MLB team owners barely tried to save opening day. Rob Manfred's own words prove it

The owners barely even tried to save opening day.

Maybe you already think that because Major League Baseball implemented a discretionary lockout mere minutes after the last collective bargaining agreement expired. Or because it infamously slow-played negotiations for months despite knowing years in advance that these talks would be particularly contentious. Or just because the naïveté sometimes necessary to be a sports fan has been strained beyond credulity by the constant reminders that baseball is a business run by billionaires who consider winning simply a secondary perk.

Some of that is reasonable enough as a strategy. Commissioner Rob Manfred wasn’t entirely wrong when he labeled the lockout as “defensive” — even if the comment read as laughable. Leaving themselves open to a player strike would have weakened the owners’ position unnecessarily. Forty-three days without making a proposal is inexcusable, but the best bargaining is always done under the gun.

And so let’s consider the league’s actions in the final 36 hours before Manfred announced the cancellation of the first two series of the 2022 season. It’s there that the franchise owners’ apathy toward opening day became evident.

The players will say that the deadlines set by MLB are strategic and arbitrary, meant more as a threat than an actual accommodation. They’re absolutely right, but the calendar can’t be completely ignored. The regular season was scheduled to start March 31, guys need multiple weeks before that to ramp up. The union, then, had to navigate nine days of consistent negotiations in Jupiter, Florida, maintaining the logistical possibility of beginning the regular season by the end of March without capitulating to the league’s pressure to take an unfair deal.

Perhaps the best reason for hope that the club owners were serious about meeting their own deadline — and not just in the event that the players panicked and signed a CBA that didn’t include the significant gains they’re rightfully seeking — was that no specific time was given as the drop-dead point Monday. The last leg of bargaining is often long and harried, and requires a good-faith willingness from both sides to ride the momentum to something mutually agreeable.

And Monday did prove to be productive. MLB dropped the penalty rates on the luxury tax from essentially prohibitive back to the previous rates and accepted the players’ preferred 12-team postseason field. The union withdrew its request to expand arbitration eligibility and reduce the net revenue shared — issues MLB had long labeled non-starters. With earlier free agency already off the table, the union was effectively giving up on the more radical re-envisioning of the economic structure that the league had balked at in favor of meaningful raises in multiple areas.

Even though the union cautioned that the two sides were still far apart on numbers, the deadline was postponed. MLB expressed optimism — another strategic decision to drum up expectations to either pressure players into accepting something subpar or turn public opinion against them if they didn’t — and a commitment to “exhaust every possibility to get a deal done,” as a league spokesperson said.

Rob Manfred said the MLB owners' offer shortly before canceling opening day still had
Rob Manfred said the MLB team owners' offer shortly before canceling opening day still had "wiggle room" despite portraying it as a final offer to the union. (Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)

If the end of February was arbitrary, 5 p.m. on the first day of March was even more so. If the team owners truly thought they were close to offering something acceptable and committed to closing out the process in a matter of hours, they would be eager to see it through and save the season.

Instead, shortly before 3 p.m., MLB told players and media that it would be making its best and final offer before the deadline. The implication could not have been anything else: Take it, or opening day gets the axe.

From a purely practical standpoint then, the players figured why bother countering. This was the best MLB was prepared to do, and they didn’t like it.

About two hours later, Manfred faced the cameras and told the baseball world that the season would not start on time. The union had refused to fold under the franchise owners' threats.

Pressed on his tactics by Yahoo Sports, he immediately denied them.

“I think that ‘take it or leave it’ in a negotiation is not something that is usually productive,” Manfred said. “Always at the end, there's a little wiggle room somewhere.”

He said that! Into a microphone! Just a few not so subtle words away from confessing that the league is always lowballing. Never accept the latest offer from Rob Manfred, just ask Rob Manfred.

He said this was while it was still daylight on the day of the deadline he set.

Manfred had been careful to explain that the league never said “last, best and final” (the union strenuously disagreed) because that would have indicated a legally fraught impasse. The alternative, though, meant admitting that team owners had shut down negotiations mere hours after expressing optimism that a deal was in reach and canceled opening day knowing the players would have been fools to take what they were offered at the time.

MLB had not, actually, exhausted every possibility. It had room to negotiate, and time to do so, and both sides had shown just a day earlier a willingness to move more in a matter of hours than they had months. To walk away then, blaming the calendar for canceling games and professing a helpless remorse is unconscionable.

Of course, this is just good deal-making. Manfred got the job because he drives a hard bargain. That it played out like this was always the plan. Threatening to cancel games was supposed to push the players to accept a lowball offer. If they wanted something better, they’d have to suffer for it.

The union knew this. That’s why it rejected the league’s last offer.

“We've seen this coming,” MLBPA executive subcommittee member Andrew Miller said about the union’s preparedness to weather missed games.

And now they will. And the whole process will get more complicated as the players fight for canceled series to be rescheduled, or at least paid out, and service time becomes a point of contention.

Cynics have said for a while that owners never cared about missing games in April. Attendance is down while the weather is bad and reports indicate they could stand to lose a couple weeks before having to issue rebates to television networks. Not having to pay players during that time is, if anything, a perk. The deadline they set didn’t actually mean much to the owners in a financial sense. It was only ever supposed to scare one side.

The only hope, then, was that the people with the power to make it possible actually cared to save opening day. For the fans, or something. Enough to stop strategizing and just make a serious offer. A good one, maybe even their best one. Whatever it took to get a deal done in time. But they didn’t do that. And Rob Manfred himself will tell you as much.