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opinion

Give both sides in the baseball wars this much credit – they are being pretty reasonable about being unreasonable.

Major League Baseball’s collective agreement expires next Wednesday. And après CBA, le deluge.

Rather than, you know, negotiate or anything, ownership and the union spent the past few weeks clearing the field so that everyone can dig trenches. The winter meetings were cancelled and some of the business that gets done there happened at November’s GM meetings instead. This week, they moved the tender deadline up three days so that that bit of paperwork can get sorted.

If they can be co-operative enough to do the administrative work of baseball (which is annoying), why can’t they be co-operative enough to figure out how to spend all the money they make together (which should be fun)?

They can’t because the assumption underpinning all of our cultural institutions – from government to the local dance troupe – is that everyone is in it for themselves. If you’re not fighting, you’re not paying attention. Doesn’t matter how much you’ve got, it’s important that you get some more. It’s the American (and, increasingly, Canadian) way.

In the last prepandemic season, MLB put up about US$10-billion in revenue. Despite losing steady ground in the cultural conversation to football and basketball, that’s still three times what the league was making at the turn of the century. If this is what decline looks like, I’d like to invest, please.

Despite the steady rise in revenue, salaries are slipping. In 2017, the average ballplayer made US$4.1-million. On opening day 2022, he’ll make about US$3.7-million.

This is how baseball’s wonks finally won over the traditionalists – by showing them that while tanking may or may not make your team better, it will definitely save you money.

Players think management is colluding to depress the free-agent market for guys in their 30s. Management thinks there is no reason to give 10-year, nine-figure contracts to guys in their 30s. You see the problem.

From a fan perspective, the only good thing about a strike (or a lockout, or a stoppage, or whatever the press-release-friendly term of art is this time) is picking a side.

This is where the problem arises. All sports labour spats are ridiculous (no one who makes more in a year than your dad made in his lifetime should complain in public about money) but baseball’s has an added layer of self-defeatism. It is impossible to like anyone in this fight. The longer the fight goes on, the more time it will take people to forget it happened. And the more they think about it, the less they will like anyone.

There are no hard limits on spending in baseball, either up or down. Once your payroll gets past US$210-million, a luxury tax kicks in. If you’re the New York Yankees or the L.A. Dodgers, the tax is more of an annoyance than a hindrance.

One obvious solution – create a payroll floor. That would prevent teams such as Tampa and Miami from creating Dollarama rosters.

Amazingly, it isn’t ownership that dislikes the idea of a minimum spend. It’s the union. They’re afraid that any limitation on payroll – even one that benefits their membership – will lead to the implementation of a salary cap.

So around and around we go. The workers want the bosses to pay them more, but they don’t want any contract language that lays out how much they should pay them. It’s a sort of magical economics.

You can already see how this will go. Everything is shut down by Dec. 2. A few boilerplate statements are released. Everyone goes home for the holidays.

January? Nothing. February? Ditto. In March, when spring training should be well under way, a few news stories about the fading relevance of the national pastime will force both sides to pretend to care. By April, it’s a big story. Ownership pretends to make concessions while the players end up losing ground from the last CBA.

Why do players ever strike? Baseball isn’t an auto-parts factory. You’re not going to work there for 40 years. Your kids are not going to work there after you. You’re not building something. You’re strip-mining.

The typical ballplayer is a twentysomething who has four or five good earning years in him. If he’s like most guys, he’s probably going to blow most of what he makes in any case.

You think this would create a co-mingled sense of urgency and reciprocity. You want to be as charming as you can to get as much as you can. If you’re good enough, ownership wants to pay you a bucketload of money in any case. That’s how it sells the team to its customers – ‘Look at the stupid amount we just paid for this guy!’

Ownership should feel likewise. Why do you buy a baseball team? It isn’t to get richer. If you want to be richer, you buy a widget factory.

You buy a baseball team so that you can hang out with baseball players. So that Mickey Mantle knows your name. It doesn’t make much sense to alienate the people whose friendship you just purchased.

And yet here we are, everyone convinced they are re-enacting some epochal Jimmy Hoffa-vs-Bobby Kennedy drama. We’ll spend six months grafting Longshoreman Local 104 tactics and language onto a fight between people who are the 1 per cent of the 1 per cent.

No wonder it’s so civilized this time around. Maybe they’ve all finally figured out that no matter how long it goes or how many concessions are made, there is no losing here. Both sides win.

The goal isn’t any particular ending. The goal is having the fight in the first place. It’s being seen to fight.

Sports labour squabbles have become an extension of the game itself. They’re a way of extending the competition into the off-season, giving everyone something to whine about. It’s all just content.

Everyone will stay rich. The fans will come back because they always do. The game will grind on until the next, carbon-copy work stoppage. The issues will never change and never be solved. Why would you want to change? Things are working out too well to take that chance.