The MLB lockout is threatening games. Maybe it had to for players to make headway

JUPITER, Fla. — This is what changing the system looks like.

Baseball’s economic structure hasn’t been fair to players for a while now. Oh, it’s been great — once you’re out of the minors, anyway — but not fair. Especially for the younger players who increasingly shoulder the bulk of both the on-field production and the public marketability of the sport. Their compensation is prescribed by a collective bargaining agreement that is only rewritten a couple times every decade and not the market forces that turned baseball into a $10.7 billion industry. The way that teams operate has changed dramatically, and the way that players are compensated has not.

This is seen in the stagnating average salaries and the cluster of payrolls topping out just below the competitive balance tax threshold. Players would say it’s inexorably tied up with why your favorite team doesn’t seem to be trying that hard and why the next superstar is still in Triple-A.

Some of the injustice — and, again, we’re speaking relatively and a little hyperbolically — is self-inflicted after several CBA negotiations which are largely considered clear wins for the league side. But that’s because teams have been willing to exploit the permissiveness to engage in bad-faith cost-cutting. And anyway, the discontent is valid.

All of that can be true and still not be a compelling reason for the owners to make concessions. You don’t get to be a billionaire by feeling bad that you’re benefiting disproportionately from a particular economic system.

The players’ goal, then, for this particular offseason has always been to force a significant overhaul, push a heavy pendulum back toward the midpoint if not beyond, to extract what would necessarily be hard-won economic gains. To get the owners, their bosses, to give up more money, and not merely move it around and call it a raise.

And this is what that looks like.

After years of missing out on their fair slice of a very lucrative pie, MLB players are prepared to fight during this already disruptive lockout.  (Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
After years of missing out on their fair slice of a very lucrative pie, MLB players are prepared to fight during this already disruptive lockout. (Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Much has been made about the pace of negotiations this winter, as the MLB lockout has come to threaten opening day. Bemoaned by the media and fans, but also through a mutual blame game both sides have played. The league will say that declaring a Monday deadline to save a 162-game season is completely reasonable after a year of little progress. The same league, that is, that waited more than a month after implementing a lockout to make a new proposal.

But I think we’d have gotten here, to the proverbial eve of canceling regular season games, no matter what. The stuff the players want they were never going to get with months still to go. The owners will give only so much (and seek to take back elsewhere) until it starts to hurt. There are smart, experienced negotiators on both sides and if they wanted this process to be moving faster, it would be. This deal isn’t getting done until someone has their back against the wall.

Call it a staring contest or brinksmanship or just the fundamentals of bargaining: This week in Florida has been spent trading nominal concessions while avoiding the most contentious issues at the table, whiling away the days until we find out whether some real stakes can sweeten the deal.

MLB implemented the lockout to test the union’s solidarity. It issued a deadline and publicly vowed to take it out of players’ paychecks if this process is pushed beyond that point to see if that extra pressure would force a crack. But it seems as though the union isn’t backing down, and neither side is blinking yet.

The owners insist they’re making proposals to address the players’ stated concerns, that they’re already offering the union a great deal. But, of course, they would like to get out of this negotiation without giving a dollar more than they absolutely have to, as is their prerogative. And since there was no chance that the players were going to fold before the season was on the line, the league inched along until this point, conceding as little as possible until the threat of canceled games gave the lockout some real teeth.

The players started out asking for a lot — more than they could reasonably expect to end up with — and would like to abandon as few of those demands as possible en route to a deal, as is their prerogative. And so they’ve slow-played this, too. The best offers were always going to come when the lockout starts to hurt the owners as well.

It looks like the league is going to force the players to pay in lost games to get the kind of economic restructure they’re after. It’s no small sacrifice, but the players have years of resentment and preparation fueling them for a fight they get only a few shots at.

This week, about a dozen players have shown up to Roger Dean Stadium to address the league’s negotiators and a couple of key owners directly. There’s progress in a pre-arb bonus pool and the elimination of direct draft pick penalties for free agents. But the players, it seems, still have plenty to say.

They’ve taken it this far, their schedules already disrupted as an uncertain and certainly shortened spring training awaits, and now it’s hard to see them settling for anything less than significant gains.

The result is frustrating, for fans most of all. The pace of negotiations has all but ensured that the season will be shortened, or at least delayed. But maybe then the concessions will come more readily. Maybe that’s what it takes to change the system.