MLB cannot get out of its own way. As America fights the Covid-19 Pandemic and protests against police brutality and systemic racism, MLB decided to begin its labor dispute ahead of the next Collective Bargaining Agreement. Halting Spring Training due to the Pandemic was the smart choice. Owners and players then needed to work towards a timeline for the resumption of the season. Negotiating when the delayed season would start and the financial ramifications for the players and owners were the logical first steps towards returning to play.
By no means do I have all the information about the negotiations, only what is public knowledge. What I do know is the owners presented the players with the same unacceptable offer multiple times, just in different ways. Each time the players rejected the offer with a counter offer only to have the owners repackage the previous offer in new wrapping paper. Finally the players threw up their hands and said enough, just tell us when and where to play. This was part of the agreement reached in March between both sides at the beginning of the delayed season. Suddenly Commissioner Rob Manfred went from 100% certain there would be a season to not confident in less than a week. Publicly the only change was the players saying let’s play.
I get it, baseball is a business, even if fans hate to admit it. MLB continues to report record profits, sign billion dollar television contracts, yet the owners cry poverty. The players said show us your accounting books and those losses so we can be partners in absorbing the financial pain of the Pandemic. The owners refused. MLB and the owners were hesitant to set a schedule for fear of being sued by the MLB Players Association for negotiating in bad faith. Some fans will be angry with the “billionaires fighting the millionaires.” Yes, MLB players make vast sums of money. However at a time when baseball is growing and could grow even more as the country looks for a break from reality, the owners are attempting to break the Players Union to further strengthen and enrich themselves.
Commissioner Rob Manfred is killing baseball at a time when baseball could be flourishing. (LM Otero, STF/ Associated Press)
Every labor negotiation is contentious. Both parties have their ideal scenarios and are resistant to compromise. In baseball’s case, those running the game are driving the game into the ground. The owners wanted to cut a quarter of Minor League teams. This is not because owners see the Minor Leagues as too big. It is because the ridiculously low pay Minor Leaguers receive has finally been brought to light. The backlash made owners seek to reduce the number of Minor League teams and players, allowing them to increase pay for the remaining players without raising expenses. MLB reduced the draft to just 5 rounds. The top players got the money they are worth, but MLB capped undrafted free agents at $20,000. This grotesque approach means a player normally selected in the 6th round is screwed, some draftees have few options other than signing for less than they are worth. Owners are cutting costs, not to save the game but to increase their own profits.
Few will cry about Mike Trout making $19 million instead of $35 million this season. Both are large amounts of money to play a game. However, this would sit better with players if there was actual, verifiable proof the owners are bleeding money and need financial relief. The Mike Trouts and Bryce Harpers of baseball will make their money, but what about the players who play a season or two in the majors? Making league minimum, $563,500 in 2020, is their big payday after years making poverty wages in the Minors. They are the ones getting screwed the most. In a perfect world, the players and owners agree to full prorated contracts so these players are rewarded for their service to the game. Now there are reports that several owners would rather cancel the season instead of working out a compromise. Manfred is a labor lawyer, yet this mess falls on him. He works for the owners, but he should be screaming at them to take a bump in the road now to bring in new fans, more advertisers, and vastly more money going forward.
Everyone should be angry with the state of baseball right now. Neither side is blameless, both the players and owners have miscalculated their position leading us here. The negotiations are not public, but with what we do know, the owners and Manfred are trying to kill baseball. An agreement seems on the horizon, but the peace baseball has long enjoyed is over. The next CBA negotiation is 3 years away. We are entering an era that could irreparably harm baseball for a generation or more and it is almost entirely the owners fault. Hopefully they wake up before the ship sinks.
When baseball returns please support your local teams. Public Health experts will be cautious in reopening the country, hopefully the politicians will listen. Major League teams will be fine, they have their millions. Support Minor League and Independent League teams, they are feeling the biggest impact of the shutdown. Many of these teams and leagues operate on the edge of existence in the best of times. The Coronavirus has left many vulnerable to folding.
Minor League and Independent League teams are often in smaller cities than Major League teams. They are more connected to the well being of their city as they depend on local support for survival. These teams lack the regional or national fan bases of MLB. Minor League teams can rely on their Major League affiliate to pay players through Player Development Contracts. MiLB teams fund everything else including stadium maintenance, game day staff, front office, and concessions. Independent League teams do this too and must also pay their players. Baseball teams draw visitors to their city and its economy. Fans pay the salaries of team employees, but they also go to restaurants and bars, or other attractions, before or after games. Baseball teams attract visitors and their money, and give the community something to rally around.
