Baseball's offseason has now entered what is supposed to be the preseason, the clean-slate rebirth, the start of spring training and the new calendar. But commissioner Rob Manfred's so-called "defensive lockout" has been very much offensive. There is no new season as of yet.
Spring training games have been canceled. Barring an agreement in the next several hours, regular-season games are undoubtedly next.
This, following January's Hall of Fame announcement, which signified another of the game's lowest points: the iconic Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and David Ortiz reduced to a self-imposed spectacle of steroid suspicion and the display of selective justice. Even Derek Jeter, one of the few recent Hall of Famers whose induction came without controversy, made news of his own during the lockout. Jeter, once part-owner of the Miami Marlins, just quit his post as CEO and dumped his equity stake, too. Baseball still can't get it right.
Over the years, as acrimony rose between management and players, one line of thinking suggested the relationship was so toxic that what baseball really needed was new leadership -- that fresh new voices and a new approach on both sides would be the answer to the more-than-half-century of labor conflict between players and owners.
The appointment of Tony Clark as executive director of the MLB players' union was exactly that. Since its inception in 1966 as a real collective bargaining unit, the union had never been run by an ex-player. Clark's arrival in 2013 -- after the death of Donald Fehr's successor, Michael Weiner -- signaled a different approach. The MLBPA still had its requisite share of lawyers and negotiators, but Clark's vision was a true player's union -- for players, run by players.
MLB's leadership responded to Clark's vision not as a fresh start, but as a golden opportunity to finally break the union. There have been whispers for the past several years that Clark was in over his head. Ownership brazenly gloated over what they saw as a rout vs. the players during Clark's first negotiation. But that, in turn, cemented the resolve of the players, who have been saying for the past two years that ownership was going to see a different adversary on the other side of the table. That resolve has been bolstered by the direction and feel of the sport.
In the middle is the fan, who might be tempted to blame the billionaires and the millionaires -- but that would be incorrect, and simplistic. Some players are millionaires. Nearly all of the owners are billionaires. As the money has risen, the players' share has fallen -- four years in a row and counting. All economies have a middle class, and baseball's -- like America's -- has been shrinking.
The conflicts for anyone who has been watching the game beyond the final score must know money is only one of the most obvious elements of a broken game. Several areas of contention have been building for years.
Unlike its younger counterparts, baseball has always been defined by crankiness, a curmudgeonly edge that in good times can be massaged into an old-school virtue. These are not good times. The fight over money is a capitalist constant. Over-avenging past grievances is the nature of defeat. But this current labor struggle represents a cynical manipulation that already has been felt on the field, unarticulated until now as part of a larger owner/front-office strategy.
Baseball -- because of its past, its style, its conservative belief in its traditions -- has always been seen as out of step. When the average game length was a little over two hours in the 1950s, the sport was criticized for taking too long. Shortly after retiring, Jackie Robinson in 1958 told a reporter that baseball was boring to watch, and as a spectator, he much preferred basketball and football. In 1958.
In the past, however, the owners and players appeared to agree to the bedrock nature of the game -- at least in the final negotiation. Today's gaps are philosophical questions of how the future game is going to look, how it's going to be played, and why. Previous manifestations of owner greed, while no more attractive, did not as directly threaten the actual play on the field. Owners have been trying to break baseball's union since the Johnson administration by trying to not pay players or by seeking to wrest back free agency. Whether the fight was titanic, as in 1981 or 1994, or defining but contained, as in 1972, the battle was centrally over matters of money: a pension fight in 1972, free-agent compensation in 1981, a salary cap in 1994. Baseball owners have been trying to kill free agency ever since its inception in December 1975.
Manfred's current lockout, however, more directly impacts the game on the field -- the current rules, already far in favor of owners, aren't enough. Ownership is squeezing the orange without the goal of making the juice taste better. A new breed of personnel now runs baseball, bent on treating it as a Fortune 500 company rather than as a sport, finding loopholes to exert even more control without much thought or interest in its consequences. Today's baseball people are manipulating the sport not to improve it aesthetically but to lessen the import of the players.
Analytics departments attempt to control the game through manipulation, either through the combination of service time (keeping big-league-ready players in the minors to prevent them from reaching free agency on time) and losing on purpose.
The former has had several blatant examples: David Price with the Tampa Bay Rays, Kris Bryant with the Chicago Cubs. Under Manfred, teams have manipulated rosters using the disabled/injured list.
The latter is tanking. The Moneyball generation of fans who think along with the front offices instead of emulating the batting stances of their favorite players may be tolerant of teams losing as a practical method to improve future teams. But players who are expected to perform for a team that is not trying to win are far less forgiving, especially when players hear boos when it appears they aren't giving their all.
The sport has taken on an impersonal, assembly-line characteristic; teams play for outs, but the players play for competition, pride, professionalism. That, combined with Manfred calling the World Series trophy a "piece of metal," told the players the commissioner of the game took no pride in what they did. They were just high-paid widgets.
The owners are still trying to kill free agency, they're now trying to do it in a different way. Even the proposal to expand to a 14-team postseason (disastrous without reducing the length of the 162-game regular season) likely will result in less player movement. If a team needs to be only slightly over .500 to make the playoffs, teams will be less likely to make deals or improve their teams with big signings.
This is especially dangerous in baseball, the one sport in which, because of pitching rotations, teams cannot field their best lineups every game. It is happening through an NFL-style competitive balance tax (spoiler alert: it's a salary cap), and by manipulating service time, teams are pushing back when players can become free agents -- then arguing the players are too old to merit long-term contracts. When the players argued in response to reduce the free-agent eligibility from six years to five, the owners refused.
When the games eventually return, the power of the sport will overcome the people who run it. Fans will get caught up in the taut pennant races and all the wondrous talents on the field, for the players are the game. But every day of this lockout has exposed a loss. The last several months have reinforced a certain ugliness to the sport.
It won't kill baseball -- because the players always save it -- but it has made it a little less attractive, watching it a little less given. It is one thing to watch a business fight over money, but quite another when the people who run the business seem to have little respect for it.