Michael Cunningham: MLB's labor offer threatens damage to its best product: star players

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The latest proposal by baseball owners for a 2020 season is so transparent in its attempt to divide the players’ union that it must be a gambit. Surely, they offered a deal they knew would quickly be rejected and rankle star players only because their next proposal will look good by comparison. I hope that turns out to be the case.

But then I consider baseball’s poor track record marketing its product, the players. I think of MLB’s even longer track record of disparaging players during labor negotiations. And I must conclude that it’s possible that franchise owners are so intent on squeezing as many dollars as they can from a shortened season that they are willing to damage their product in the process.

The proposal MLB owners presented to players Tuesday includes a sliding scale of pay cuts for all players, but especially those with the highest salaries. Some in the latter group would lose more than two-thirds of their prorated salaries for playing a full schedule. Most players would see a much smaller salary reduction.

You see the plan. Put pressure on rank-and-file players to splinter from their higher-paid peers. If players balk at those terms and there’s no baseball this year, then owners can put the blame on star players for not taking massive pay cuts.

It’s a short-sighted approach with potential long-term damage to the brand. The players, who owners seek to portray as greedy, eventually will take the field as the main attractions. Then baseball will be asking fans to spend time and money on the money-grabbing players.

MLB’s proposal is so bad I wonder if at least some team owners are willing to scuttle the 2020 season. They’ve claimed they’ll lose more money playing games without fans than playing no games at all.

If that’s true, then why not offer an onerous deal that attempts to weaken the union in advance of negotiations for the next labor deal that’s set to begin in 2022? The logical answer is that it hurts the product, but that’s never stopped MLB owners from trashing its players.

Maybe it’s too cynical to say team owners really don’t want a season. But how else to explain a proposal designed to sow discord in the players’ union? Team owners had to know the deal would provoke players while having little chance of being accepted.

That’s how it played out.

“After discussing the latest developments with the rest of the players there’s no reason to engage with MLB in any further compensation reductions,” National pitcher Max Scherzer, a member of the union’s executive subcommittee, wrote in a statement posted to his Twitter account late Wednesday. “We have previously negotiated a pay cut in the (form) of prorated salaries, and there’s no justification to accept a (second) pay cut based upon the current information the union has received.”

Scherzer called on MLB teams to open more of their books for examination. That’s a reminder that baseball players are suspicious about the financial claims of franchise owners. They have good reasons to take that stance.

MLB owners paid damages for colluding to hold down player salaries in the 1980s. They later made one of their conspirators, Bud Selig, baseball commissioner. Selig’s predecessor, Fay Vincent, once said those circumstances “polluted labor relations in baseball ever since it happened.”

That history is one reason team owners had to know players would reject the proposal. The solidarity of the players’ union is too strong to split it by making star players the villains. MLB should be trying to cash in on those players by boosting their popularity, not singling them out for ridicule to get a more favorable labor deal for this year.

Baseball’s stars don’t have the same profile as those in the NBA and NFL. The various lists of the most popular athletes don’t include ballplayers near the top. MLB’s best player, Angels outfielder Mike Trout, is relatively anonymous. Commissioner Rob Manfred blamed Trout for that at the 2018 All-Star game.

Now team owners are proposing that, for this season to be played, Trout and other stars should take a salary reduction of at least 70%. Quipped Brewers left-hander Brett Anderson on Twitter: “Interesting strategy of making the best most marketable players potentially look like the bad guys.”

I get that MLB owners are trying to minimize their labor costs. They won’t make as much revenue without fans in the stands this season. They want to transfer as much of their financial risk to players as they can. (The players rightly note they’d face increased health risks by taking the field during the COVID-19 pandemic.)

MLB owners might gain some short-term advantage by making their best players look bad. It will motivate plenty of fans to decry greedy ballplayers negotiating for money during a pandemic. Players are always at a PR disadvantage in labor negotiations, and now more than ever.

American society accepts that workers, no matter their value, should have a cap on their compensation. No such limits are expected for the capitalists who profit from that value and often are bailed out when they don’t. The pandemic hasn’t seemed to change that outlook.

Players also have institutional disadvantages. Politicians and the courts decided long ago that the franchise owners should be allowed to socialize risk and privatize profits. The result is antitrust exemptions and huge tax subsidies for stadiums, which give billionaire team owners even more leverage over players.

Retired ex-Braves pitcher Eric O’Flaherty offered a defense of ballplayers on his Twitter account. O’Flaherty wrote that players are fighting for compensation on principle. They’d “look great” to the public if they took MLB’s first offer, O’Flaherty acknowledged.

“But they’d basically be handing over millions of dollars to franchises that are already worth billions of dollars just to avoid a fight,” O’Flaherty wrote. “Not a single player is looking for empathy. They know how lucky they are. They are just cautiously negotiating a fair deal.”

That’s a reasonable, nuanced view. I doubt fans will share it if there’s no baseball in 2020. Not all of them would be opposed to the idea of players protecting their salaries. They just want to see major league baseball in 2020.

Baseball owners are taking advantage of that dynamic by pressuring the highest-paid players to accept huge salary reductions. MLB teams have enjoyed record revenues for 17 consecutive seasons while player compensation has been flat for the past five (some of that is on the union). Team owners reap most of the rewards of their risks in good times. Now that their investment is taking a hit, they want players to share in more of the financial pain.

ESPN reports that players will counter by offering to play more games at their full, prorated salaries. That’s essentially the framework owners rejected, citing reduced game-day revenues. If MLB owners stick with their sliding-scale plan for player salaries, then many of baseball’s best players may end up being scapegoats.

That may be a good financial outcome for baseball owners in the short term. But damaging the brand isn’t a smart play in the big picture.

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©2020 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.)