Growing baseball means reaching people, such as expanding television and radio coverage. However, the excitement of watching a game in person is quite different than watching or listening from home. MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred is pushing a plan to cut 40 or more Minor League teams in favor of the Dream League, an Independent League with some MLB support. This is foolish. MLB continues to see record profits, while MiLB players are paid criminally low contracts. Reducing the number of teams affiliated with MiLB is about reducing cost and increasing profits for MLB teams. Baseball is a business, but MLB must be careful to not stifle the future of the game to save a little money to increase record profits.
How can you not be romantic about baseball? View of the 2016 South Atlantic League All Star Game at Whitaker Ball Park, home of the Lexington Legends. (The Winning Run/ DJ)
Not everyone lives close to an MLB or MiLB team. Obviously baseball cannot have a team in every city, nor can every family afford to take their baseball crazed kids to a game several hours away. There are some fans who live in a baseball desert. The cost hinders the exposure of the in person experience and could ultimately lose the fandom of kids and adults. Baseball has already priced out many low income youth players due to the ever expanding expense of travel baseball. Why would MLB and Manfred build more obstacles to the game?
Teams have contracts with cable providers for broadcast rights, including MLB.tv, which is another expense not every baseball fan can afford. MLB is strong financially, but they need to consider the finances of the fans. Reducing the number of MiLB teams eliminates access to professional baseball for many and could have unintended consequences. Cities like Erie, Lexington, Chattanooga, Billings, Danville, Great Falls, Missoula, and Colorado Springs will be changed by losing their teams if the proposed cuts are made. Some cities are close to other teams for a baseball day trip. Others create a professional baseball desert. MLB needs to think about the long term health of the game before cutting MiLB teams. Baseball should not trade saving a few dollars for losing a generation of fans.
The Houston Astros got busted. They used cameras to steal signs and relay the information to their batters, gaining an unfair advantage over opposing pitchers. Their technological operation was undone by their $5 implementation. Come on, if you are using technology to steal signs, why bang a trash can to signal the batter. Do better.
MLB and Commissioner Rob Manfred punished those involved in the sign stealing scheme. General Manager Jeff Luhnow and Manager A.J. Hinch were suspended for the 2020 season. Unsurprisingly, both were immediately fired by Astros owner Jim Crane. Houston forfeitedtheir 1st and 2nd round picks in 2020 and 2021 drafts, and must pay a $5 million fine. The wait continues for former Astros Bench Coach and now former Red Sox Manager Alex Cora’s punishment. Cora was the mastermind of the scheme, so his punishment will certainly be stiffer as he brought his scheme to Boston. MLB will not punish active players, but this does not include former players such as new and now former Mets Manager Carlos Beltran. It is highly doubtful the Astros, and Red Sox, were the only ones stealing signs, they just got caught.
Opinions vary on the appropriate punishment. Sign stealing is not a big deal, move along. Give the Astros the death penalty and strip them of the 2017 World Series. The most idiotic assertion is this is worse than Pete Rose and his gambling. Rose controlled the Reds while betting on them. Yes he always bet on Cincinnati to win, but there is a problem. Rose had an additional vested interest in winning. If he over used a pitcher in a game he bet on, his actions influenced the next day’s game which he may not bet on. Managing a team should not be based on daily wagers. The Astros gained an advantage knowing a certain pitch was coming. This altered the outcome of games. Both Rose and the Astros are guilty of stupidity, among other things. However their baseball crimes are not the same.
The Astros MVP, complete with the wounds from getting hit to signal Houston batters. (ww.theathletic.com)
No perfect punishment exists. People will view the penalty as too lenient or too harsh. The teams Houston defeated have legitimate arguments that their opportunity to win was tainted. No one can change the past, but here is how to punish the Astros and dissuade future teams from creating sign stealing operations. First, Houston cannot hire a new General Manager or Manager until after the 2020 World Series. Obviously someone will assume both roles, but the Astros would have one less member of the front off and coaching staff. Second, Houston must host two home games which are not opened to the public. The Astros will pay game day staff for these days off. The games will be weekend games in June or July, not throw away games at the end of the season. Houston made millions winning, make them lose two games worth of income. Third, no regular season prime time games for two years. No Sunday Night Baseball. No special location games. No special attention. Fourth, make opposing players who had difficulty against the Astros and were subsequently sent down or released whole. If said player is within one year of reaching the 10 years necessary to receive an MLB pension, Houston must pay the player league minimum for the extra season and then cover their MLB pension for 10 years. If the player would not qualify for the MLB pension, Houston owes that player their highest one season salary each year for the next 10 years. These punishments are in addition to what was already handed down. Make the punishment long and annoying.
Obviously none of these additional punishments will occur, but you can dream. Houston did not just steal signs, they literally cost players and coaches jobs. Hopefully their cameras can see that too.
