Image credit: BBC One

If you search for the term “why the fourth wall is important,” you get a lot of results on why breaking the fourth wall is important, techniques on how to break it, the benefits of doing so. People go nuts over breaking the fourth wall. And why not? It allows for subtle humor or clumsy polemics, and by winking at the audience it makes them feel valued and included, especially when they’re part of a sensitive fan base whose loyalty can be converted into funko pops.

Nobody is out here defending the sanctity of the fourth wall, except maybe to say that Charlie Kaufman “gets too cute.” This is especially the case in baseball, a sport designed to fool fans into thinking they matter to the action at hand, that their fandom is vital, despite a measured home field advantage that says they don’t need to bother paying $40 for parking. And in an economic system so diversified, through real estate and merchandise and broadcasting and streaming and licensing, that it barely even needs the turnstiles to roll.

And oh, look at that, we’ve already sprung the trap. It’s been increasingly difficult to talk about baseball without talking about the business of baseball for years. Each on-field accomplishment had to be, either overtly or unconsciously, juxtaposed against that player’s value: to the fans, to the organization, to the window and the legacy. Each moment contains layer upon layer of metatextual weight, until the game itself can no longer hold it up. Nothing can just be: It has to mean something, for the future, for the bottom line, for the almighty narrative. The offseason, once a time to stare out windows, has swelled to such enormous size that it has engulfed the season itself, and it’s impossible to think about baseball without instantly contextualizing what it means for Baseball. We watch to talk about our having watched.

Dramatic irony is an excellent seasoning, but it can’t feed us. Even here at BP, a site literally created to analyze the results of baseball games, we still talk and think about the play itself, its aesthetic and its emotional resonance. The way that Rob Manfred and MLB have cavalierly negotiated at an ambling pace, willing to sacrifice games (and the livelihoods of the people who depend on those games) for the sake of the Business Model, is proof of a core belief: that Major League Baseball doesn’t actually need baseball, that it has outgrown it.

Case in point: MLB had a banner week at the negotiating table, after starting off on the high note of calling on third-party mediation at a stage in the bargaining when the other side was waiting for their offer. On February 12, the league fired shots on its second front against players, insisting that minor leaguers shouldn’t be paid for spring training games because their salary is being paid in on-the-job training. The only reasons not to compare this line of reasoning to the policy of corporations forcing their employees to pay for their own uniforms is that a) that’s just going to give MLB ideas and b) at least if you work in fast food, they can’t legally deduct uniforms for pay if it takes the employee below minimum wage, and, with minor leaguers… you know.

The cost of paying these seasonal workers for literally one month out of a partial year is, if one were to decipher the arcane runes of an MLB franchise’s balance sheet, as financially damaging as a defective bobblehead on Celebrate Rafael Furcal Night. But if the league were to hand over this pittance without a fight, one might draw the conclusion that they could afford two pittances, and what’s after that? Three pittances? It’s like we assume these guys are made out of spare change.

Despite the bad press, the timing of the declaration could be interpreted as a boon to the league, because it made their counteroffer to the union appear less hamfisted by comparison. Still, the compromises they offered (a slight bump in the Competitive Balance Tax, though still not in line with inflation, let alone market growth; a compensation system that would lightly penalize teams for manipulating the service time of Literally Kris Bryant and no one else; and an option restriction of five that wouldn’t have even been necessary five years ago, but is portrayed as kindly now thanks to how badly teams are gaming minor league options) moved the needle less than the player’s union did in their very first round of negotiation. It’s further proof that the owners are content to run out the clock, believing that missing games will damage the union more than themselves, justifying the alienation of fans in the long run.

Tucked into that counteroffer, emerging days after the major issues were reported one, was the note that the league sought the ability to reduce the number of players on the Domestic Reserve List—which governs how many players are in an organization at a given time—from a maximum of 180, where it stands currently, to a maximum of 150. Eliminating 30 positions across all 30 teams would see some 900 players lose the opportunity to play in affiliated baseball, and in essence drop one minor league team per org from the game. This on top of the 42 minor league teams that MLB culled in December 2020 in what was essentially a hostile takeover of minor league baseball. The league requested control of the Domestic Reserve List as part of a package headlined by an offer that would limit the number of times a player could be optioned in a given season to five (the players had proposed a limit of four). As ever, though, the league will string a boulder to a feather, offer the PA the latter and deem it a concession.

The league’s persistent attempts to dam the rivers and eddies that feed its top level isn’t merely limited to the minor leagues, though. In the same report about the Domestic Reserve List ask, ESPN’s Jeff Passan noted that the Players Association proposed a 20-round domestic amateur draft in July of 2021, and that is a rare area where the two sides have common ground. While the two sides may not find the length of the draft a point of contention, that doesn’t mean it isn’t a win for ownership, who cut the draft to five rounds in 2020, before expanding it to 20 rounds in 2021—a mere half of what it was from 2012-2019.

Taken together, the league’s 30 owners and its commissioner have conducted a full-scale assault on American baseball’s lower levels. They appear insistent on outsourcing development to colleges and partner leagues, sloughing off already underpaid players to save a few shekels here and there. They are unwilling to grasp what Royals general manager Dayton Moore does:

The individuals who go out and prosthelytize for lowercase baseball rather than feed the wallet of Major League Baseball are not of consequence. The fundamental beauty of the game and the passion it inspires is lost on the people at the reins, because they only recognize how it can impact their bottom line and not for what it is on its own.

One of the common reactions of the lay fan is a frustrated cry of “why can’t they just figure it out?” It’s a natural reaction: Fans are pawns in this game, used in each side’s quest to score points in public opinion and put pressure on their opponents. The truth is that fans shouldn’t be in the room for all this; they should be able to enjoy baseball with the fourth wall intact, without the constant haggling and manipulation. They can’t, though. It’s an impossible ask, and not simply because the two sides in this negotiation “won’t make a deal.” That notion implies an evenly shared blame—a tough concept to stomach when one side seems hell bent not just on breaking the other, but on breaking the sport as they would a piggy bank.

The whole thing—from the holding hostage of a game we love to the slow but inexorable march towards something similar but definitely worse, to the endless whinging about how it is they who are aggrieved despite holding all the power—feels like the villain detailing their plan directly to the camera. As if their game, the game of how much money they can make, is more important than the procedurals that play out on the ballfields. And then expecting fans to care, to root for them, to let them hold up the trophy, when they won’t even open their books and tell them the score.

Ultimately, it is simultaneously baffling and obvious. Whenever something doesn’t make sense, the answer is money. So, too, in this case, and it’s easy enough to grasp. But then there is already so much money in the game. The owners have already won, societally, many times over. It can’t help but get under our skin. We’re all here, yearning to love this romantic, deeply flawed game. And they’re over there, having put us on the sidelines, telling us over and over again to stop it. To stop fighting for it. To just let them bleed it dry, but still please buy the merch. It’s exhausting trying to give them an abundant garden when they want to scorch the earth, and you have to wonder when people will stop trying.

It’s fun to break the fourth wall, as a writer. But there’s a part of every movie and every television show and even every baseball game that already talks directly to the viewer. It’s the part where they try to sell people things.

Thank you for reading

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"Baseball is Better when there's less of it"(tm).

That's MLBs current mission statement.