TORONTO – Rob Manfred is far too calculated for throwaway lines on the mic.
Sure, he’s a master equivocator, regularly making claims so incredulous that the baseball world flies into rage-tweeting fits with Pavlovian predictability. That one about the stock market offering a better return-on-investment than ownership of a Major League Baseball team was just, Chef’s Kiss, even if Maury Brown over at Forbes quickly and capably picked it apart.
But remember, the commissioner isn’t stepping behind the dais and speaking on whim, which is why his comment last week that “I see missing games as a disastrous outcome for this industry,” is really worth parsing.
Manfred said that last Thursday following the owners’ meetings and before MLB tabled its latest offer to the locked-out players union, which was unmoved by the tiny incremental shifts toward a still very distant middle ground. He had also promised a “good-faith, positive proposal in an effort to move the process forward” and with spring training due to open this week (spoiler, it won’t), well, this weekend sure seemed like an opportunity to meaningfully change the dynamic.
That it didn’t happen isn’t entirely surprising – the sides can still make opening day March 31 although the timeline is getting tighter – and baseball loves working to deadlines. Still, it wasn’t the type of offer extended when a side is motivated to avoid “a disastrous outcome,” making it all the more interesting that Manfred would frame the increasingly likely possibility of lost games in that way.
No commissioner wants a disaster on their watch, especially one that’s self-created like this MLB-initiated lockout. Another drawn-out fight with the players after the owners’ distasteful attempts to slash salaries were rebuffed during the initial pandemic shutdown of 2020 is flat-out dumb right now, when the industry is under duress.
Manfred seemingly acknowledged that, and while he may have been simply setting up the players to take the hit, he wears the damage, too, no matter what.
Now, to a certain extent, the commissioner functions as a meat shield for owners, so that’s part of the job description. But there’s no way Manfred says that publicly without first telling owners the same thing privately, meaning his bosses essentially signed off on a proposal that pushes the sides closer to disaster.
The question then, as colleague Jeff Blair alluded to here, is which of the owners are driving the bus right now? There are still those who aspire toward a salary cap – behind-the-scenes attempts to sell the merits of a direct link between revenues and salaries as a way to address player concerns started a couple of years ago – which is why some on the player’s side believe breaking the union is an MLB goal.
Whether that’s the case or not, the owners seem determined to test the pain threshold of players before making concessions. Given that not only is this the first labour disruption since the player’s strike of 1994-95, but it’s also the first contentious CBA negotiation since then, as well, perhaps it makes sense to see precisely what the players are made of.
The flip side is the union, now with Bruce Meyer leading the negotiations, is better positioned to test the unity of the owners and after ceding ground in the past three labour agreements, are motivated to reclaim some lost land.
While the player goals are clear – get more money to younger players, raise the Competitive Balance Tax threshold and address tanking and service-time manipulation – what the owners want is less certain.
The key new element for them is expanded playoffs but beyond that, is their goal to simply squeeze the players as much as possible? That’s well and good, but how hard they’re willing to fight for that is uncertain.
Some owners can afford to dig in because they’re especially well-financed or because a shortened schedule also works for them. (Players aside, does anybody really want the Baltimore Orioles playing 162 times this year?)
Others will fight tooth and nail over each and every dollar, while some need the games to start ASAP because the revenues are essential to keeping their business afloat.
Manfred, of course, knows all the different pressure points but unlike Bud Selig, his predecessor, may not have the same ability to sway owners. Though he last week pointed to his history as a dealmaker, he ultimately does the bidding of his masters in a way that Selig, as a member of the owners club, never had to.
Was calling lost games a “disastrous outcome” in part aimed at the hardline owners tying his hands?
It’s on the spectrum of possibilities, which doesn’t bode well for the chances of a timely resolution.
To this point, the sides have largely inched toward one another, trying to read where the other is willing to give, and where they can take, reluctant to make the type of leap needed to bring the lockout to an end.
Manfred had a chance to change that over the weekend. Instead, he and the owners stayed the course, barrelling toward the very disaster he warned of.