Once again Major League Baseball is worrying about pace of play during games. Commissioner Rob Manfred and Executive Director of the Player’s Association Tony Clark have gone back and forth about proposed rule changes to speed up games in 2018. The latest round of pace of play rules include limiting catchers to one mound visit per inning per pitcher, a 20 second pitch clock, and raising the strike zone from the bottom of the kneecap to the top. All of these changes have been rejected by the Player’s Association, yet MLB could still institute them unilaterally for the 2018 season. The average game in 2017 lasted three hours and five minutes, which is longer than before the last round of pace of play rules were instituted. So with longer games comes more tinkering.
Baseball, like all sports, will have slow boring games from time to time, this is just reality. Instead of trying to change the game, why not take some steps that would improve fan interaction with baseball. Shorten commercial breaks for those watching at home. All the talk is about pace of play, what about when fans cannot even see the game. Obviously baseball makes a great deal of money off commercials, so raise the price of those commercials. How can you raise the price of commercials throughout the year? Market the players more. Mike Trout, Giancarlo Stanton, Kris Bryant, Jose Altuve, Bryce Harper, and many more should be as well know as the top football and basketball players. If MLB marketed the players more aggressively, they could charge advertisers more for commercials and partnerships as the endorsement of these players would have greater weight nationally. Increased revenue from advertising would mean shorter commercial breaks during games. Take away one 30 second commercial from each break and you have saved close to 10 minutes during each game.
Baseball should focus on eliminating down time not necessarily the time needed to complete a game. Shorter commercial breaks are a great place to start. (Chuck Solomon/ Sports Illistrated)
The pitch clock, which is already used in the minor leagues, and does not do much. I have not seen nor heard of any pitcher getting charged a ball for taking too long. It is a friendly reminder to get on with the next pitch, but little else. Limiting mound visits could minimally speed up the game, however multiple mound visits in an inning usually only occurs in late game, high leverage moments. Let the players play. Speed the game up in when little is happening, not when the game is on the line.
This off season has also seen an incredibly slow free agent market. Call it what you want: collusion, low balling the players, players and agents having unrealistic salary expectations. Whatever. Yes, both sides, owners and players, want to make as much money as possible. Owners want a return on their financial investments, players want to maximize their earnings during their playing careers. However, when agents like Brodie Van Wagenen start floating ideas like players boycotting Spring Training this makes baseball look bad. Baseball has had labor peace for almost a quarter century, one slow off season and you are ready to blow it up? The Strike in 1994 did major, lasting damage to baseball. Lots of fans lost interest and it took years for the game to come back. Cal Ripken Jr. passing Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games played streak and the home run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa helped bring many fans back, but not all of them. Is another scandalous era like the steroid era really in baseball’s best interest?
Baseball needs to market itself and the players more aggressively. If people are interested, they will not care that a game lasts a little over three hours. Give the fans something to be interested in, even if the game itself is not great. Start games a little earlier so kids can watch more of a game, or the whole game before they have to go to bed. Starting a game at 6:45 pm instead of 7:05 pm would give a kid twenty more minutes of baseball, or roughly a full inning of baseball. Getting kids and young adults interested in baseball will grow baseball to new heights. Shaving a minute or two off the average length of a game ultimately does not matter if the sport itself is not drawing and holding the attention of an ever growing audience. Pace of play is important, but not if people were never interested in the first place. Put the game and players on display, not the advertisers.
The netting at baseball games is about to increase. Major League Baseball has recommended that teams add netting to shield field level seats within 70 feet of home plate. This is an effort to protect fans from baseballs and bats that can reach the stands before fans have the opportunity to react.
There has been some resistance to the additional netting from Major League teams and fans. Teams do not want to run the risk of installing additional netting and upsetting fans. Fans do not want their view of the game obstructed in any way. Both the teams and the fans have valid arguments. However, a third argument is even more important: fan safety. Fans are the lifeblood of the sport, without them professional baseball does not exist. Protecting the fans is important for multiple reasons, but there are two primary reasons why Commissioner Rob Manfred and Major League Baseball had to take this step. First, protecting the fans is critical from a decency standpoint. Additional netting is a simple solution to a problem that can result in serious injury or potentially death.
The National Hockey League was pressed into adding additional netting behind each goal following the death of 13 year old Brittanie Cecil who died two days after being struck by a puck in 2002. Hockey understood that it had to protect its fans. Commissioner Gary Bettman also understood that fans want to see the action on the ice. The netting allows for both as Bettman responded to concerns about an obstructed view of the game “After three minutes people won’t know it’s there.”
