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The owners think you’re stupid

“Who, lil’ ‘ole me?”

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League Championship Series - Los Angeles Dodgers v Chicago Cubs - Game Five Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

I’m not going to get into what a bad offseason this has been, or what a bad offseason the last two years have been. We know that teams are starting to spend less on salary, and as Craig Edwards noted at FanGraphs, while overall payroll dropped a percentage point last year, it could be as bad as two percentage points this year.

This isn’t some magical force pushing the league in that direction, and I would also argue that this isn’t some analytics cabal gaming the system to make the league more value-oriented; I think it’s better to see this as a top-down issue.

This is about the owners, plain and simple. They were the ones that colluded in the 1980s (three times), locked out the league and tried to hire scabs to enforce a salary cap in 1994-95, and the creation of analytics departments, in my mind, was merely a cover for the exact same motive that operated in the past. They would ultimately prefer the reserve clause if you could read their minds, but with the CBA and norms at play, devaluing players by proxy works just fine as well.

Think about recent statements made by ownership and via media proxies; they’re incredibly telling. In a recent presser with Cubs owner Tom Ricketts, he outlines why Manny Machado and Bryce Harper likely won’t be a reality:

“You make those decisions [to sign Yu Darvish, Tyler Chatwood and Brandon Morrow last season]... Those guys are all coming back and Darvish feels great. Then you throw in (Cole) Hamels for a full year, we got a good team. ... But you can’t spend the same dollar twice so you have to make resource allocation decisions. No team has infinite resources.”

(For the record, the Cubs’ revenue has increased 71% since their pre-tanking payroll peak of $162 million in 2011, and their revenue on the top line is only 14% higher than it was then.)

The Yankees have made that case as well. After likely balking at Machado, it has been leaked to SNY’s Andy Martino that, actually, Nolan Arenado is the real free agent target... next year. This was after a long, multi-year case made to fans that they would develop a young, cheap core, and once they got under the luxury tax they would be able to flex their financial muscles.

They are already over the tax limit, and the word is still out on Machado/Harper, but it’s clear the Yankees too are operating differently in rhetoric, at least. They would have you believe that there is a magic sauce called “financial flexibility” that they will soon attain and grasp on to, only to find that disappear as quickly as the idea was floated.

The thing is... they’d like to believe that you don’t know that secret. In the last strike, public sentiment was firmly in the owners’ favor, evidenced by some Gallup data:

That declined a bit when the lockout extended into spring training of the following year, but the consensus, by something like a 13-point margin, was that the greedy players didn’t want to play ball with the benevolent owners (Mind you, this was only four years after the owners paid $280 million in damages for the last collusion affair).

The reason for this approval gap isn’t that hard to discover. Fans aren’t stupid, but reporters sure can be at times for the sake of insider access, and there’s essentially no countervailing force that acts as an equally powerful voice against the owners. That was the case in 1994, and it’s largely still the case today.

In the latest Ken Rosenthal piece, you can see the media machinery already at work in preparation for the next strike’s PR battle. He states:

“For the good of the sport – a sport he loves as much as anyone – Clark needs to serve as a calming force, build a consensus for positive change and demonstrate greater leadership than before... He can... start to chip away at the competitive concerns that continue to eat at the union while working with the league to make the game more entertaining.”

I have a ton of respect for Rosenthal as a journalist, but what exact purpose does that serve? Unions are not, by definition, “calming forces.” Think of the last year, and the wildcat strikes that took place in school districts around the country, many where they were right-to-work or where strikes were illegal. Here is what they secured from the opposite of being calming:

  • Arizona: 20% raise
  • Colorado: 2% raise
  • Oklahoma: $6000 pay hike for teachers; $1250 pay hike for support; more funding in general for schools
  • West Virginia: 5% raise

Ultimately, the only true leverage Tony Clark holds is the ability to withhold labor, which is what the teachers utilized to their benefit without even having a union. The players, for what it’s worth, are starting to get on board:

The players have social media to make their case in a way that they couldn’t in 1994, and they will have to be more unabashed and concise in their critique of ownership, and linking their CBA battle to how that affects the more important labor rights in our daily lives.

Because we know the same argument will be pushed via the media, and via fans, that players are overpaid, ungrateful, and they have to admit that it does appear laughable to say that $20 million instead of $25 million matters. Yet if that conversation is pointed in a positive direction—to labor history, to the increasing revenues and lining of the owners’ pockets, to how disconnected this is from ticket prices and are of the same poison—you could see public opinion tick in the right direction.

But, and it’s an important But, the only true way to garner support from working class fans would be to champion the rights of minor league unionization and ending the arbitration structure, and that has yet to be seen. As we have seen in the past year, and in labor history in general, the more adversarial the better. Rosenthal is right; Clark should be consensus building. It’s just not with the people who he thinks it should be.