Let’s Analyze Rob Manfred’s Lockout Letter

Image credit: Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Immediately after the announcement of the lockout, Major League Baseball published a letter from commissioner Rob Manfred at their website. The full text of the letter is included in this article, as we’re going to work through it bit by bit.

Now, let’s make something clear from the outset: this isn’t going to be a “Do better, commissioner!” kind of analysis. Manfred works for the 30 owners. The commissioner has sometimes acted as an impartial observer, but those tenures never last very long: Happy Chandler got just the one term because the owners felt he wasn’t siding with them nearly often enough, and Fay Vincent was forced to resign in part because Bud Selig had ideas about revamping both the labor battle and commissionership, but also because Vincent dared to tell the owners the players were right to be upset about being colluded against. There is no impartial observer looking out for the best interests of baseball, just someone who looks out for the best interests of MLB’s owners, and things aren’t going to be different on that note no matter how much we wish they were.

So! The goal here is less incredulous “how can MLB just publish this sort of thing?!” since MLB’s website is, well, literally MLB’s website, and more “here is what MLB is lying about and how.” The letter is propaganda—which is not inherently a bad thing despite the connotations we associate with the word—and it’s important we recognize the letter for what it is. Manfred wrote this in the hopes that many people take it at face value and back the league’s decision to lock the players out, so let’s make it more difficult to do that.

To our Fans:

I first want to thank you for your continued support of the great game of baseball. This past season, we were reminded of how the national pastime can bring us together and restore our hope despite the difficult challenges of a global pandemic. As we began to emerge from one of the darkest periods in our history, our ballparks were filled with fans; the games were filled with excitement; and millions of families felt the joy of watching baseball together.

That is why I am so disappointed about the situation in which our game finds itself today. Despite the league’s best efforts to make a deal with the Players Association, we were unable to extend our 26 year-long history of labor peace and come to an agreement with the MLBPA before the current CBA expired. Therefore, we have been forced to commence a lockout of Major League players, effective at 12:01am ET on December 2.

“Despite the league’s best efforts” is an odd thing to say when we have records of how often MLB showed up with economic proposals (not very), what was in those proposals (nothing that should be taken seriously), and how completely unwilling they were to engage with the players at all on a number of issues. To the point that MLB simply refused to show the Players Association the rest of a proposal at one point unless the PA dropped a number of items they wanted to bargain over from their proposal. If those are MLB’s best efforts, everyone involved is in far more trouble than we all realized.

None of this should be a surprise, though. Within the above-linked articles that I’m responsible for writing are references to how MLB’s plan with their leaked proposals was most likely to generate headlines, support, and something to point to once they had forced a lockout into being. This was all the sort of thing you could see coming from miles away, but it’s the game plan, so Manfred stuck with it regardless of how transparent it is.

And, of course, no one “forced” MLB to stage this lockout: there is nothing that causes a lockout to begin when a collective bargaining agreement expires outside of the owners voting to begin a lockout when a collective bargaining agreement expires. If anyone forced the lockout, it was MLB itself, and I don’t just mean in the “they alone had the power to announce a lockout” way. Their lack of engagement on economic issues made it very clear the plan was to wait until the CBA expired so they could lock the players out and force a resolution that would harm the union’s chances of changing the status quo. Which Manfred is about to get to, though it’s written to make the lockout sound like a defensive measure instead of an offensive one:

I want to explain to you how we got here and why we have to take this action today. Simply put, we believe that an offseason lockout is the best mechanism to protect the 2022 season. We hope that the lockout will jumpstart the negotiations and get us to an agreement that will allow the season to start on time. This defensive lockout was necessary because the Players Association’s vision for Major League Baseball would threaten the ability of most teams to be competitive. It’s simply not a viable option. From the beginning, the MLBPA has been unwilling to move from their starting position, compromise, or collaborate on solutions.

“…the Player’s Association’s vision for Major League Baseball would threaten the ability of most teams to be competitive” is vying for the most significant lie in this entire thing. The MLBPA’s demands are actually fairly reasonable, i.e. they resemble the kind I write about when I’m discussing what should be realistically done, and not what I write when I discuss what I wish would happen if I could force through whatever without a problem. The players are clearly are tired of the status quo, but they also know that the entire system cannot be set on fire and a new one built on its ashes all in one CBA. So, instead, they’re asking for a generous bump to the minimum salary (as they should), are asking to go back to the two years of pre-arbitration time for players that the CBA signed in 1985 moved to three years—I have argued before that the PA and CBA found themselves in the awful position they were in by 2016 in large part because of that concession, which helped power the whole luxury tax as salary cap transition—and for changes to the time it takes to become a free agent, from six years to five. 

The PA also wants teams that don’t spend money to receive less revenue-sharing funding, which is really just asking for further clarification on rules that already exist. Teams that receive revenue-sharing are supposed to spend it. Teams like the Pirates, Marlins, A’s, and Rays often say they are spending all of that money (and more), but won’t open the books to tell you on what. There is a reason there is a grievance out against every single one of them right now for a failure to spend their revenue-sharing dollars in the appropriate ways. They aren’t trying to make life harder for those teams: the PA wants them to spend the money they are already supposed to be spending, or else they don’t get it anymore. If any of these tweaks to existing systems are going to “threaten the ability of most teams to be competitive,” then it’s time to get new owners and new front offices running every one of those clubs. 

MLB exploited every loophole they could to the degree that the PA finally had enough and decided to try to start closing loopholes, and MLB claims this is going to destroy the game. Who is being unreasonable here, exactly?

