Instead of declaring war on baseball, here's how to help fix the game

·MLB columnist

If middle age is good for anything, it is the comfort that today’s crisis will probably be tomorrow’s perfectly pleasant bowl of soup and, afterward, maybe a brisk walk. But not too brisk.

The crisis today is about baseball, the game and the industry, and what to do about it. Hold the soup. Because it’ll be tomorrow’s crisis too. And the next day’s.

No matter how much you love baseball. No matter how truly you believe baseball could be anything but lovable. The issue, as a person in the game recently observed, is, “The business of baseball is damaging the game of baseball,” which is less a new assessment than a newly unarguable one.

You don’t have to be pro-player, pro-owner, even pro-baseball to see that the greater evil here is complacency. Five-year plans are the new wait-til-next-years. Prospect rankings are the new standings. Just enough is plenty in some places, extravagant in the rest.

The game used to fall asleep trying to think of ways to beat the Yankees.

Now it has Star Wars night.

What we have are too many teams that don’t want the best players, who then, at some point, will play a game that has become less watchable.

These two concepts – a tangle of tanking and/or otherwise non-competitive teams, a less compelling brand of baseball – are both related and not.

First, bad teams aren’t great theater, even when they’re prettied up and sold as the future, even when you the fan is encouraged to “be a part of tomorrow” or however it’s framed today. Tickets cost the same. Parking costs the same. So do the three beers required to convince yourself you’re witnessing something bigger than an owner trading on your prior commitments to the team store’s jersey rack.

Second, the baseball is, I don’t know, different. Some call it boring. I tend toward, “Takes some getting used to.” Still others believe it’s better than ever, though apparently not enough of that crowd is going to the games. Attendance has dipped. Fortunately for baseball and its regional networks, plenty like to watch on television and engage on other platforms still, so mostly everybody’s getting paid still, including the men who decide how much (or whether) to pay the players and, therefore, how good their teams are going to be. Which, too often lately, is not very.

Look, at a somewhat hazy economic time nobody has a stomach for conversations about whether a baseball player gets generational money or two-generational money. What is at least interesting, and perhaps qualifies as a two-soup crisis, is whether the current economic system of baseball is healthy. Or sustainable. Or fair. Or properly incentivizing owners. Or not leading to at best a request from the players to reopen the current collective-bargaining agreement in order to address the system, and at worst a work stoppage when the CBA expires in three years.

It’s a long way away. These things tend to work themselves out. Ten-billion-dollar things usually do. And the sight of perfectly healthy, perfectly capable baseball players being unemployed in January will be hardly worth a thought in March. Except the players seem unhappy again today. And the owners seem unaffected again today. And we know this because the disquieting winter of 2017-18, that was marginalized as a one-off because the free-agent class was weak or because the wealthiest franchises were budgeting for the coming winter or because the competitive balance tax suddenly became a thing, well, it’s back dressed as the winter of 2018-19, which qualifies as a trend, no matter the outcomes of Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, who reach for three-generation compensation. Revenues again increased. Player salaries declined for the first time in years. Maybe that, too, is a one-off, except assumptions such as those suddenly seem dangerous.

Agents are again waiting on their phones to ring, feeling the squeeze of spring training approaching, on the wrong side of the take-it-or-leave-it game. They are again fielding offers, when there are offers, that are identical from team to team to team. To team. They are suspicious of that. Everyone talks the same. They are suspicious of that. There seems to be little competitive urgency from teams that finished second or third or fourth or fifth. They are suspicious of that, too.

You don’t have to be pro-player, pro-owner, even pro-baseball to see that the greater evil here is complacency. (Getty Images)
You don’t have to be pro-player, pro-owner, even pro-baseball to see that the greater evil here is complacency. (Getty Images)

An agent’s job is to suspect he’s getting screwed. An employee’s job is to contend he’s underpaid and underappreciated as compared to his peers or past players or the game’s economic robustness. Players get that the rest of the world is probably not a place to go for sympathy. And yet veteran Evan Longoria takes to social media to say, “As players we need to stand strong … and continue to fight for the rights we have fought for.” Other players bemoan a market that can’t get worked up for young players who are in their primes and seeking competitive salaries. Veteran Jake Arrieta warned, “All of you 1-3 yr players out there better be paying attention to what’s going on in our game. You’re next.”

Pick a side if you must. But, either way, the foundational gap between the league and the reasons it has a league has widened and not because the owners refuse to drive into offseason workouts throwing money out of the windows. And not because players refuse to choke up with two strikes. In part, perhaps, because after nearly a quarter century of labor peace nobody really knows what to do with this fresh enmity, we are seeing the first puffs of mistrust in a partnership that must divvy up that $10 billion.

Should the Boston Red Sox be shamed into signing a closer they think they can do without? Of course not. Is it weird that the Boston Red Sox don’t have a closer when one of the best ever is readily (and eagerly) available? Sort of. Is money the issue? You’d assume. Should it be?

And here we are.

So, while Major League Baseball concentrates primarily on speeding up the game and while the union doesn’t necessarily disagree on that front, the union also must consider what it is fighting for and against.

Whether a hard payroll floor makes a difference. Teams spent $115 million less on players in 2018 than they did in 2017. Making among the deepest cuts, year over year, were the Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Yankees. Gun-pointing the Tampa Bay Rays, Oakland Athletics and the like into $120-million-or-so payrolls probably won’t change the game.

Whether arbitration years start sooner. Whether free agency comes sooner. Whether trade deadlines need to be added, or adjusted. Whether the system becomes age-based, rather than service-time based. Whether the players, as a whole, receive a precise percentage of profits, which sounds like it’s sneaking up on a hard salary cap. Whether the sport, like others, must now consider a hard salary cap.

Before anyone declares war on the system, the coming two or three years would be better spent on fixing it, from the small (service-time manipulation, qualifying offers, amateur drafts, even minor-league wages) to the large (tanking, tanking, tanking, even tanking). It would honor the game. It would honor the owners. It would honor the players. It would honor the fans most of all.

Then we could move on to the next crisis.

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