The Room Where It Didn’t Happen

If you are a Broadway musical fan, or a student of American history (or both), you should recognize the title of this post. It refers to a song from “Hamilton” that tells the backstory of the feud between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton.  Tradition holds that Burr started to hate Hamilton when he was left out of a definitive negotiating session between Hamilton, Jefferson and Madison that ultimately resolved one of the major political issues of the early American republic.  The result further elevated Hamilton over Burr, as he developed an economic system that has lasted virtually unchanged for over 200 years (except for the re-chartering of the national bank). The rivalry between the two men continued to grow for another fourteen years until Burr finally killed Hamilton in a duel on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River on July 11, 1804.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VjsqZHb32Gk

The current state of the MLB Collective Bargaining Agreement should not rise to that level of life or death consequences, or even such historical significance as the deal that put the Nation’s capital between Virginia and Maryland in exchange for federal control over financial markets.  Yet, frankly, the ship of state for MLB and the USA are both in troubled waters right now, and at the hands of some questionable leaders, so I thought the connection legitimate. Further, a history lesson might even be instructional for the parties involved.  As the author of two novels based on American history, I have already inserted myself into the Nation’s troubled past. As self-appointed Commissioner of The Best American Baseball Experts Society, why not imagine what I could do if I had the opportunity to participate in the MLB collective bargaining sessions? It won’t surprise many Society members to learn that I would have a few ideas to express if they would just let me in The Room Where It Happens – YouTube.

I actually began working on this post last February, even before the 2021 MLB season began.  I knew that the Collective Bargaining Agreement would expire on December 1, and that it was unlikely that a new agreement would be reached prior to that time. I had already been thinking about what the first MLB labor dispute in 27 years would mean for all baseball fans, and particularly for Society members. Most of us are old enough to recall the shock and sadness of losing hundreds of games and even the World Series to the player’s strike that began in August, 1994.  Can we express those feelings in a way that might influence the current events? This is particularly important since none of the current players have ever experienced a work stoppage in their careers, and many of them weren’t even alive in 1994.  Most of the owners weren’t involved in the game then, either, although MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred was actually in the room as it didn’t happen in 1994. He was a lawyer representing the MLB owners in the negotiations, acting on behalf of then acting-Commissioner Bud Selig. Manfred and then MLBPA Executive Director Don Fehr didn’t get the job done on time in 1994 (or well into 1995), and Manfred and his new counterparts have not gotten it done now, despite having opened the collective bargaining sessions in 2020, over a year before the expiration of the current agreement. Neither side appears too bothered by the interim step of a lock-out in the off-season, since there are still about ten weeks before any real disruption. But with little progress having occurred in the last year, is there any reason to be optimistic that this dispute won’t linger into the 2022 season, and if so, perhaps far into it?  

The bad memories from ’94-’95, and the prospect of the events repeating themselves got me thinking even deeper about how the fans can participate in the stalemate. Certainly, we can scream “greed” and vow never to come back to the games. But that is only hurting ourselves, because the owners and players will still have the money and we won’t have the game. Besides, we want to come back – most of us would go to games today if we could. So, we need to figure out a way to inject our voices into the debate. Fortunately, with Social Media like this site, we can.

So, with this virtual opportunity to be in the room with the MLB and MLBPA negotiators this year, or even next year, what can I say to make a new CBA happen?

No one really knows how the game is played
The art of the trade
How the sausage gets made
We just assume that it happens
But no one else is in the room where it happens

I have thought and written extensively about the main issues on the table in the room.  I recognized the current labor uncertainty in my year-end post in 2018, including identifying Bruce Meyer, new lead negotiator for the MLBPA, as a major factor in a coming lock-out. https://babesbaseball.wordpress.com/2018/12/.  This past Monday, The Athletic posted a long profile article about Meyer that basically cast him as Aaron Burr challenging Alexander Hamilton/Rob Manfred to a duel. (Another interpretation would be Clint Eastwood telling the owners to “Go ahead. Make my day!”) Actually, Meyer was quoted as saying that “the other side is not going to be happy with me”. The message I heard, however, and the one Manfred and the owners probably did as well, was: “they hired me to shoot you down!” You can read all of Meyer’s quotes here.

https://theathletic.com/2981810/2021/11/28/mlb-players-want-change-and-bruce-meyer-is-fighting-to-deliver-it-the-other-side-is-not-going-to-be-happy-with-me/?source=user_shared_article.

