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Opening Day Is Canceled. MLB Has No One to Blame But Itself.

MLB’s self-imposed deadline(s) have come and gone, and now the season’s start date has officially been pushed back. How will this lockout end? And what will the league look like once it does?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The deadline itself was fiction. There was nothing special about February 28, no legal barrier or contractual prohibition to keep MLB from opening its gates as planned on March 31. Indeed, when a flurry of activity Monday night sparked brief hope of an agreement, that seemingly immutable deadline was extended 17 hours. Even now, the owners maintain the ability to end this lockout whenever they please and start the season under the old CBA.

But from the moment owners locked players out 89 days ago, they’ve held firm to their commitment to continue until a new deal is struck. The original February 28 deadline would’ve left just enough time to prepare for the coming season; any later would risk a dangerously short spring training, or necessitate changes to the schedule. Now that deadline has come and gone. On Tuesday, commissioner Rob Manfred announced that camps won’t open before March 8, and the first two series of the year have officially been canceled.

No one should be surprised it’s come to this. For nine months, the Major League Baseball Players Association has tried and tried to make a deal. It could have attempted to shoot the moon, looking to make up for 20 years of playing defense while watching its share of the revenue shrink. But despite MLB commissioner Rob Manfred’s characterization of the union’s initial offer as “collectively the most extreme set of proposals in their history,” MLBPA was not as bellicose as it could have been. Rather than trying to abolish the competitive balance tax or revenue sharing, or to take years off the path to free agency—suggestions that would have made the negotiations even more ponderous and acrimonious than they have been already—they sought to tweak the current system: to rebalance the sport’s incentive structure, so teams would be emboldened to invest in the on-field product.

Even that was too much for ownership. After years of bitter back-and-forth and weeks spent at the negotiating table, the owners have barely moved. For a time, it seemed like the deadline was inspiring real progress: The league finally backed off its most punitive proposed competitive balance tax penalties, for example, and both parties are now only $25,000 apart on a new base minimum salary. But when the dust settled Tuesday, that hope turned out to be a mirage.

The owners’ proposals indicate a desire to effectively freeze overall spending—reduce it, in fact, relative to inflation. In addition, they seek MLBPA’s approval to open lucrative new revenue streams, like advertising on uniforms and an expanded postseason. And if anyone doubted their willingness to shut down the sport in order to impose a diktat on the MLBPA, that optimism faded on Tuesday afternoon.

“FWIW MLB has pumped to the media last night & today that there’s momentum toward a deal. Now saying the players tone has changed,” Giants pitcher Alex Wood tweeted on Tuesday. “So if a deal isn’t done today it’s our fault. This isn’t a coincidence. We’ve had the same tone all along. We just want a fair deal/to play ball.”

Unfortunately, the ship might have already sailed on a fair deal. There’s nothing the union can agree to now that would represent anything short of a titanic windfall for ownership. Far from clawing back what’s been lost since the last strike in 1994-95, the best the MLBPA can do is slow—not stop—the bleeding.

MLB’s revenues continue to explode. The league took in $10.7 billion in the last pre-pandemic season. Financial details for most clubs are a closely guarded secret. But the Braves, who are owned by the publicly traded Liberty Media Corporation and therefore must publish financial statements, reported a profit of more than $100 million in 2021.

MLB also stands athwart new frontiers in real estate development, gambling, and technology. These side investments could make the sport itself a vestigial part of the balance sheet. The players aren’t asking for a stake in those ventures; they’re merely imploring the people who own the teams to try to compete. And they’ve been told those terms are unacceptable.

In five years of operation under the last CBA, the players expected ownership would abide by the norms that had governed the game since its professionalization. They were proved wrong. Then the players tried to negotiate. They were rebuffed. They tried to appeal to the good of the industry, to sway public opinion. Ownership was unmoved, its collective heart—such as it is—only hardened by the players’ impertinence.

“[The owners] don’t want to play,” Yankees right-hander Jameson Taillon tweeted Monday. “It’s sad that these are the guys who drive the direction and ‘future’ of our amazing sport.”

That’s what this boils down to. This is not an irreconcilable conflict of philosophy, nor a necessary belt-tightening brought on by mysterious economic forces. This is a group of, in Taillon’s words, “guys,” who are willing to shut down a historic corner of American culture until they are able to profit as much as they desire. The old paeans to baseball as harbinger of the coming spring can sound maudlin or outdated these days, but Opening Day remains a significant marker on the American cultural calendar; not only is it being delayed, but it will not carry a triumphant festival atmosphere whenever it comes.

The players—to say nothing of hundreds of millions of fans—are reckoning now with the paradoxical grandiosity of both the stakes for the industry and the pettiness of the forces at play. How, therefore, can this standoff end? There is no revolutionary path under American labor policy, no speech that can be given, no argument to be made. The options are few, and meager.

Perhaps the union will break soon and accept a deal on ownership’s terms. Manfred said Tuesday that after an arduous week of bargaining, both sides need time to regroup, and that negotiations could continue as soon as a few days from now. But even absent some kind of catastrophic collapse, returning to the table over and over will eventually erode MLBPA’s position to defeat. There aren’t many super-two players left to offer, only a few tens of millions in CBT policy to horse-trade. Even the union’s latest offer would probably not do much to revitalize free agency when so many teams are just not interested in the on-field product.

To wit: While the league and the MLBPA negotiated in Jupiter, Florida, on Monday, the Miami Marlins and CEO Derek Jeter parted ways. Reportedly at issue: some $10 million to $15 million that Jeter had been promised to build a competitive team around his collection of exciting young pitchers. Last year, the Marlins were outspent more than 2-to-1 by the Braves, about 3-to-1 by the Phillies, and almost 4-to-1 by the Mets. Jeter, as much of a baseball man as ever there was, seems to have operated under the mistaken impression that the disparity in investment was a temporary setback, rather than the business model itself.

Alternatively, the union could hold fast, as the NHLPA did during hockey’s disastrous lockout in 2004-05. The hockey players not only lost a whole season for their trouble, they settled the lockout on catastrophic terms: a salary cap and salary rollbacks of up to 24 percent, not to mention the economic effects of the lost season, which are still being felt a generation later. (NHL agent Allan Walsh remarked that MLB’s tactics were reminiscent of what he saw in his sport 17 years ago, a parallel that should bring no comfort to baseball fans.)

Or maybe this work stoppage will end the same way MLB’s last work stoppage did, with government intervention. Maybe the owners will get so greedy, or sloppy, that they run afoul of federal labor regulations and a judge forces them to reopen the game. Even if the NLRB doesn’t intervene through an unfair labor practice ruling, the union could dissolve—a huge risk with potentially dire financial consequences for the players—and the players could pursue a class-action lawsuit under antitrust law. (MLB’s antitrust exemption no longer extends to labor issues after the passage of the Curt Flood Act of 1998.)

But any legal remedy would take months to prepare and execute. And while an NLRB grievance or antitrust lawsuit could bring a financial windfall for the players, it wouldn’t remedy the competitive issues that leave so many fans with no reason to care about the sport. They will once again be left behind, contrary to Manfred’s statement on their place on his priorities list.

It’s a damn shame, not only that the players have to jockey and cajole so hard to preserve their share of the value they create, but because this lockout is as unnecessary as it is deleterious. Worst of all, there seems to be no easy way to stop it. These owners are the guys who determine the direction of the sport, and if you—the players, the fans, the media—don’t like that direction, you can go home and sulk. Might as well; there’s no baseball on anyway.