pushing the owners to push Manfred away from that ridiculous three-batter minimum for relief pitchers? How about pushing them to make the designated hitter universal, once and for all time, and eliminate the single most automatic out in the game? And, to make it so without one insane owners’ proposal that it be tied to a six-inning minimum for starting pitchers?

How about knocking it the hell off with monkeying around with the baseball itself (yes, MLB used two different sets of balls with two different actual weights in 2021—unbeknownst to anyone), then just develop and use a viable ball that favours neither pitcher nor hitter but makes it as level a confrontation as possible?

People thought Pete Alonso (Mets first baseman) was talking through his batting helmet when he waxed last June about MLB manipulating the balls themselves on behalf of impacting free agency. An astrophysicist discovered not only the different ball weights this year, but spoke to one unnamed pitcher who suspected the possibility that MLB might send different-weighted balls to stadiums hosting certain series: say, deader balls to sets between lesser teams but livelier balls to those hosting, say, the Yankees vs. the Red Sox.

I’d say that demands a full-throttle investigation. If people could and did go slightly mad over pitchers using that new old-fashioned medicated goo, they ought to go slightly more mad over ball cheating by baseball’s administration itself. The MLBPA should bring that up—and stick it in the owners’ ears.

The best news about this lockout is that it did happen during the off-season. Assorted analyses say strikes in sports are becoming things of the past. The bad news is that unreason isn’t going to become a thing of the past any time soon. Not, at least, until baseball’s ownerships today continue to prefer manipulation over competition, and the players increase their concern that competition be diluted no more.

No surprise the players said no thanks

The old exhausted gag about how you can tell lawyers and politicians lie applies to a bulk of major league baseball’s owners. When they asked the players to go for yet another expanded postseason at all, never mind without offering anything of substance in return, the only shock would have been if the players went for it.

CBS Sports’s Dayn Perry isolates it: “[A]n expanded postseason largely benefits the owners, not the players. According to the terms of the [collective bargaining agreement]—stunning use of italics forthcoming—all postseason television revenues go to the owners. The players, in turn, get a share of the gate revenues, which is a significantly smaller slice of the pie.”

It’ll be smaller, too, depending upon the continuing pandemic protocols that might yet be in place come the next postseason, even if the owners were willing to pay the players their full 162-game salaries on a 154-game schedule. The owners only think they’re being benevolent and caring about their players’ safety.

“If, however, player safety was truly the prevailing concern for MLB,” Perry writes, “then they would’ve proposed that schedule shift by itself and not appended to it a call for expanded playoffs, which benefits owners far more than players.”

Speaking of player safety, how concerned for player safety were the owners last year in allowing fans to attend League Championship Series and World Series games? Or when Justin Turner was allowed back onto the field to celebrate with his World Series-winning Dodgers after he’d just been informed he was COVID-19 positive?

And how concerned are they for pitchers’ safety if they’re refusing to show sense, keep the universal designated hitter permanent, and not use it as leverage to force more permanently-expanded postseasons that compromise competition while fattening their bank accounts?

I’ve argued on behalf of the universal DH until I’m bloated from it because a pitcher’s lineup spot is the least productive in baseball, and that’s not something that suddenly arrived with the advent of the DH in the American League in 1973. That argument was made as far back as 1891 by a National League owner. So knock it off with the lie that the DH is the American League’s continuing plot to dilute baseball.

Now, ponder this, as Perry and his CBS colleague Mike Axisa do: Last year’s pandemic-mandated short, irregular season meant pitchers having far shorter, smaller work loads. Even with a 154-game schedule they’ll be working their way back to full. “It shouldn’t be a labor issue either,” Axisa writes.

MLB should want to keep pitchers healthy — starting pitchers are the closest thing this sport has to a “main character”—and keep their best players on the field. A universal DH helps accomplish that. Reducing injury risk at a time when pitchers are coming off a bizarre year with small workloads is a no-brainer. The universal DH is good for everyone.

By the way, you can also stop lying about the “additional jobs” the universal DH would bring. It won’t, even if it means National League teams having places for DH-types who can still swing even if they’ve become or always were seditious fielders.