I also wrote in 2018 how important it will be for Manfred to get along with the players’ negotiator.  Unfortunately, in the same article on Meyer, The Athletic quoted Manfred as saying this about the progress of the talks so far:  “I assume the players selected people that they believe are competent to represent them in the negotiations.” He might as well have called the players and Meyer incompetent amateurs.  That would have been a clear contrast to his assessment of his own performance at the bargaining table: “I’ve been in charge of labor in this industry since 1998,” Manfred said. “Every single time, I have found a way, we have found a way, to make an agreement and keep the game on the field.”  It’s like he thinks he is Alexander Hamilton inventing the Treasury Department.

“I know you hate him but let’s hear what he has to say”

Well, I arranged the meeting
I arranged the menu, the venue, the seating But
No one else was in the room where it happened

I wish I had a video clip to show Manfred’s expression as he pivoted from “I” to “we” in this statement.  Did he look like he really meant to give credit to others, and if so, was he including the MLBPA?  I doubt it.  Did you notice that Manfred conveniently dated his assertion from 1998, after the 1994 strike?  He seems to suggest that things would have been different if he had been in charge earlier.  Not very humble, and probably not very accurate.  I said it in 2018, and I believe it even more now: Rob is going to have a have a very hard time keeping his self-proclaimed Hamiltonian record intact.  And this was true even before Bruce Meyer was cast in the role of Aaron Burr. Colin McHugh was on the player’s committee that hired Meyer, and he gave this assessment of Meyer’s approach to negotiations: “I don’t consider Bruce an asshole, but I do think that he’s got that je ne sais quoi about himself that lends itself to being in that room.” (That’s the French phrase for “I don’t know what”, but we all know what it is – he’s an @*#hole, at least in the negotiating room).

Of course, Manfred and Meyer are each just playing their roles. They are not the decision makers, and Meyer admitted as much in The Athletic article. He isn’t even the MLBPA Executive Director, so his influence is less than either Marvin Miller’s or Donald Fehr’s was in past acrimonious negotiations. After Miller died in late 2012, I wrote about his masterful development of labor relations with the MLB in the 1970’s. https://babesbaseball.wordpress.com/2012/12/13/love-your-enemies-part-2-marvin-miller-and-bud-selig/.  ESPN.com recently posted a good piece written by David Schoenfield on the history of the conflicts,  A brief history of MLB labor stoppages (espn.com), which chronicles some less masterful work by the owners and players.  The MLBPA ED is now Tony Clark, who I also wrote about in 2018, describing his diminished influence in the process. He seems to have ceded his role in the process completely to Meyer, just as Manfred has designated MLB’s Chief Legal Officer, Dan Halem, as the lead negotiator. Of course, regardless of how powerful the MLBPA Executive Director or the MLB Commissioner may be, the real decision makers are the owners and the players.

When you got skin in the game, you stay in the game
But you don’t get a win unless you play in the game

The Athletic quotes three of the eight active player negotiators, Max Scherzer, Andrew Miller, and Marcus Semien. This report lists the full sub-committee.  Key people and background in MLB labor negotiations | Raleigh News & Observer (newsobserver.com).  Five of these eight are represented by Scott Boras, and many believe that the most-hated player’s agent of all time will have a say in the outcome of the talks. Perhaps he is the real Aaron Burr? (or Darth Vader?) Or is Scherzer, the combative heterochromian who no batter relishes seeing on the mound, and probably no negotiator wants to see across the table, going to be the real power-broker? Labor conflicts bring out the same competitive spirit in some players as does a World Series game. I still recall the animosity I felt for Tom Glavine and David Cone as the recalcitrant players’ representatives in 1994. They formed an evil trio when they appeared with Don Fehr every night on SportsCenter. I always questioned whether they really spoke for the majority of the players.

Whoever is calling the shots now, I again wonder whether they truly speak for the whole of the 1200 player union. (The union membership essentially consists of each player on every club’s 40-man roster.  More on this below.) Does Scherzer and the other seven committee members have the vision to negotiate a deal that works for the top of the heap, which includes most of the committee, as well as for the other 90% of the union membership who are in the most need of financial protection? Presumably, the player reps and its union leadership have polled the membership to get clarity on what kind of terms they can accept. Any “agreement” the negotiators reach has to be approved by the vote of the members, so let’s hope they know what the “rank and file” players will support. They are the ones with the most to lose, and, frankly, probably the least to gain under the current structure and rumored bargaining points.

No one really knows how the parties get to “Yes”
The pieces that are sacrificed in every game of chess
We just assume that it happens
But no else is in the room where it happens

The actors in the drama change, and the list of issues evolves, but the resolution is always centered on one thing: the allocation of money.  Almost always this point is focused on the top of the pay scale – no salary cap!  But this year’s negotiations may prove to be calibrated a little differently, and I got a start on thinking about that in an interesting conversation via a Zoom call last February with Dan Epstein, co-director of the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America (IWBAA), of which I am a member. Dan is also the president of his local teacher’s union in New Jersey. Those two titles should equip him with a compelling perspective on the current issues.  