When we began negotiations over a new agreement, the Players Association already had a contract that they wouldn’t trade for any other in sports. Baseball’s players have no salary cap and are not subjected to a maximum length or dollar amount on contracts. In fact, only MLB has guaranteed contracts that run 10 or more years, and in excess of $300 million. We have not proposed anything that would change these fundamentals. While we have heard repeatedly that free agency is “broken” – in the month of November $1.7 billion was committed to free agents, smashing the prior record by nearly 4x. By the end of the offseason, Clubs will have committed more money to players than in any offseason in MLB history.

We worked hard to find compromise while making the system even better for players, by addressing concerns raised by the Players Association. We offered to establish a minimum payroll for all clubs to meet for the first time in baseball history; to allow the majority of players to reach free agency earlier through an age-based system that would eliminate any claims of service time manipulation; and to increase compensation for all young players, including increases in the minimum salary. When negotiations lacked momentum, we tried to create some by offering to accept the universal Designated Hitter, to create a new draft system using a lottery similar to other leagues, and to increase the Competitive Balance Tax threshold that affects only a small number of teams.

Well, those two paragraphs suggest it’s the players. Manfred referring to the lockout-inspired week of heavy spending as evidence that everything is just peachy for the players is the kind of thing that people who can’t think beyond the surface of any issue are sure to eat up, but as evidenced by the players’ demands, already stated above—a higher minimum salary, a faster pathway to arbitration, a shorter road to free agency—it’s pretty clear the issues they have aren’t so much with “broken” free agency. Which is broken, by the way, in the sense that free agents who aren’t stars are often ignored or underpaid. Just because the guys at the top get paid doesn’t mean the middle- and lower-class of the game are treated well: just like everything else in America, those at the top keep making more, but everyone else’s pay is stagnating.

I’ve already discussed the problems with the minimum payroll proposal, and the age-based free agency system, as well as MLB’s algorithm-based payment system. MLB complaining that this isn’t good enough for the PA is the collective bargaining version of this classic tweet:

Screenshot of a tweet that says, "its stupid when girls say they cant find a guy, yet they ignore me. its like saying youre hungry when theres a hot dog on the ground outside"

Conceding on the universal DH is movement, yes, and the draft certainly needs reworking, so seeing any kind of movement there is a positive—I’m not automatically against everything MLB does, you know, it’s just that so much of what they do is bad and they should feel bad about it. For example, writing that MLB offered to increase the CBT from $210 million to all of $214 million, with increases up to $220 million over the life of the CBA, could not possibly have been managed with a straight face: the proposed increase was so minimal that it implies that MLB believes raising the CBT at all is considered movement, instead of just like, a thing that should happen as inflation and time changes the value of money. Oh yeah, though, an algorithm-based pay system would definitely work without incident.

We have had challenges before with respect to making labor agreements and have overcome those challenges every single time during my tenure. Regrettably, it appears the Players Association came to the bargaining table with a strategy of confrontation over compromise. They never wavered from collectively the most extreme set of proposals in their history, including significant cuts to the revenue-sharing system, a weakening of the competitive balance tax, and shortening the period of time that players play for their teams. All of these changes would make our game less competitive, not more.

“Regrettably, it appears the Players Association came to the bargaining table with a strategy of confrontation over compromise.” See above re: MLB’s plan to get to the lockout portion of things before they took anything seriously at the bargaining table. As for whether this series of adjustments to existing structures is the “most extreme set of proposals in their history,” we should probably remember that free agency and arbitration weren’t handed down to us mortals by the baseball gods, but were massive changes to the entire structure of player compensation and movement that had to be fought for in collective bargaining and in court, that the fight to end the reserve clause destroyed Curt Flood’s career, and that for decades after the introduction of these systems, the PA was forced to be on the defensive to maintain them. There is nothing of substance in this entire paragraph. Manfred’s, I mean. Mine is good.

To be clear: this hard but important step does not necessarily mean games will be cancelled. In fact, we are taking this step now because it accelerates the urgency for an agreement with as much runway as possible to avoid doing damage to the 2022 season. Delaying this process further would only put Spring Training, Opening Day, and the rest of the season further at risk – and we cannot allow an expired agreement to again cause an in-season strike and a missed World Series, like we experienced in 1994. We all owe you, our fans, better than that.

Today is a difficult day for baseball, but as I have said all year, there is a path to a fair agreement, and we will find it. I do not doubt the League and the Players share a fundamental appreciation for this game and a commitment to its fans. I remain optimistic that both sides will seize the opportunity to work together to grow, protect, and strengthen the game we love. MLB is ready to work around the clock to meet that goal. I urge the Players Association to join us at the table.

No games are canceled yet, but they might end up being canceled. It all depends on if one side blinks before spring training begins and revenues from spring training games are in danger. MLB is betting on the players not being united enough to withstand a work stoppage that threatens their pay; presumably, the PA is prepared for the possibility that the owners are willing to harm their own bottom line in order to make a point or harm the union’s momentum, the first they’ve had in decades. 

There you have it. Manfred, as he so often does, talked around the truth of things, obfuscating and outright lying in the hopes his audience doesn’t notice that’s what’s happening. The future of competitive teams in MLB isn’t in danger because the union wants to spread the wealth around a bit more. All that’s in danger is MLB’s desire to continue to, unabated, scoop up more and more of the revenue pie. Remembering that while reading this letter, and the next one, and the one after that, is going to be vital to understanding what’s actually going on here when Manfred addresses “ the Fans.” 

Marc Normandin currently writes on baseball’s labor issues and more at marcnormandin.com, which you can read for free but support through his Patreon. He is one of the founding members of Publication To Be Named Later, and his baseball writing has appeared at SB Nation, Deadspin, Sports Illustrated, ESPN, Sports on Earth, The Guardian, The Nation, and TalkPoverty.

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