Henning: C’mon, MLB owners, it’s (mostly) up to you to fix this mess

Detroit News

Amid the fire and ire baseball’s labor strife has unleashed, questions are in order as Major League Baseball players and owners duel to a point of mutual incineration over a new contract that isn’t being resolved and that began, officially Tuesday, to prune games from the 2022 calendar.

Among the inquiries:

Do you wonder why MLB owners ordered a Dec. 1 lockout, and then waited 43 days to make a contract proposal to players when a new collective bargaining agreement was rather essential for baseball business to resume in 2022? Unless the landlords were hoping to squeeze players with a spring-camp clock that might press them to make concessions owners weren’t themselves going to yield, was there any valid reason to not be talking during those six weeks?

Are you curious about MLB owners’ books, which apparently are sealed tighter than a good deal of classified information within the Senate Intelligence Committee?

Does it not strike one as odd, given the pleas of financial stress from many MLB proprietors, that there seems to be a long line of invisible people holding equally obscured “For Sale” signs? If business is so lousy, if red ink is the only color their ledgers feature, why aren’t they selling these teams when plenty of mega-wealthy buyers are just waiting for a chance to, well, lose bucks on the same level as the current squealing gang of MLB franchise-holders?

More: DCFC to Tigers’ ticket-holders upset by lockout: Come watch us for free

We have other questions:

Is there legitimacy to at least some basic players’ gripes when they watched their average salary decrease during the five years of the CBA that expired last autumn? All as pre-pandemic revenues increased, from $8 billion to $10 billion?

Is there rightful focus on getting younger players a bigger cut of the pie when in 2021 a hefty 52% of MLB 26-man rosters carried players who had less than the three years of service time, which is the threshold necessary to escape minimum salaries and raises and advance to salary arbitration?

Was there any reason, with baseball revenues soaring ahead of COVID, and prepared to rise again in 2022 and beyond (TV money, logoed advertising on jerseys and other regalia, etc.) why, in 2021, MLB had by far the lowest minimum salary ($570,500) of any of the big four pro sports, beneath the NFL ($660,000), NHL ($750,000) and NBA ($925,258)? Owners have since offered $700,000, which is in the ballpark, for sure, but it’s obvious a certain league has been playing catchup here.

Ultimately, in this long litany of queries, was there a single reason Tuesday for MLB commissioner Rob Manfred to say owners had made their final pitch, that players had refused a take-it-or-leave-it last chance, and that this season, for the time being, was toast?

Or, might a man who last month said, “I see missing games as a disastrous outcome for this industry,” have instead suggested the two sides cool off for a couple of days and then return for some additional conversation? Would not this have been more helpful oratory from Manfred, given that the heaviest of the lifts in getting a new CBA don’t require superhero strength in closing some key gaps on the base issues: MLB salary ceilings (known also as the Competitive Balance Tax) and on a bonus pool that might better-compensate those young, pre-arbitration guys who often are getting hosed?

This sounds like a pox-on-the-owners exhortation when it always takes two sides to produce a stalemate as irksome as the current MLB standoff. The fact is, owners are the party most responsible for a mess that, ironically, had their employee and spokesperson, Manfred, warning last month that missing games would be something close to apocalyptic.

A weekend of negotiations centered more on blood than sweat, with owners prepared to meet at a reasonable salary ceiling ($240 million over the current $214 million) and with a pre-arb bonus pool somewhere in the $40 million to $50 million range (down from the players’ earlier demand for $115 million), would come within spitting distance of getting this thing done and the schedule renewed before mid-April.

The consequences if owners and players don’t bargain frantically, and with something approaching panic, ahead of next week when prospects of Opening Day in May become more the scenario?

We’ll let fans answer that question for you, although it isn’t only Manfred who might be in touch here with some dark forecasts. Tony Clark, the one-time Tigers player who acts as chief steward for the Major League Players Association, said Tuesday: “The game has suffered damage for a while now.”

As for fans, they do have, many of them, a loving relationship with victimization. They’re huffing and puffing, lots of them, and threatening to abandon a game that has treated them through the years to some rather pleasing entertainment and even fulfillment. That’s an individual choice and freedom is always celebrated, just as whacking off one’s nose to avenge your face can be viewed as an act of liberty, however foolish.

Fans might also want to remember that this idea of baseball being regularly interrupted by labor strife isn’t quite the case. The last strike/lockout was 27 years ago. There has been a fairly steady stream of regularly scheduled Opening Days since, at least when a pandemic wasn’t ravaging the world.

More: Henning: Even with the Tigers sidelined, business in Lakeland is booming

And yet these are human beings who don’t like being disappointed — and worse — by players and owners who can’t seem to have done ahead of time what sideliners reasonably believe could have, or should have, been accomplished before a timely spring camp was quashed and Opening Day was obliterated, at least as it appears today.

Owners hold the hammer here. Also, the olive branch. But on a long docket of questions, it’s OK to ask how much motivation assorted owners have for even playing games in April.

Crowds in the chilly north are notoriously slim ahead of May. Also, remembering that players don’t begin to draw paychecks until April, it’s natural to assume owners believe April, more than March, is where players will feel a greater pinch and sudden urge to bend.

It mandates some immediate common sense, because the game is taking a hit, maybe bigger and more lethal than anyone knows.

Lock yourselves into that negotiating room this weekend, folks. You can have bathroom breaks, grab a shower, a nap, scarf down an occasional meal (order room service — no straying).

But you’re close to getting this thing done. And then, given all the other events in a world that induce far greater alarm than anything you guys are haggling over, at long last sign that new deal.

The goal, for all, is to get baseball back where it belongs — now — bringing its balm to everyone who has been blessed by this wondrous game. And who never have needed it more than in March of 2022.

Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.

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