I was impressed immediately by Dan’s identification of a primary “fix” the players should fight for in this CBA – creating a salary floor rather than opposing a cap.  He pointed a finger at my team, the Houston Astros, as having undermined the current economic balance by rewriting the unwritten rules on tanking in MLB.  Rather than getting the top teams to spend more, Dan wants every team to spend more, and to be forced to pay a minimum amount in player payroll. MLB obviously is listening to him, because one of the major “concessions” offered so far is a guaranteed base salary investment by each team. Of course, what the owners propose to add to the bottom line, they intend to take from the top line.  The proposed minimum team salary level of $100 million would be accompanied by a lower threshold for assessing the luxury tax against the highest payrolls – proposed to go down to $180 million from the current $210 million.  In the most recent update, the MLBPA flatly rejected that reduction and proposed to increase the tax threshold to $240 million. In the official announcement of the lock-out, Manfred expressly rejected the Union’s demands and defended the league’s proposal. You can read both positions here:

https://www.espn.com/mlb/story/_/id/32754352/everything-need-know-mlb-looming-lockout.

https://www.mlb.com/news/featured/a-letter-to-baseball-fans.

While the establishment of a floor could aid the middle and lower market players, which is where the need is greatest, Dan expressed great concern that it would result in all teams averaging down their payroll to that floor, and thus resulting in a decrease in overall player compensation. This would be facilitated by the expanded post-season. The players believe, and probably rightly, that the lower the bar to get into the post-season, the lower the economic investment necessary to get there. From the report above, the players apparently are willing to agree to expanded post-season, but in exchange they demand an increase in both the top numbers and the bottom numbers for total payroll. However, I am not sure they know how to ensure that this happens. Indeed, I would submit that these points aren’t the most important aspect of a new agreement.

The situation is easier to analyze individually rather than collectively.  Salary caps and floors impact the players collectively, and those numbers can be misleading. The other main issues on the table, however, operate individually – years of service until arbitration and free agency – and these numbers are easily understood and evaluated by each player. Here the perspectives are flipped: The players want fewer; the owners want more.  I think a deal can be made first from that perspective rather than by simply raising the luxury tax threshold and creating a floor on payrolls.

Dan and I had a good discussion about this in February, and we continued it last Tuesday night. He advocates for a wildly radical open market: no draft, no service time measurement, no arbitration – immediate and perpetual free agency!  Has a union president ever sounded more Republican? Or even Libertarian? I pointed out that even the rich MLB owners, presumably mostly Republicans, were not likely to accept this free market approach. These are the guys who hold an anti-trust exemption, remember?  Further, many agents feel that an increased number of free agents would actually decrease the amounts paid to players due to a glut on the market.

https://www.espn.com/mlb/insider/story/_/id/32761663/going-get-ugly-guys-how-lockout-hurt-mlb-mid-tier-free-agents.

Like it or not, the sides are probably stuck with the current structure and have only the option of tweaking the various elements. The players’ focus is on lowering both the time to arbitration (3 years) and the time to free agency (6 years). The owners oppose both, and refuse to take any criticism for “manipulating” the starting of the clock by delaying calling players up to the MLB active roster. It was not manipulation if it followed the letter of the existing CBA. Just ask Kris Bryant. https://www.espn.com/mlb/story/_/id/28591644/sources-kris-bryant-loses-grievance-cubs-free-agent-2021-season.

The most likely outcome is that player’s become arbitration eligible after 2 years, but that the owners hold firm on the six-year term to free agency. Would that be a win for the players? The comments from the scouts above suggest that it would be. Besides, the players simply don’t have enough chips to give up to entice the owners to shorten the six-year period, and I don’t think the players have the resolve to strike long enough to obtain that concession. At least, I hope they don’t.

And how you gonna get your debt plan through?

I guess I’m gonna have to listen to you.

By all accounts, there will be a lull in any discussions now that the lock-out has occurred. It is ten weeks before the first training camps open, and about sixteen weeks before any players would miss a paycheck. That seems like a good amount of time to explore some new approaches, particularly since the old ones are simply not very flexible and have yielded no progress in over a year. If the current options are bad enough to cause a work stoppage, then perhaps everyone should take this extra time to evaluate new ones. If I were in the room, whenever it reopens, I would propose something totally new. Here are the unexpected (and as far as I know, unprecedented) proposals I would write on the wall in the room to try to make something happen:

Talk less, smile more

Haha!

