The primary catalyst behind the current negotiating strife is not owners and players being mad at each other. At least I don’t think so. That’s an effect, not a cause. As I said this morning, I think the cause is that some owners don’t really want to play a 2020 season unless it’s done on the most owner-favorable terms possible and that those owners are unwilling to give Commissioner Rob Manfred permission to make reasonable offers to the players.
That view is not mine alone. Ken Rosenthal said as much in his column last night, suggesting that at least eight owners are agnostic at best at even playing a 2020 season. Which, given that Manfred needs 23 owners to agree with him on any act he takes, would be sufficient to get us where we are now. A few minutes ago Andy Martino of SNY said that he’s hearing that at least six don’t want to play a 2020 season.
This inner-ownership friction may be shocking to relatively new baseball fans or to fans who have never paid that much attention to labor battles, but it’s actually nothing new. For about as long as there has been baseball, owners of higher revenue teams and owners of lower revenue teams have been at odds with one another. Indeed, they have fought amongst themselves just as much if not more often than owners have fought against the players. It was the primary driver of the 1994-95 strike, for example, and divisions between those groups are why that strike ultimately went in favor of the players. It was likewise the reason why the MLBPA was able to gain and grow its power from the 1960s through the 1990s. The players were unified. The owners had divergent interests. When it comes to labor negotiations, solidarity beats division every single time.
Something changed after the 1994-95 strike, though: the owners became unified. No, deep down in their bones they didn’t always agree with each other, but they did work together when it mattered. Bud Selig — having learned his lesson from the strike — set a course afterward in which nothing was done without a consensus of the owners. He’d work the phones, horse trade, and twist arms to get that consensus, but by the time MLB announced some new initiative or rule, and especially by the time they sat across the table from the MLBPA, they were all on the same page.
Bud Selig is out of office now. Has been for a while. There is no sense that his successor, Manfred, has Selig’s consensus-building skills. He’s been mostly successful until now because the stakes weren’t all that high and the union was in relative disarray, but Manfred is perceived by a lot of people in the game as cold and abrasive figure. A technocrat. Worst of all, in the minds of the owners anyway, he’s not an owner himself. He has never been one. He has never worked for one. He was not, like Selig’s predecessors, chosen by one. He was a lawyer brought into the fold and anointed Selig’s successor by Selig himself. He was not easily confirmed, either, and there are no doubt some in the ownership ranks who still don’t much care for him. Even if Manfred had the consensus-building gifts of Bud Selig, why should anyone even listen to him? He’s not Bud Selig. He never could be.
I have no idea what Bud Selig is doing with his days right now. He’s on the faculty at Arizona State’s law school and teaches some classes on sports business. He is a history buff and was said at one point to be writing history books. I don’t know what’s going on with that, but his autobiography came out last year so he’s probably not writing that much.
He’s still on MLB payroll as “Commissioner Emeritus,” though, and is said to be making $5-6 million a year for that. Maybe Rob Manfred should give him a call and have him dust off the old glad-handing, horse-trading, arm-twisting routine and see if he can’t get the eight or so owners who are wrecking everything to stop wrecking everything. Such a thing might be rather humiliating for Rob Manfred. On some level it’d be an admission that he’s not up to the task at hand. But I’m not sure how it’d be any more humiliating than what’s happening now.
So, Rob, maybe give Bud a call and ask for help? You kind of need it.