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A simple matter of trust separates players and owners

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We aren’t getting a season because neither side trusts the other

Minnesota Twins owner Jim Pohlad at Target Field Sunday August 17 , 2014 in Minneapolis MN . ] Jerry Holt Jerry.holt@startribune.com Photo By Jerry Holt/Star Tribune via Getty Images

We are seeing things that most of us haven’t seen in our lifetimes. The country is changing. Hopefully in meaningful and lasting ways that will contribute to a fairer society in which equality of opportunity becomes more than rhetoric. We find ourselves in a place where trust is hard to come by, because there’s been so much dishonesty for so long. Similarly, what’s holding us back from having a baseball season, I think, is the lack of trust that players, fundamentally, have for management. It’s that lack of trust, that is preventing us from seeing baseball so far this year. It’s true, that the pandemic prevented the start of the season, but it’s something more that is preventing a plan for some continuation of this season.

Why does it continue to be so difficult for owners and players to get together on giving the general public some baseball this year? Are management and labor (owners and players) so far apart conceptually, that we are truly in danger of not having baseball this year? How could this happen? Don’t both sides know that we need baseball to help us return to normalcy? Don’t both sides know how angry we will be if they can’t get this done? Normally, I’d side with players over owners (millionaires over billionaires, as the saying goes), but it’s difficult to pick a side, if it appears that both sides may be wrong.

It’s pretty simple, really, the players don’t trust management to do the right thing, long term. Would management collude with one another to suppress free market salaries? We know they would, because we know they have. Would they open their books to the players? We know they won’t, because we know they haven’t. So, when players agree to whatever they ultimately agree to, they will have to trust a group of people who’ve shown that they can’t be entirely trusted. I’m sure the owners are lovely people, philanthropic in their communities and charming to both friends and family, but, in the end, as employers, they can’t fully be trusted to do the right things. We know that, we all know that. The players know that. The fans, even those so desperate to get the season started, know that.

And that, in a nutshell, is why it’s all talk and no action (thus far). Trust, in a nutshell, or lack of trust, is why union/management communications and negotiations are so frequently contentious, and simply awful.

Allow me just a sentence or two to give you this background: I was the leader of my union for what seemed like a decade (it was slightly more than two years). My union was comprised of faculty members at a mid-sized University, so I wasn’t exactly dealing with the strength of the MLBPA, nor was my adversary blessed with some of the deepest pockets in America (MLB owners). But it was simply awful. Some of that was undoubtedly because of my own limitations, but more generally, the experience of not being able to trust your employer can leave a lasting mark. It did for me, it does for most who serve in the role I did, and I have a feeling, that MLB players are struggling with it too.

Sure, MLB players live in nicer homes, drive nicer cars, take better vacations, and all of that, but they really hate it, I presume, when they believe that their employer wants to take advantage of a situation to seek potential long-term contract concessions. Their employers, after all, are some of the wealthiest people in America. The owners live in even nicer homes, drive even nicer cars, and take even nicer vacations.

Many players could take this entire year off from MLB and be financially fine, for the rest of their lives. Some players, in contrast, are more affected, as their careers are teetering, they are getting older, or their injuries are catching up with them. Losing this year of service, could crush many of them. In contrast, the owners may, individually, lose tens of millions or even hundreds of millions of dollars, and…..they’ll be just fine. Next year and the year after and the year after and then when they pass on their fortunes,….they’ll be just fine. This is not an “eat the rich” moment, it’s merely a recognition that even when the union is as strong as the MLBPA is strong, it’s still up against a group of people who really have almost unlimited power.

So, who is to blame? Both sides. The players need to recognize that these are different times, and they probably need to “suck it up” this year. But if the owners don’t also recognize that, and are seeking anything beyond this year because they can, then they are absolutely to blame as well.

My experience taught me this, that union versus management talks can be brutal. Perhaps even more brutal than those who’ve not experienced them from the inside can imagine. While there are only “adults” in the room, there nevertheless can be things said that are difficult to unhear. I can only imagine what a group of billionaires might say about their “employees” and, in contrast, I can only imagine what a group of highly skilled athletes might say about their employers, who happen to be far richer, but generally far less loved by the public.

In the end, of course, they’ll “get over it” and bury a series of hatchets, even if some of those hatchets have to be removed from various people’s backs. But we’re still apparently, in the beginning of negotiations. Now, for the sake of this article, please suspend your tendencies to throw your hands in the air, and say “are you kidding me?” After all, owners are billionaires. Players are, mostly, millionaires. Can’t both sides just give up their largesse for one year….I mean, we are in a pandemic, people are suffering. The answer is simple: not without grave concerns for their future, and that is what is preventing the present from being better than it is.

Let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that the owners really have a sinister motive here, to break the union, or at least to weaken it long-term, and thereby further line their pockets down the line, by suppressing salaries of the workers. We know that happens in the “real world” so it’s certainly possible it’s happening in the baseball world. If true, players aren’t fighting for this year, they are fighting for their futures, and while it’s easy to bemoan the “selfishness” of highly paid athletes, many of the athletes who would be most affected down the line would be those on the margins, those who barely make the majors, or those who don’t make “lifetime” money.

