After taking the 2020 season to the brink of nonexistence on Monday, Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred might actually be less popular than the coronavirus pandemic. Five days after “unequivocally” guaranteeing that there would be a season “one hundred percent,” even one of minimal length imposed under the terms of the owners’ March 26 agreement with the players union, he told ESPN he was “not confident” one would happen unless the players waive the right to file a grievance — contending MLB did not make its “best efforts to play as many games as possible” — that could potentially be worth hundreds of millions of dollars. This latest round of inflammatory action follows in the immediate wake of a drastically shortened amateur draft, one that suggests that a proposed contraction of the minor leagues is closer to reality than ever, and all of this comes after a winter dominated by MLB’s investigations into the illegal sign-stealing of the Astros and Red Sox, whose punishments many consider too light — and oh, somewhere in there, Manfred fanned the flames by referring to the World Series trophy as “a piece of metal.”
Manfred’s actions over the past several months may have some pining for the charisma and warmth of Bud Selig — that guy really knew how to call off a season — but it’s important to remember that pleasing all of the people, all of the time isn’t and wasn’t the job of either commissioner, or of their predecessors. Manfred isn’t some mad genius twisting the game to his own nefarious ends, and while he’s supposed to act in the best interests of baseball, the reality is that he works for the owners, who pay his salary and have the power to hire and fire him. When he speaks for the owners, implicit in whatever tack he’s taking is that he’s got the backing of the three-quarters of them (23 out of 30) needed to govern.
And hooboy, some of them — groups as well as individuals — are real pieces of work. Leaving aside the personality issues and sticking to the professional ones, you can pick a team, any team from along the spectra of market size or recent success, and it’s not too hard to think of a time in the recent past when they made it clear that they held their own financial interests ahead of winning, or satisfying their customers. The Red Sox, concerned about their Competitive Balance Tax rate, didn’t refortify the bullpen of their championship-winning team, and after an 84-win season and further fears about their marginal tax rate, traded Mookie Betts, the best player the franchise has developed since Roger Clemens. The Cubs, the game’s most profitable team over the past three years, have spent the past couple of years telling fans they have no money, and committed just $3.5 million to major league free agents this past winter. The Dodgers left 70% of their local fan base in the dark for six years in a battle over cable television carriers. The Rockies explored trading Nolan Arenado less than a year after signing him to a $260 million contract; the possibility left the five-time All-Star feeling “disrespected.” The Astros have done their damnedest to McKinseyfy baseball, not just exploiting inefficiencies to gain the upper hand on the competition but exploding them in ways that carry industry-wide ramifications for video replay, scouting departments, and the entire structure of the minor leagues. The Mets have thrown nickels around like manhole covers since their owners’ involvement in Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme came to light, running mid-sized payrolls from the game’s largest market. The Marlins and Pirates have gone through seemingly endless stretches of non-competitiveness (though the latter did have a brief run of relevance not too long ago), and just a couple of years ago were involved — along with the A’s and Rays — in a grievance over how they spend their revenue-sharing money. The White Sox are still owned by Jerry Reindsdorf, who has a lengthy history as a labor hardliner, dating back to the mid-80s collusion scandal and the 1994 strike.
I could go on, and I apologize if your favorite team’s heel of an owner is unrepresented in the litany above, but you get the idea. What’s galling is that these guys have generally been making money hand over fist for decades. MLB has set revenue records for 17 straight years, according to Forbes, whose numbers also show that the average team’s operating profit (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization) rose 25% last year, to $50 million, thanks in part to flat salary growth. The average franchise value has increased by over a billion dollars in the past six years, as the Washington Post’s Thomas Boswell noted earlier this week. Referring to the estimated $600 million difference between MLB’s 72-game, 70% prorated pay proposal and an 81-game season at full prorated pay, Boswell asked, “What the devil is $20 million per team when the average team has been increasing in value by $173.5 million per year?”
