Why long-term problems threaten MLB during lockdown

The saddest part of the baseball lockout, which will almost certainly delay the start of spring training and possibly cut into the regul...


The saddest part of the baseball lockout, which will almost certainly delay the start of spring training and possibly cut into the regular season, is the missed opportunity. Again.

It’s quite the beat of Major League Baseball and the Players Union. In the 2020s, owners and players have already missed two opportunities to help grow their sport. Two years ago, they spent the first few months of the pandemic bickering over the economics of a restart, ending up with just 60 games. Now this.

The owners imposed a lockout on December 2 after the expiration of the collective agreement with the players. The parties have made almost no progress since. Spring training is supposed to start next week, with the regular season on March 31. Will they play all 162 games this season? Bet the least.

Talking to several people directly involved in the negotiations is to come out of it extremely discouraged. Nothing suggests a quick or satisfactory resolution. Homeowners begin three days of meetings Tuesday in Orlando, Florida, and must find a way to re-engage a union that rejected the idea of ​​a non-binding federal mediator Last week.

Owners generally like the current system but want more revenue in the form of a garish cash grab: expanded playoffs and advertisements on jerseys and helmets. Players will not accept these changes without significant adjustments to the game economy.

The real pity is that finances should be the easy part. The basic objectives described on Twitter by Max Scherzer of the Mets, a member of the union’s executive subcommittee, seem reasonable enough: “We want a system where the threshold and penalties don’t operate as caps, allow young players to realize more of their market value, make service time manipulation a thing of the past, and eliminating the tank as a winning strategy.

It makes sense, right? Who wants to see the Baltimore Orioles use below-average pitchers every night because they know it helps them in the long run to lose aggressively in the short run? Who thinks it’s fair that Pete Alonso earned more winning two Home Run Derbys than playing three full seasons? Who believes an executive who insists a top slugging prospect should stay in the minors to work on his defense — not as a way to delay his free agency time?

These have been glaring issues for years, and it’s hard to fathom that the management of the commissioner’s office and the union still can’t come up with a solution. Yet this lockout has always seemed inevitable as neither side trusts the other or sees the sport as a partnership.

Had they done so, they would have found sensible answers to the obvious problems and moved on to the difficult issues that jeopardize the long-term health of the sport. They should focus on improving the product.

Take the starting pitcher. He’s the guy who draws you to the ballpark, the TV, the gambling app. It is disappearing, and it is a major problem. In 2011, there were 39 pitchers who worked 200 innings. A decade later, they were four. The starter is the most marketable position in baseball; fewer dynamic starters make the game less appealing.

But hey, at least it lasts longer than ever. Baseball hit two questionable records last season: longest average playing time (3 hours 11 minutes) and most pitchers used per team (4.43 per game, tied with 2020). The average time between balls in play was around four minutes. Teams are averaging nearly nine strikeouts per game, while stolen bases (0.46 per game) have plunged to their lowest level in 50 years.

MLB has experienced various minor and independent league rule changes with the aim of improving the pace of play and stimulating action. But Commissioner Rob Manfred refrained from implementing any of these changes – larger bases, banning the field shift, enforcing a step clock, etc. – and was unable to persuade the union to work with his office on these issues.

Again, this highlights players’ deep distrust of ownership, a factor Manfred has always dismissed.

“I think this whole relationship is overplayed and misinterpreted,” he said at the All-Star Game last July, in comments he echoed after the lockdown was put in place. “You are in a collective bargaining relationship, you are going to have times when you have disagreements. I don’t think that’s a good thing, but it happens. It’s just the way of the world. And deals are made or not made depending on the substance of what exists.

Perhaps the pressure points on the schedule will lead to more substantial moves, on both sides. Exhibitions canceled in March? Did you miss your paychecks in April? And what about those hundreds of free agents left in the frozen market? Eventually, they would like to find a team.

There is so much work left and not enough fear about the far-reaching repercussions of a work stoppage. If history is any guide, the fallout can be toxic.

After the 1981 strike, which cost 713 games, and a brief strike in 1985, the owners illegally conspired to collude against free agents. After the 1994 strike, which canceled the World Series, the owners held a wacky spring training with replacement players. When a circuit blast finally brought fans back, no one had the appetite – or the courage – to face the obvious specter of steroids.

Consider the damage. The World Series rankings have never been higher than in 1980 and are now an annual embarrassment. Attendance per game reached an all-time high in 1994 (an average of 31,256 per game) and took 12 years to return to that level. Now it’s falling again: In 2019, the last season at full capacity, the average crowd was 28,203, the fourth straight year it’s been falling.

Baseball has been supported financially by regional sports networks, but this model is under serious threat as more and more households change their viewing habits and abandon cable. The most pressing issue for sports executives should be finding a new broadcast paradigm and a better game to offer it.

There’s so much to celebrate in baseball, so many more fans who should be mesmerized by spellbinding players competing in the greatest sport ever conceived. Instead, the league and the players are stalling on the easy stuff and accelerating their own decline.



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Newsrust - US Top News: Why long-term problems threaten MLB during lockdown
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