I’m not in the mind of Mike Trout or Chris Sale or any of the dozens of others who make more than twenty million a year, the kind of money that most of us won’t amass over our entire working lives, so, of course, it bothers us that they don’t just say “we’ll sacrifice and get this done, for the interest of the baseball loving public.” Similarly, it’s difficult to imagine why the Pohlad family or other owners with even more resources, don’t say “we’ll sacrifice and get this done, for the interest of the baseball loving public.”

My theory is that they all believe in the long-term harm that could befall them. Maybe they are just paranoid (and frankly, that can easily happen in union negotiations, since the other side really is working to take advantage of you). Maybe it’s ludicrous to think that this strange year could have so much impact on the future of either side’s leverage in future negotiations. But then again, speaking from experience, once something is given, it’s almost impossible to get back. Maybe players have, in fact, had it too good. But it’s still difficult for a group of people to decide that their futures will be less good. Maybe owners have, in fact, had it too good, but….again, it’s still difficult for a group of people to decide to have it less good in the future.

I know we are dealing with different economic stratospheres here, but the principle is the same: how would you feel about a pay cut? I just suffered one (temporarily we hope) in my workplace, and I can assure you it feels awful. Not because I won’t be able to make ends meet, but the sheer realization that I am now being told by my employer do my job the same way as I did last year, for less money, makes it incredibly difficult to feel great about my employer. Some of you reading this, may feel the same way.

Being asked to do the same thing, but for less than you made last year, is not really being asked to do the same thing…it’s being asked to do more. That would be one thing, if you work in a small business, and you know the owner is struggling to make payroll and make ends meet. It’s quite another thing, for most of us, who work in larger organizations, with highly paid people on the other side of the table whose “struggles” seem vastly different than our own.

On the other side, of course, MLB owners (like many of our employers to some degree) are shrugging their collective shoulders and saying “look around, the world is different, people have lost jobs, taken pay cuts, we’re talking about playing in front of empty stadiums, can’t you see things cannot simply be the same, and that even means your paychecks can’t be the same?” And, of course, they’re correct, and we know, as players know, that all of that can and will be used against them.

Even if baseball is in a different universe, and even though (in normal times) the owners and players never look to teachers, nurses, or factory workers and suggest that because they are sacrificing, we should too…in these times, fingers are pointed everywhere, and suddenly the fact that workers in other industries are taking pay cuts, becomes the cry of employers everywhere. Including baseball ownership. Even if they can “afford” to take a one year hit, why should they? Other captains of industry aren’t doing that.

And there’s the rub….what about when things return to “normal?” If the owners recapture their losses will that money be restored to the employees? We all know the answer to that question…which is “over their dead bodies, perhaps.” Once you take a pay cut, it’s going to be difficult to get it back.

Millions of Americans are engaged in protest. Acceptance of the status quo isn’t possible any longer for more and more Americans. Some, of course, oppose any change, and they likely always will. As we discuss privilege, among other things, one of the most obvious privileges is the privilege not to care about something, because it doesn’t directly seem to affect you.

While racism and brutality are far larger issues than the game of baseball, the principles remain the same, many of us are privileged to not care about things that don’t affect us. Billionaires and millionaires should suck it up and give the rest of us baseball, and it’s easy to say that, because it’s not our life that is affected. It’s not my money invested, or salary lost, or anything other than my entertainment, so it’s very easy for me to say give us our baseball back and call it a day.

It is in this context, of protest and activism in America, that I find myself struggling with some of the ideas and concepts that I have always held dear. But…here I am, wondering if my own role in not doing as much as I probably should have about racism, and police brutality, and other issues that affect many others vastly more than me, suggests that maybe I need to change some of my own long-held views and practices.

Clearly what’s happening all around us should be ample evidence that no matter how active any individual may have been, it has only changed the world marginally. Being “against” police brutality and understanding entirely, why the “Black Lives Matters” movement is necessary, makes us feel better about ourselves, perhaps, but it hasn’t done much to actually improve the situation for those most affected.

And, not to be entirely depressing about it, but a quick look at any form of social media suggests that there are millions of Americans who don’t even seem to be against things that one would think all would universally be against. It’s abundantly clear that many don’t even understand how saying “All Lives Matter” is both entirely missing the point, and a hard slap in the face of those seeking social change. Trying to make everyone understand that “Black Lives Matter” is real and important, precisely because there is so much hard evidence suggesting for far too long, that black lives haven’t really mattered in the face of systemic and institutional racism, seems daunting. Even getting some people simply to acknowledge that which seems so obvious and easy to acknowledge, in truth, seems impossible.

Maybe, just maybe, we all need to take a harder look at things that don’t directly affect us, and gain a better understanding of why things that seem so simple and obvious to so many of us, are so difficult to fix in the larger world. What can we do to impact our society in a positive way? What can we do, in some small way, to contribute to a greater sense of justice in our society? For baseball, it means that we can encourage both sides, not one side or the other, to engage in meaningful dialogue that might bring about long-term change, so that the next time the world is in crisis, the diversions that we all need, like baseball, don’t have to succumb to the many grievances we all struggle with day to day. In sum, can’t baseball just be better than the rest of us? Can’t it? Say it might be so, Joe, say it might be so.