The addition of some extra netting does not change how the game is played on the field, thus it preserves the pleasure fans seek from attending a game. This leads us to the second reason. Baseball fans watch the game in an intimate setting. Seats are literally inches from the playing field. Sitting close enough to home plate where you can see curveballs curve. The addition of netting does not change this. I have had the opportunity to sit behind the netting at minor league and college games. On several occasions, if a ball had been hit at me I would not have had enough time to react to protect myself. However, the netting in place protected me without obstructing my view and enjoyment of the game. If the netting did obstruct the view of the game baseball as a whole would have long ago found a way to resolve this issue. The seats directly behind home plate, and behind the netting, are not cheap, baseball is going to take care of their highest paying customers.
About 15 years ago, my family and I attended a Greenville Braves game in Greenville, South Carolina. Greenville Municipal Stadium was a great place to watch a baseball game. We sat down the third base line, a few sections past the dugout and third base. A screaming foul ball came our way and everyone ducked, but the ball ricocheted off the seats behind us and hit my Mom in the head. The medical staff quickly arrived and checked my Mom out. She was thankfully fine, nothing more than a good knot on her head and a decent headache that went away in an hour or so. Imagine what that ball could have done to someone’s face if they did not have time to react and the ball had not ricocheted off something, thus reducing the force of the impact. My Mom could have easily been hospitalized or worse. Simple solutions to potentially life altering problems should be common sense.
The addition of extended netting to protect fans is a win-win. Families with small children do not have to worry about their children being struck by a bat or ball. These families can gain a new and wonderful view of the game. Major League Baseball has worked to keep the focus on the field where teams are playing and not in the stands after a fan is struck with a bat or ball and unfortunately injured. Attending a baseball game should always be about having fun not worrying about being hit by a bat or ball. Commissioner Manfred and the rest of Major League Baseball have done the right thing, there was a problem with a simple solution and they took action to fix it.
At the All Star game, Commissioner Rob Manfred discussed Major League Baseball expanding in the future. Well we at The Winning Run thought we would go ahead with that idea and expand. Bernie has joined our team and will be a great addition as he brings along his own perspective and love for baseball. Bernie will be working as a contributing writer and editor (click here for his first article).
Please read his full biography below:
I’m the prodigal son this blog never knew it fathered. Baseball is my romcom of drama, analysis, and daily gossip once again. I’ve been a Yankees fan from the start of this affair but I love watching small ball with squeeze plays and think the designated hitter is superfluous. Since meeting Derek while trying to learn how to save the world and realizing how messed up it can be, I’d like pretend baseball is my world and live there.
Welcome to The Winning Run Bernie. Play ball.
It is not often that organizations as prominent or as influential as Major League Baseball, the Chicago White Sox, or the New York Yankees make a mistake solely because they missed the obvious. Unfortunately, this is what has happened. Major League Baseball, the Chicago White Sox, and the New York Yankees all decided to honor former players on Memorial Day weekend. Paul Konerko of the White Sox and Bernie Williams of the Yankees are both deserving of having their numbers retired by their former teams, however the timing of this honor goes beyond poor taste.
Memorial Day has become synonymous with the start of summer, big retail sales, and get aways to the beach or the lake. In baseball, school is out so more families start to come to the ballpark and the season really comes alive. However, Memorial Day is actually for remembering those who have given their lives in defense of our nation. Memorial Day, and its predecessors, dates back to 1868 just after the Civil War. Memorial Day is a time for reflection and gratitude for those who gave everything they could to safeguard our nation and the freedoms we enjoy. Memorial Day is when we as a nation honor the sacrifices of the men and women we have lost during times of war, and the wives, husbands, children, siblings, parents they have left behind.
The decision to honor former players on this, or any Memorial Day weekend, is in poor taste. Baseball is ultimately nothing more than a distraction from the important things in life. While the game is an important part of the American experience, it is and will always be just a game. Making critical decisions on the baseball field can alter the outcome of a game, a season, or the success of a franchise. Making critical decisions on the battlefield can alter lives regarding winning a battle, ending a war, and returning soldiers safely home. The importance of baseball is not in the same hemisphere as that of the military.
The players are not to blame for this mistake; rather it is the decision makers higher up in the individual teams and in Major League Baseball. The Commissioner’s Office, and Commissioner Rob Manfred, should have stepped in and strongly suggested the White Sox and the Yankees select a different weekend to honor their former players. Retiring a player’s number is a big draw for a team, so why would you try to combine it with Memorial Day. Baseball is a business, so it suits a team’s interest to not double down on events. Both teams would have benefited from separating Memorial Day and the retirement of their former players’ numbers. The Yankees, the White Sox, and Major League Baseball all individually and collectively made both poor business decisions and a poor decision regarding the honoring of those who have given their lives to protect the United States.
Memorial Day weekend is about remembering those who have given their lives for something far greater than themselves. Let us all remember these brave men and women, and not forget what this weekend is truly about.