December 31, 2020
Greetings from the Commissioner’s Office of the Best American Baseball Experts Society, high above San Antonio on this New Year’s Eve, 2020. Other than perhaps the angst over Y2K, has there ever been a more anticipated change in the calendar year? Can we actually turn the page on the events of 2020 by merely raising a glass of champagne and flipping our calendar? Unlikely.
One last deprivation will close out the old year here, as the city’s annual fireworks show has been cancelled. Thus, we will begin 2021 just as we spent most of 2020, deprived of something we love to experience with many, many of our fellow citizens. Here is a picture of last year’s show from our balcony, with an estimated crowd of 250,000 San Antonians watching with us in downtown.
Fireworks and baseball both thrill and excite us, sometimes even for the same price of admission. Below are a couple photos from a game Jack and I attended at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City in the summer of 2015, which included post-game fireworks. (Unfortunately, I can’t get the video of the fireworks to upload; even more unfortunate is the fact that we did not get to take our ballpark pilgrimage this year).
Of the nineteen parks we have visited so far, Kauffman remains in both of our top five, with sweeping canopies and slender light towers that reflect its mid-century architectural roots, as well as the iconic fountains in the outfield that are so much better than a swimming pool (like the one in Phoenix), even if you are not allowed to dive in.
It is a beautiful park, although it isn’t in an urban setting, which Jack and I both prefer. Of course, at this moment in time, a suburban setting may be preferable because it could be more likely to admit fans when the MLB 2021 season is set to commence in April.
Do you remember when we sat in crowds like this and thought nothing more of it than perhaps worrying about the traffic jam that was likely after the game? It seems certain that we won’t experience this in 2021, but we all hope that at least some day we will be able to be in the company of thousands of fans again without the fear of illness. Who will care then if there is a massive traffic jam?
We hope for this return to normalcy in the broad sweep of world events, not just in our focused world of MLB. Yet, as we are reminded in the movie “Field of Dreams,” baseball “has marked the time” of our Nation, and in many ways reflected it. Unfortunately, the personal suffering and commercial uncertainty that has devastated many of the country’s industries is mirrored in professional baseball, and I am not talking about for MLB owners. Minor League Baseball had its entire 2020 season cancelled by the coronavirus and the 2021 season remains in question, but not just for healthcare concerns. The pain and suffering is being imposed on the MiLB small business owners as much by the MLB owners as it is by well-intended but perhaps misguided government officials.
As I mentioned in my closing commentary on the 2020 MLB season, the game itself seemed to rise above the pandemic and governmental enforced restrictions. The true nature of the skills necessary to win at the highest levels came through, and the most likely predicted result came to pass. LAD was the best team, and it won the championship over the second best team in a closely fought series, but one where the final result never truly seemed in doubt. That bit of improbable normalcy was actually reassuring in a year that has been so impossible (with apologies to Vin Scully). That the Dodgers may have been cheated out of one or even two other championships by HOU and BOS also helped to make the big market club a satisfying champion, not to mention that we got to see and hear Vin Scully again.
This unlikely happy ending occurred not only in the craziness of the pandemic, of course, but in the face of the impending conflict between MLB and the MLBPA, with their collective bargaining agreement set to expire at the end of 2021. Also, the controversy over the evolving nature of the game itself intensified, with strike outs, walks and home runs continuing to proliferate to the point that icons on the field (Don Mattingly) as well as in the executive suite (Theo Epstein) publicly announced their concern for the future of the game.
Perhaps the most disheartening news, however, is that which is befalling minor league owners and which has not been widely reported to the average fan. I am referring to the total takeover of MiLB being effectuated by MLB. The actions are no less monopolistic or destructive of small businesses operating at the minor league level than if a proclamation of martial law had been issued by the government and all the teams had been nationalized. I have written many times about my bent toward management over labor, but monopolies are bad on principle, and totalitarian systems never work for anyone but the rulers – and even for them it is usually a short season of success.
