Yogi Berra Has A Message For Baseball

Yogi Berra is famous as a Hall of Fame baseball player and as a person whose verbal malaprops made him a comedic figure.  MLB and the MLBPA should pay attention to one of Berra’s alleged statements:

  • “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

Baseball is at – or very near – a fork in its path as part of the US sports landscape; the owners and the union have to decide the direction they want to take.  Most importantly, they are really must take the same path because there is no baseball without owners and there is no baseball without players.  Let me get that on the record here from the start; neither of these two entities can exist for long without the other.

On December 1st, 2021, – a little over 6 months from now – the extant CBA signed by the owners and the union will expire.  If someone suggests that this is no big deal because a new CBA is not really needed until around February 1st when preparations for Spring Training kick into high gear, consider the environment that exists today.  Other than certainties governed by physical laws – – night follows day, things fall down to the ground and not up into the air, you get the idea – – the owners and the union agree on just about nothing.

In this time frame where both sides should be marshaling and honing their arguments in favor of various sections/clauses in the CBA to be hammered out, it is rather clear that there is a preference to look backward as a way to flick the scab off a prior wound that certainly seemed to have been healing quietly.  Consider:

  • Just last week, the MLBPA filed a grievance against the league asserting that MLB did not bargain in good faith last year to play as many games as possible in the shortened 2020 season.
  • The grievance seeks an award of $500M which approximates what players would have earned had the season been 20 games longer than it was.

Two facts jump out at me from those statements:

  1. Of course, it would have been possible to play more than 60 games last  season; I cannot fathom how one would assert it was impossible.
  2. Unless I am a mind reader – or the panel of arbitrators that will decide tis grievance has one – I do not know how it is possible to know if the bargaining was done in good faith.

I have no interest in going back to look over the “facts” there; as far as this matter is concerned, I want it to be resolved quickly either by some sort of settlement between the parties or by a fast-paced hearing by the arbitration panel who makes its ruling quickly.  Moreover, I do not care even a little bit who might prevail in this matter; just get it over and done with. 

[Aside:  this three-person panel is a mirage.  One person is picked by the union, the other is picked by the owners and the third person is someone both parties agree to accept in the role.  I would say the odds of a unanimous decision either way are prohibitive; the decision of the mutually appointed arbitrator will be the decision that carries the day.]

The reason I take the position that speed is important here is simple.  So long as this $500M matter is pending, it is a Sword of Damocles hanging over the heads of the negotiations that need to happen in order to get a new CBA without a work-stoppage.  And given the state of animus that exists between the union and the league, there will need to be plenty of time available to those negotiators to get to a deal.  With that as an overlay, let me be as clear as I can on this next environmental factor:

  • If the two sides cannot reach an agreement in time to start Spring Training and also the regular season in 2022, both sides are dumber than some jamoke who thinks Mount Rushmore is a rock band.
  • Fans had “other things” on their minds last  year; there was a pandemic and a Presidential election.  The 60-game season seemed concocted, and it was not really until late in the playoffs that fan interest came to life.  In that social environment, the owners and the players waged a PR battle that delayed the start of the season – – and perhaps the length of the season? – – when people in lockdown situations would have liked to be able to see MLB on TV.  Brilliant!
  • This year, fans are showing more interest – – but in many venues, attendance is severely limited.  As more venues open to greater percentages of capacity, some astute marketing should be able to get fans revved up for this year’s playoffs.
  • Notwithstanding merely fans’ cumulative interest in baseball games, there is a general economic overhang here.  Even with various waves of government relief checks, there are lots of people – and families – who are in economic trouble not wholly of their doing.  A spitting contest between the billionaire owners and the millionaire players will not sit well with people living paycheck to paycheck – – if the have paychecks – – or with people dealing with eviction processes.

I have argued here many times involving many sports that owners and unions get crosswise with each other over things that should not be deal-breakers.  The owners and the union are partners in presenting a product that people like enough to do two things:

  1. Come to the ballpark and spend some of their discretionary money on.
  2. Watch it on TV in sufficient numbers that networks pay handsomely for broadcast rights.

That is why billionaire Steve Cohen bought the Mets.  That is also why players are getting guaranteed long-term deals in the $350 – 450M range.  Steve Cohen and his fellow owners will not make money if either of those two conditions above does not obtain; baseball superstars like Bryce Harper and Mike Trout and Francisco Lindor will not make a third of what their contracts are worth if either of those two conditions above does not obtain.

The thing that makes the most sense – meaning it is one of the least likely things to happen early on – is for the owners AND the players to tell the CBA negotiators to put a lid on their personal egos and get a deal done that neither side loves but one that both sides can live with.  The negotiations cannot be a pitched battle over every semi-colon in the CBA; the two sides must walk down the same path in the future – – preferably hand-in-hand but I would settle for them merely being in step with each other.

I am on record here as one who hates the DH.  Do no try to change my mind.  However, putting the DH into the National League is not sufficiently horrid to me that I would let it stand in the way of a CBA.  Players do not want expanded playoffs because the way the owners want it structured will line the pockets of the owners far more than it lines the players’ pockets.  I get that.  I also get that making that a sticking point jeopardizes a lot more money that flows to the players than could be recouped in expanded playoff money for the next 50 years.

There are lots of issues to be ironed out; each one cannot become a hill to die on:

  • Service time manipulation
  • Setting up an international draft
  • Tweaking the arbitration procedures for player salaries
  • Pandemic-induced rules (7-inning doubleheaders and “ghost runners” on second base in extra innings)

Those issues just come off the top of my head; surely there are others; the goal must be to resolve them and not to fight pitched battles over each of them.  After the $500M arbitration grievance is resolved one way or the other, the two sides will need to come together rather quickly and get down to productive negotiating.  That will be much easier for the side that wins the $500M arbitration as compared to the side that loses that arbitration.  But somehow all of that had better come to pass because here is the worst outcome:

  • MLB and the MLBPA come to that fork in the road hellbent to prevail in the next round of CBA negotiations to the point that the desire is to crush “the other guys”.
  • In that circumstance, the two sides take the fork in the road – – but each takes a different path.
  • If you like baseball and if you care about baseball as a major item in the US sports landscape, that is what you do not want to have happen.

Finally, here is a comment from Dwight Perry about one of the issues that faces MLB in addition to all the upcoming CBA negotiations:

“For perspective’s sake, soccer’s ill-fated Super League lasted about 48 hours — or roughly a dozen Yankees-Red Sox games.”

But don’t get me wrong, I love sports………