May 17, 2002
Gone Shootin'There's a state people kind of ease into when things around them are collapsing. It could be that their company is in the midst of a death spiral, or perhaps their group of college friends is gradually drifting apart. Or, in a strictly hypothetical example, an activity that's a core part of their enjoyment of life may be rushing towards a dark tunnel with despair in the front of it, and, once inside, no light indicating an end.
When this happens to someone, they get sort of languid and detached. I don't know if it's shock, or one of those "stages of grief," like anger or denial, but it's easy to tell when you see it. What's interesting is that this phase appears to be nearly universal, and people come out of it in a wide spectrum of different states, from emboldened and resolute to truly pitiful.
I don't mean to equate the potential loss of Major League Baseball with the death of a family member, the loss of a job, or some other sort of personal tragedy. Frankly, the world would be a better and happier place if every second we now spend following MLB, either on TV or on the Web, were spent actually playing ball out on the grass. Or wiffle ball on the street, with a taped strike zone on a piece of plywood. Or in a basement or backyard with a ball of rolled up aluminum foil and one of mom's big-ass wooden spoons. (Kids, if you do this in the house, you'll end up with scores of little aluminum smudges on the walls, and your parents will never be able to figure out what caused the mysterious grey splotches. It's great fun.)
For a lot of people, though, the labor stoppage that we all presume is coming is a pretty profound event. Many of my friends and associates make their living around the game of baseball, and they stand to be badly damaged by a work stoppage.
Among longtime rabid fans, there's a kind of vague denial, wrapped around the idea that "there's no way they'd let 1994-95 happen again." With all due respect to those people, 1994-95 wasn't that bad for the owners or players. It was bad for addicts. I don't think I got rid of the shakes until about 1997. Baseball attendance recovered almost immediately, well before the Mark McGwire/Sammy Sosa show.
If you're a fan concerned about what's going to happen, please don't embarrass yourself by joining some ill-conceived, often money-grubbing "fan" organization that's nothing more than a mildly-amplified kvetching session. If some weasel is trying to make money off the "They don't care about us, the FANS!" emotions that naturally well up among the public during a labor dispute, write the bastard off to the same circle of hell reserved for puppy drowners and cancer charlatans. They can spend eternity watching bad films, or, if they're Red Sox fans, Bill Buckner on a tape loop.
The key issue facing fans as we approach a possible labor stoppage isn't necessarily on the table between the players and owners. The same seemingly intractable problems that were in place and that caused the 1994-95 disaster are still in place, but this time, the stakes are higher. The players can't really give ground on a salary cap, which is the stake in the ground for a large contingent of owners. The issue is this: if a salary cap is implemented, it's going to be ages before it goes away--probably not within the lifetime of most fans. There are a lot of pressures on any system that reinforce the status quo, so if you can make a major change, it's got a pretty good chance of staying that way for a long time.
The base level of player compensation is sufficiently high to prevent fervor from being whipped up, either in the hearts of fans (which would be irrelevant anyway, but neither side will ever say that publicly), or in the hearts of the bottom feeders of the MLBPA. If a salary cap is implemented, the players have lost not just this battle, but the war for years to come. The owners have defined the playing field for the last several CBA negotiations, and despite some brilliant maneuvering by Don Fehr, it's unlikely the players will ever get it back.
None of us like to admit it, but we're jealous of guys making millions of dollars for playing ball while we schlep away at something we don't like as much for a lot less cash. Given that environment, the MLBPA isn't in a position to ever build public support for their rank and file. Fehr, Gene Orza, and the player reps are all very aware of this, so they don't really even make an effort. Intellectual and philosophical consistency is a tough sell under any circumstances, especially up against the internal forces of jealousy that live within each of us.
On the owners side, you can see the attractiveness of a win. For them, it's a permanent thing, likely to last at least as long as they own the club. Baseball salaries have this magic ability to turn raging free-market conservatives into autocrats with the snap of a finger. Frothing Republicans who lusted after Jack Kemp's "enterprise zone" concepts are often appalled that Jason Giambi is able to make $120 million on the same free market that they defend so vigorously in other segments of society. The owners work very hard to keep their financial information quiet, but are quick to publicize how much money the latest free agent is raking in.
One tool the owners have been trying to use for several years in their battle with the players is linkage. It's a great tool, used frequently and successfully in politics and business. The owners have been trying to link competitive imbalance with disparate player payrolls. They've convinced some very influential people with some large pulpits, such as Bob Costas and lots of nationally syndicated sportswriters and columnists. The link is attractive to the media, because it's intuitive, and it's an easy anchor for almost any story you want to write. Kansas City beats New York? Hey, David over Goliath. New York pounds Kansas City? Hey, that's the way it's supposed to work, because there's a systemic problem with the economic structure of the game. Damn shame that K.C. fans never have anything to cheer about. MLB owners have successfully created that linkage in the minds of at least a plurality of their fan base. The players just don't have as simple or as clean of a message to push.
Don't expect either side to back down. The owners have more room to retreat than the players do, but they're not leaning that way at this point in time, and they have a pretty impressive war chest built up to minimize financial pressures through the short and medium term. They know how much they stand to gain if they achieve a salary cap. The losses incurred, both in terms of damaged public goodwill and lost revenue from ticket sales and broadcast rights, are relatively small compared to the increased cash flow and franchise appreciation they'll see if they can get the MLBPA to splinter into factions and ultimately cave. The owners can apply additional pressure through a public negotiation posture of a major boost to the minimum salary, more generous pension accrual and eligibility rules, and a forceful stand against performance enhancing drugs.
The players are pretty resolute and united, but it's going to be a long fight, and ownership has the knobs to twist to increase pressure on the MLBPA leadership. They'd much rather stall and switch the Gene across the table from Orza to Upshaw than give up too early. Don Fehr is no fool; he knows the importance of not ever agreeing to a salary cap. He's aware of the danger of the nose of that particular camel.
The potential gain is simply too big for owners to give up any time soon on this one. A 3-2 ruling by the National Labor Relations Board under the Clinton Administration helped force a shortened 1995 season into existence. Rightly or wrongly, the owners believe they can get a better result from the NLRB under the Bush administration.
On an annoying note...due to a tweaked migration to a new machine, I have completely lost all e-mail, addresses, and contact info gathered through over several years. At least one person was waiting for a Baseball Prospectus 1997 to be shipped to them, and many others are waiting on other things.
If you've ever exchanged e-mails with me, please send me another e-mail, preferably with all your contact information. I have several hundred people whose contact info needs to be refreshed. Thanks, and I apologize for the inconvenience.
Gary Huckabay is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.