David Murphy: Baseball's salary fight won't prevent a 2020 season, but the next CBA seems destined to end in strike

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Empty seats are shown before the start of a scheduled game between the Atlanta Braves and the Philadelphia Phillies at Citizens Bank Park on April 15, 2014 in Philadelphia, Pa. - Rich Schultz/Getty Images North America/TNS

The nickname was not born from cynicism, but the moniker fits. Baseball is America’s pastime, and there are few things more American in their spirit than the battle between capital and labor. The National League was founded the same year as the Molly Maguire trials, the American League two years before Mother Jones led her March of Mill Children from Philadelphia to New York.

The history of baseball is as much a history of labor organization and intra-aristrocratic warfare stemming from the competition for talent. The sport’s modern organization traces back to the elite social clubs of the industrial revolution era. Yet the sport’s talent pool has always been overwhelmingly proletariat, and the financial strain of the competition for this talent has long existed in franchise owners’ minds as an existential concern. The ability of the AL and NL to establish themselves as today’s major leagues stems in large part from their success in eliminating the “contract jumping” that saw players leverage demand for their services into ever-increasing salaries that more than one owner blamed for leading his club into financial ruin.

One thing we have learned in recent years is that history’s tensions are more universal than the circumstances in which they manifest. The current friction that has engulfed Major League Baseball hardly deserves mention alongside the scars in our social flesh that have reopened into wounds except to note two bits of relevance: 1) The appearance of harmony is an illusory thing when the fundamental sources of tensions remain unchanged, and, 2) If that tension erupts, it helps to have a critical mass of the public on your side.

Given both of these realities, it is difficult to interpret baseball’s ongoing battle between players and owners regarding a pandemic-shortened 2020 season as foretelling anything other than the sort of self-inflicted calamity that results in lasting economic hardship for both sides. At the moment, MLB and the MLBPA are less than 18 months away from the expiration of their collective bargaining agreement. And if the past few months are any indication, they are less than 18 months away from squandering 27 years of labor peace with a battle that does permanent damage to baseball’s standing in America’s hierarchy of professional sports.

Even before the coronavirus pandemic swept through the country and caused the postponement of the start of the 2020 season, the detente between players and owners was an uneasy peace. Each offseason brings with it new allegations of underhanded dealing against front offices that are increasingly cognizant of the inefficiency of long-term free-agent contracts. Players and their agents point to figures that show a decrease in the percentage of revenues being spent on salaries. And their longstanding distrust in the revenue figures themselves has been exacerbated by a series of lucrative and complex local television contracts that challenge traditional distinctions between income and equity.

Owners, meanwhile, bristle at the MLBPA’s attempts to position itself as the voice of the disenfranchised working man. Collective fiscal self-restraint is not the same thing as collusion — any plateau or decline in free-agent salaries is either the result of big data’s improvement of management practices or of the natural ebb and flow of the open-market pricing system that players have long insisted upon. Meanwhile, the notion that teams are withholding revenues from players by taking equity stakes in media companies ignores the fact that the media contracts they negotiate help players build equity in their personal brands, the exposure leading to increased endorsement dollars and future career opportunities. After all, the owners do not get to deduct those dollars from the total they owe the players. Or so the thinking goes.

Until March, it was reasonable to assume that the pitched rhetoric was nothing more than the sort of ongoing gamesmanship that is present in every collectively bargained working arrangement. Whatever their public posturing, both players and owners understood that the status quo was mutually beneficial enough that a work stoppage could not be a dominant strategy. And, thus, a rational negotiation would result in a new CBA that advanced the players’ interest without halting the steady accrual of franchise values.

Now, none of those assumptions is in play. Where previously the biggest hurdles to a deal were the animosity and distrust, the two sides will now bring to the table a desire to recoup the massive earnings losses they endured during a shortened, spectatorless season. Furthermore, they will bring with them a genuine belief that the losses they incurred were greater than their fair share, the players believing that the owners’ implementation of a 50-game season cost them hundreds of millions of dollars that they were contractually entitled to collect, and the owners believing that the players’ refusal to budge on their demand to be paid the full prorated amount for each game forced them to implement the 50-game season and thus cost them hundreds of millions of dollars in television revenue that would have been collected with more games.

None of that red ink is going away, and it is difficult to identify a concession that either side might make without negatively impacting its own immediate self-interest. The players will enter the post-2021 negotiations believing that the owners owe them the money they were not paid in 2020. The owners will enter with the belief that each dollar they concede will only widen the margin between the losses they incurred in 2020 and those that they believed to be fair. Even without these beliefs, the negotiations would be fraught with peril, given a looming contraction of the spectator-sports industry that could dramatically outpace the contraction of the economy as a whole and leave both sides needing to recalibrate their revenue expectations.

When nations arrive at this type of impasse, the usual result is war, and wars rarely end with an appeal to collective self-interest, which is why wars generally result in collective destruction. Baseball’s greatest challenge is no longer the salvation of the 2020 season. It is to spend the next 18 months working to avert the self-destruction we witnessed with the strike of 1994. For the customers whose dollars serve as the basis for the squabble, there is but one option. Whenever baseball returns, enjoy it while it lasts.

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