If you have not been following this situation, here is a link that will give you the basics of the changes being imposed by the Commissioner’s office (comprehensive, cold and calculating),
and then one that will give you commentary by one media outlet that reflects the views of most observers who have been paying attention (outraged and blistering):
I have been a business attorney for over three decades. I understand hardball tactics, particularly in a takeover battle. I also understand the peculiar dynamics of minor league baseball, having been engaged in negotiations to purchase a team last year. The foundational value in a team has always been its relationship with MLB. A very few independent teams have been able to prosper financially, but historically the association with MLB and the affiliation with a particular MLB franchise is the only real asset. Although these contractual relationships have always been short-term and dependent on the continued good will of the MLB franchise, historically the arrangements were strong and loyal.
This began to change in the 1990’s when MLB clubs began buying minor league teams. At first, the process benefitted minor league owners by driving up the price of the selling franchises immediately, and then ultimately increasing the value of teams operating at all levels by the enhanced relationship with MLB owners. However, the deeper involvement of MLB owners also gave them growing influence in the operation of the minor leagues. This involvement laid the foundation for MLB’s decision to change the overall relationship as structured under the Professional Baseball Agreement between MLB and the minor leagues. This agreement was not due to expire until September 30, 2020, so MLB had a long lead time to prepare its takeover strategy. They did it well.
I won’t go into all of the details, but suffice it to say that MLB has all the leverage, and they are using it. The foundation of that leverage is the number of owners common to the minor and major leagues, prohibiting the minor league owners from standing together against the change. The federal antitrust exemption gives MLB vital protection for imposing its will upon its industry at all levels, and limits the recourse of the minor league owners. Finally, the COVID-19 situation further weakened the minor league owners by proving to the MLB owners that they can operate a “training camp” throughout the season as they did in 2020, calling into question whether they even need the minor league teams to keep the feeder system going. All of these factors give the MLB owners all of the leverage in these negotiations, and they are exercising it completely. I have read their documents.
MLB’s justification for this action is expressed as an attempt to improve the heath and safety of the players by enhancing the minor league facilities and limiting travel. If you think that sounds like a weak excuse for destroying baseball in over forty cities, I agree with you. The assertion is more than adequately refuted by simply asking MLB about the wage scale that is paid to minor league players. If the owners truly cared about protecting the players as a group, they would institute a minor league living wage and agree to a union for the minor league players. Here is a link to a good analysis of the issues written back in 2018.
The primary impact of the forced changes will be about 1000 fewer roster positions available for minor league ballplayers, and millions of dollars of lost wages for small business employees and revenue and value for owners. Over forty cities may lose professional baseball entirely. Some owners may refuse to play ball, but frankly, their options are very limited.
I mentioned earlier that the Collective Bargaining Agreement between MLB and the MLBPA expires at the end of 2021. Negotiations were opened early, but no real progress has been made due to the COVID-19 situation. I wrote about the very uncertain resolution of those negotiations in my 2018 New Year’s Eve post,
where I expressed my skepticism that Commissioner Manfred has the finesse to prevent a major work stoppage. His role in the MiLB takeover, however, makes me think that he does not want to finesse anything. He intends to dictate, and the powers among the owners are behind him 100%, or driving him 100%.
The events of 2020, both the act of God that is the pandemic, and the god-like acts of the owners directing MLB, therefore, give me no grounds for optimism heading into 2021. I would be satisfied if I could just attend a game with Jack or either of my daughters, but right now I think that is questionable at any level, in 2021 due to COVID-19, and perhaps even through 2022, with the state of labor relations. I wish that I had more hope for the future, but all of the factors reviewed above (as well as the lightning that just flashed in my window from the thunderstorm that is rolling into town to end 2020 and begin 2021) tell me otherwise.
So, I will end not with a look to the grim future, but with one more photo from Kauffman Stadium and a nostalgic look back – to a beautiful night, in a beautiful stadium, watching a beautiful game with my son, and with thousands of friends, young and old.
For Auld Lang Syne, my friends, for Auld Lang Syne.