What it will do, as Axisa says, is turn fifteen bench seats into fifteen full-time jobs, including opening places for those DH-types. It’ll remove useless bats from having to check in at the plate in the number nine hole. It’ll put useful bats into the lineup at more regular intervals.

You can also give up the lie about the universal DH removing “strategy” from the game. With that dead lineup spot brought back to life, National League managers would have some very creative options available. Maybe they’d like a second cleanup hitter in that spot? An additional leadoff-type hitter?

Maybe they can also do what American League managers have done for years with the DH slot: give one of their regulars a extra day or two off from the field, asking him nothing more than swinging the bat a few times, and have those guys a little more fresh down the stretch of a pennant race and into the postseason.

There’s also no reason to make a bargaining chip out of the seven-inning doubleheader except owners’ avarice. In some ways making the seven-inning doubleheader permanent is more important than the universal DH for safety’s sake. We got a few because of the COVID-related postponements last year. In just a 154-game season we could be getting lots more.

“We saw teams play three doubleheaders in a single week at times last year,” Axisa says. “MLB has to assume something like that will happen again, in which case seven-inning doubleheaders are a necessity. You can’t ask players to run themselves into the ground like that.” Tell that to Joe and Jane Fan who still don’t get things like that.

Once upon a time teams were liable to play between 20-25 doubleheaders a season. (The single-season record is 44 such twin bills, played by the 1943 White Sox, in case you wondered.) If they’d thought of the seven-inning doubleheader back in the Good Old Days, the doubleheader never would have disappeared except for makeup games.

I’ve also argued until my spleen couldn’t stand it that the postseason is already expanded too much as it is. The owners may be banking mucho millions but the competition is already diluted and the audiences who can’t buy tickets for postseason game packages are already saturated with postseason baseball. Is the common good of the game really the same thing as making money for it, after all?

You already have teams thinking they don’t have to go the extra distances to compete when they can settle for the thrills and chills of fighting to the last breath to finish in second place. You think baseball has tanking issues now? Wait till you see them if last fall’s postseason should become baseball’s permanent future. Three third-place teams and one fourth-place team got to the 2020 postseason. Where’s the anti-tanking incentive?

“Lower the bar for contention, which is what an expanded postseason does, and teams aren’t going to spend as much,” Perry says. “Even at the top end, the idea of having to claw through another round of the playoffs is a disincentive for teams like the Yankees, Dodgers, Red Sox, Cubs, and Mets to fortify rosters they already see as being playoff-worthy.”

. . . [T]he players aren’t likely to give away a strong bargaining piece like the expanded postseason unless it’s in exchange for something of similar import. From the players’ standpoint, they’d presumably like to address their shrinking share of league revenues, the occasional practice of service-time manipulation (i.e., when teams hold back a clearly ready prospect in order to delay his free agency or arbitration eligibility for a full year), tanking, the failure of the minimum salary to keep pace with revenue growth in the sport, and teams’ increasing treatment of the luxury tax threshold as a hard cap, among other matters. Addressing any of those things will be a heavy lift.

The novelties that need to disappear post haste, of course, are the free cookie on second base to open each extra half inning and the three-batter minimum for relief pitchers. The extra-inning tiebreaker should last only as long as the pan-damn-ic does. Once we’re dead last certain the coronavirus is either extinct or down to levels so manageable and medically fixable that we can dump the masks and the protocols, that rule should disappear.

But spare us any continuing nonsense about ensuring safety when the owners clearly use the universal DH and other things as leverage to try forcing the players to re-negotiate the current collective bargaining agreement before it’s time to re-negotiate. You can count on maybe half a hand which owners aren’t lying every time they move their lips.

Why should the players—who actually want the universal DH and probably would go for the seven-inning doubleheader—negotiate prematurely when they’re going to come up with the short end of a stick that’s already been shortened just so? Especially knowing that conceding the more permanent expanded postseason means further-diluted competition?

“MLB ownership isn’t going to let a crisis go to waste,” Perry says, “and that’s why they’re seeking to alter the structure of the 2021 season even though said structure should be considered a settled matter.” Line drive, base hit.