Do whatever it takes to get my plan on the congress floor

  1. Start the MLB service time clock from the date a player is added to the 40-man roster (thus becoming a member of the MLBPA).  This would automatically benefit fifteen additional players on each MLB roster. A union is supposed to benefit all of its members, right? As to the cream of the membership, this should undercut the service time “manipulation” they scream about since it would lessen the impact of when a player makes his MLB debut, or how many days he remains with the Big League club once he is called up.  This should be considered a big win for the players.
  2. Move arbitration eligibility to the fifth year, unless the current 3-year trigger, requiring 172 days of service time for each year, would bring about eligibility earlier than the set term. This structure would get most players to arbitration much earlier in their actual MLB careers, particularly those who are not superstars and who spend long years on the 40-man roster seeing very little time at the Big League level. It would not harm those players who excel early. This should also be considered a win for the players, at least those who need the help the most.
  3. Move free agency to the eighth year, or age 29.5, whichever occurs first. This could help the owners, although it is not exactly what they want. It could also protect the players from the potential glut of free agents that raises concern among their own representatives.
  4. Set the guaranteed minimum salary before arbitration based on the average salaries of the players with similar service time. I would suggest groupings of under 2 years, under 4 years, and 5th year.  That should assure that the more service time a player has, the higher his guaranteed minimum salary would be. This would eliminate the heavy-handed “renewal” option that clubs have, and would basically make every player a qualifying offer each year.  This could incentivize teams to make longer term offers sooner, in order to avoid the more expensive fourth and fifth years and the three years of arbitration. It also would mean that the mega-contracts young players like Fernando Tatis, Jr., and Wander Franco have gotten would lift the pay scale for all young players, since their salaries would contribute to the average.  A team would also not run the risk of losing the player to free agency after only six years. That sounds like collective bargaining to me. The owners definitely want to eliminate arbitration, and have proposed setting salaries based on WAR (an absolutely terrible idea, in my opinion). They have also proposed free agency at age 29.5 (a laughable idea since more players are excelling in the league at much younger ages). I just don’t see the players agreeing to this, as arbitration has been a boon for players. However, to keep it they are going to have to come up with some creative adjustments. I have proposed mine.
  5. The Rule 5 draft would remain in effect – a player signed before age 19 has to be added to the 40-man roster within five years, and a players signed at 19 or later must be added within 4 years, or they can be claimed by any club. I would add a rule that any player left off the 40 man roster after age 24 would become an unrestricted free agent.

This new system would keep the players under a measure of team control, but would improve the player’s early career economics and enhance his mid-career freedom.  The most likely effect would be for his team to make an earlier determination on whether to offer him a multi-year contract or to let him become a free agent earlier.  Every year the team defers that decision, he gets a market-based salary increase, determined by the actual numbers rather than an arbitrary figure assessed by the team. Wouldn’t that be a win for the player?

As for the teams, this structure should give them a better grasp on a player’s cost than does the current arbitration system. It would certainly make the process less adversarial and should be less costly in the long run. It also would allow them to participate directly in setting the market. Any big deal they offer in years 1-5 would raise all player’s salaries, so that could act as a governor on spending. It also would continue the trend of paying non-superstar players earlier in their career and not having to pay so much later in their careers. That is where a lot of money could be saved.  Players won’t like these last two points, but there would have to be some price paid for the increased money and power given them in years 1-5.

The other high profile issues, such as the universal DH and expanded post-season participation, seem like filler compared to the salary structure issues outlined above. Personally, as a fan, I hate the idea of the universal DH. I would get rid of it altogether, but if that is not possible I would fight to keep it out of the NL. It not only makes the interleague play – including post-season – more interesting, it furthers the players overall economic interests. If you accept they there is a finite amount of money for salaries, not creating 15 more high-paying specialist players must leave more money to spread to the medium-cost, versatile players that have come into vogue in the past decade.  It also makes for a more interesting and strategic game to watch, in my purist opinion.

As to expanded post-season, I think the current two wild-card format is perfect. You start with two game 7’s and then you have 4 best of 7 game series. Shorter than other pro-sports leagues, and more exciting.  If there has to be an adjustment, I would go for seeding based on records. That way, LAD would not have had to play SFO in the Division round.  Otherwise, leave it alone.

These are my ideas for breaking the impasse and opening up the room for all to celebrate.

The art of the compromise

Hold your nose and close your eyes

We want our leaders to save the day

But we don’t get a say in what they trade away

We dream of a brand new start

But we dream in the dark for the most part

Dark as a tomb where it happens

I’ve got to be in the room (room where it happens)

©JSR 2021

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