MLB Is Crumbling. Blame the Owners

How did baseball get into this mess? By the arrogance of the league's owners.
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Major League Baseball may cancel its season, and not just because of the coronavirus. The sport suffers from a more familiar disease: the arrogance of owners.

On the morning of Thursday, March 26, The Atlantic published a story entitled “The Four Possible Timelines for Life Returning to Normal.” In the two most likely scenarios it laid out—four to 12 months, and 12 to 18 months (or more)—the piece cautioned against events that drew large crowds. Andrew Noymer, a public-health professor at UC Irvine, summed it up thus: “No Lollapalooza, no Major League Baseball, no crowded beaches.”

Major League Baseball’s Google alert seems not to have dinged. Some 12 hours later, the league cut a deal with the union for resuming spring training and eventually beginning the season. The union says the league agreed to pay prorated salaries—with or without fans. The league says the union agreed to reopen the discussion if they had to play without fans.

It doesn’t really matter. Anyone with Internet access could have known in March that we would not fill stadiums this summer. How could the league leave any gray area there?

If anybody had leverage in that moment, it was not the players. It was the league. Players were about to begin missing paychecks. The 30 team owners claim that they simply cannot afford to play baseball without resolving the question of finances. And yet they did not bother to make that question a priority.

That was an enormous blunder, but the owners weren’t done blundering. They assumed they could win a stare down with the union.

Now here we are, eleven and a half weeks after that first agreement. In April, the industry imagined a summer in which baseball eagerly welcomed new fans as the only sport on TV. On Monday, commissioner Rob Manfred told ESPN that he was “not confident” there would be a 2020 MLB season. That’s preposterous. Manfred can have a 2020 MLB season any time he wants: The March 26 agreement gave him the authority to impose one—but only one in which the players receive their full pro-rated salaries. In dithering, Manfred is obeying his 30 bosses. He knows that the last commissioner to cross owners, Fay Vincent, was ousted after three years on the job. Still, at some point a league's commissioner should do what is best for the league.

Almost every move the owners have made this year reeks of arrogance. All they seem to care about is winning a business negotiation, no matter how small the stakes or how narrow the margin of victory.

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The A’s, owned by John Fisher, whose net worth Forbes estimates at $2.1 billion, initially withdrew the $400 weekly payments they had been making to minor leaguers, for an estimated savings of $1.3 million. (Oakland reversed course after being roundly derided.) The Nationals, owned by the Lerner family, whose net worth Forbes estimates at $3.4 billion, initially slashed their payments to minor leaguers by $100 a week. (Washington, too, reversed course, after Nationals reliever Sean Doolittle tweeted that the major leaguers would cover the difference.)

Even those who kept paying minor leaguers screwed them: Every team but the Royals and Twins released swaths of the organization.

The A’s, the Angels, the Marlins, the Rays and the Reds all furloughed employees. The A’s, the Blue Jays, the Cubs, the Diamondbacks, the Dodgers, the Giants, the Mariners, the Mets, the Nationals, the Pirates, the Rangers, the Reds and the Red Sox have instituted pay cuts.

The shortsightedness extended to the amateur ranks: As part of the March 26 agreement, owners successfully negotiated to slash the draft to five rounds from 40. That cut saved all of $1 million per team.

The owners were unfeeling and myopic with almost everyone in their organizations. We shouldn’t be surprised they are acting that way with their highest-paid employees, too.

The owners seem to view these negotiations as a way to position themselves for next winter’s labor war. The league fleeced the players in the 2016 collective-bargaining agreement, in which they essentially traded a soft salary cap for extra seats on spring training buses. Everyone in the industry knows that the players hope to claw back some of what they lost when that deal expires in December ’21.

The owners want to win next winter, and so they are playing hardball now. In May they floated a plan under which MLB would share its revenue with the players, a plan there was no chance the union would accept. Since then they have proposed three different deals, all of them amounting to the same thing: We will pay you approximately one-third of your salaries. You decide how many games you want to play for that money. Those proposals did nothing but waste time.

A 17-year-old shortstop in Class A is more accountable to the fans than these billionaires. They erect moats around themselves and screen all calls to the castle. SI reached out to spokespeople from all 30 teams to request an interview with ownership. Seven did not respond. Five said they would pass along the request. The other 18 declined.

The Padres said owner Ron Fowler “has too much on his plate right now.”

The Mets said owner Jeff Wilpon “would prefer to refrain right now from speaking on these subjects until we have further insight on direction.”

The Reds, owned by Bob Castellini, said, “No, but thank you for asking.”

When they do speak, they tend to spew nonsense.

Consider Astros owner Jim Crane, who sat behind a table at spring training just four months ago and spoke of the rampant cheating that the organization he runs perpetrated during its 2017 championship season, the worst scandal in the sport’s history, and insisted, with a straight—and aggrieved—face, “I don’t think I should be held accountable.”

Consider Cubs owner Tom Ricketts, who, 11 days before word leaked that the league had agreed to a billion-dollar deal with Turner Sports to broadcast the playoffs, told ESPN that “the league itself does not make a lot of cash.”

Consider Cardinals owner Bill DeWitt Jr., who told a local radio station last week that presiding over a baseball team “isn’t very profitable, to be honest.” This would seem to be a new opinion on the part of DeWitt, who owned parts of the Orioles, Reds and Rangers before buying the Cardinals for $150 million in 1995. Forbes estimates the Cardinals to be worth $2.1 billion.

This is a collection of people used to ruling by fiat, issuing an order and hearing “Yes, sir.” This explains why they blew it in March with that ill-advised deal. The owners believed they were negotiating with the union. They forgot that there was a third partner, one they couldn’t strong-arm: the virus.