Yet right now, the season is in peril because a bloc of team owners is short-sighted enough to believe that taking a relatively small loss this year is worse than going a year and a half without baseball, and thus would rather cancel the season than play it. SNY’s Andy Martino cited two industry sources saying that there were six owners in that camp, while The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich quoted an agent as saying there were “definitely more than eight owners who don’t want to play.” Nobody’s telling us who the owners in question are; we can speculate that some of them are from among the teams listed above, and by all means, I hope that someday soon we find out; maybe, as with the A’s recent u-turn on paying their minor leaguers, the scorn of the public and the relatively upstanding example of the competition would be enough to shame them into rejoining the fold. Right now, the identities don’t matter but it’s safe to assume the number is at least eight, because that’s enough to prevent a deal. Manfred, though nowhere near as strong as Selig was as a consensus-builder or vote-counter, understands he’s not there yet.
What’s particularly galling about the current situation is the prospect that this is just another stalling tactic. “Players told you to set the season, but it’s too early to set the season right now, isn’t it Rob?” wrote Trevor Bauer via a Twitter thread on Monday. “Because then you’d have to explain why you’re only going to impose 50 games when we could easily play 70+ right now. The tactic is to bluff with ‘no season’ again and delay another 2-3 weeks until you clear the risk of ‘not negotiating in good faith by trying to play as many games as possible.”
If we assume that the basics of a deal were struck tomorrow, players could report to camp in 10 days while the health and safety i’s are dotted and the economic and competitive t’s crossed to begin a three-week spring training redux. That puts the start of the season around July 20 and leaves 10 weeks if they wrap up on September 27. That end date likely has more to do with networks’ desires regarding the postseason (expanded or no) than any hard science regarding a potential second wave of COVID-19 outbreaks, though Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has cautioned against playing baseball in October given a potential overlap between influenza season and a possible second wave. Obviously, there would have to be off days built into the schedule, so the total number of possible games is now less than 70 unless teams are willing to play doubleheaders, which the players have expressed a willingness to do. Bauer’s own math puts June 28 as Manfred’s deadline for a deal for a 55ish-game season, leaving 13 days (from this past Monday) for the commissioner to kill time. “Threaten to cancel the season. Threaten arbitration. Threaten grievances. All the while, hold the fans for ransom. Hold the future of the game for ransom.”
As noted above, it’s actually the threat of a grievance from the players, not the owners’ intransigence over pro-rate pay, that appears to have pushed Manfred and the owners to the point of panic, but the fact that Monday came and went without the commissioner meeting MLBPA executive Tony Clark‘s “tell us when and where” mandate means that we haven’t heard the last of this. Tuesday brought the rather surreal sight of Randy Levine — a man who has often seemed to relish the “bad cop” persona in his role as Yankees president — sounding conciliatory notes. Via the New York Post’s George King III:
“I have been speaking to the commissioner every day. I know he is dedicated and wants to badly play a baseball season. I also believe that the players are the heart and soul of the game. I have said they are patriots and believe that,” Levine said Tuesday in a statement. “Under the March 26 agreement, the commissioner has the right to schedule the games as long as the players are paid pro rata. I don’t believe that the issue is any longer about the number of games or money.”
“What I understand it is about is negotiating and reaching a conclusion on other items in the March agreement such as the health and safety protocols, the conditions for players to opt out, what happens if there is a second wave of the virus and the season is paused again and issues such as that,” Levine explained. “The commissioner has assured me that he is ready to get in a room and finalize these issues. The players agreed to negotiate them in the March agreement. So let’s get everyone in a room now and resolve these issues so we can play ball.”
If it really were that easy, we’d already be looking towards an Opening Day, albeit a tenuous one given the recent upticks in COVID-19 infection rates as states have reopened. In an effort to arrive at a season longer than the commissioner’s 50 game break-glass schedule, the players have already offered concessions, opening the door to expanded playoffs and reducing their initial proposal for a 114-game slate to 89 games. Frustrating though it is, they may need to sweeten the pot further, but they are clearly not budging on the prorated pay issue, believing the language of the agreement is on their side, and MLB has yet to officially offer a proposal built around that premise. It’s on Manfred to put aside the posturing, wrangle the 30 owners, and find the necessary consensus from among their disparate situations in order to make an offer designed to engage rather than inflame. Right now, that’s nothing less than the whole damn ballgame.
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.