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Please Sir, May I have Another?

MLB Owners Meetings Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

This is an article about negotiations. I will do my very best to make it as readable and non-polarizing as I can. We are all frustrated that baseball (at least spring training, at this point) won’t be starting on time. Some undoubtedly blame the owners, while others blame the players. Many, perhaps blame everyone, up to and including Trevor Bauer….just because…well…he seems like someone appropriate to blame. It is my fervent hope that I can write about this nightmare without absorbing some level of blame myself. So, here goes.

Not being a billionaire myself, or even a millionaire with extraordinary athletic gifts, it’s difficult to fully understand the merits and demerits of each side’s position. I will say my sentiments have always tended to lie with the players, since they are marketing their own talents, and their own market-based worth, while assuming the risk of short potentially injury-laden careers. Owners, in contrast, tend to have (mostly) inherited their wealth and their teams. Our own Twins are examples. The Pohlad boys may be absolutely wonderful people, but they inherited their wealth. That doesn’t make them bad people. If I inherited a baseball team, I suspect I’d also not donate it to the city and run it like a business, with the expectation that I’d someday pass it on to my heirs. So, I’m not blaming them only for their wealth.

Still, the only thing that separates the Pohlad family from my own is that they were born into vast wealth. The thing that separates Joe Mauer from me, is his amazing talent. Somehow that seems to me like gifted baseball players have separated themselves from the rest of us and their market value reflects that. I don’t begrudge people more talented than me from making more money than me; it almost seems fair. Granted, market disparities that allow us to value baseball players vastly more than nurses and teachers is not great, but it’s the reality of our market. We’re the ones who pay to go to games, while none of us would pay to watch a teacher teach or a medical professional as they go about their work. So to some extent at least, that’s on us, and that’s far deeper than a baseball article can approach.

And so,

I fear ultimately this may end poorly for the players, or at least not favorably for them. Billionaires don’t feel heat. Billionaires can literally lose hundreds of millions of dollars and remain comfortably ensconced in beautiful homes, drive luxury cars, and take fantastic vacations. Particularly billionaire baseball owners whose teams have appreciated massively over their years of ownership. Billionaires careers aren’t short. Quite the contrary. If Covid-19 showed us anything, it was that the very richest among us profited even in extraordinarily difficult times.

George Steinbrenner bought the Yankees in the early 1970s for around 10 million dollars (a fair amount of money at the time). The Yankees are estimated to be with over 5 billion dollars today. George is deceased, he took a risk with his money and made a fortune (not entirely without committing a few felonies along the way, but I digress). His family now owns the team, under the guise of “Yankee Global Enterprises,” an LLC. Frankly, I’m unimpressed with their level of risk as they rake in the profits from a 5 billion dollar enterprise that appreciates massively in value each and every year. I don’t know how many Steinbrenner children share this wealth, but frankly, if the value of the Yankees “dove” from $5 billion to $4.5 billion, I’m not sure they’d have to tighten their belts.

The Twins aren’t worth anywhere near $5 billion….something more like a paltry $2 billion. Still, the Pohlad family will not be feeling any pressure to settle this dispute. So, they lose a few million or even a few hundred million. I get upset when my 401K loses big on any given day, but it doesn’t really change me, and likewise, when I have a good day, I can’t quit my job. Real pressure is on those folks in our society who don’t know if they’ll have enough to put food on the table and pay their rent…that’s pressure, and we all should understand that. Baseball players don’t feel that sort of pressure, but they are much, much closer to that sort of pressure than owners. If, for no other reason, baseball players can’t often count on inherited family wealth to maintain their presence in the top 1% of society. Owners can. That’s no small thing.

But, back to my point, and not to overstate my own worth (for those that know me, any statement of worth, may reflect an overstatement), I was once the lead negotiator for my own union. We, obviously, were not as significant as the MLB players association. But one thing that was simply a fact, was that neither side would budge until some pressure was applied. “Leverage” as it were. For my union, the start of the academic year and the concern about paychecks was real. As with all unions, it was more real for the young and untenured, than it was for the old and tenured, but it was real for all. Pressure was more real for those with student loans than those without. Pressure was more real for those with families than those without. But everyone in the union felt some level of pressure.

For baseball players, similarly, those already making tens of millions a year can handle some missed paychecks without much concern. Those just beginning their careers, and those making hundreds of thousands, rather than millions, may start to fear prolonged work stoppages.

Baseball once again reflects society, for those at the margins always feel vastly more pressure than those not similarly situated. Those with appreciated home value feel less pressure when an unexpected bill arises than those without. That is clear.

Again, nobody needs to feel sorry for those players making the current MLB minimum of $570,000. It’s unlikely that anyone reading this makes anywhere close to that amount, and sadly, many won’t make that much money over the course of their lifetimes. Even among those that will, most would probably be fine on just a couple of years of that type of salary.

But here’s the deal, without going all bourgeoisie and proletariat on this, people making money as paid to them by owners of capital, even big money, eventually feel pressure when paychecks stop. In contrast, owners in MLB don’t really worry about paychecks. They have grown fantastically wealthy on their asset appreciation alone. They need not worry about money. Owners could bag the season, and if the Yankees, or the Twins failed to bring in tens of millions of dollars for their owners, they’ll be fine. They’ll be billionaires until they die, and then they’ll assure that their children are billionaires after that. Players, in contrast, grow old, and sometimes not so gracefully. Nelson Cruz may be gifted into his forties, but he’s the exception, not the rule. The clock is ticking for most players and losing a season, whether they are in their twenties or their thirties, is risking a lot. Owners don’t feel that pressure.

Negotiations tend not to be fair in the end. One side has leverage over the other. One side eventually feels the need to give in far more than the other. Fairness and equity would be lovely. Meeting in the middle would be wonderful. But, I’m not counting on it. Instead, I find myself counting on the ultimate decency of billionaires throwing a few more crumbs to the workers, and frankly, that’s a difficult thing to count upon.

I, like you, love baseball. But since both sides have vastly different levels of leverage to offer. a quick resolution will require the players to cave or the owners to find higher levels of “fairness” in their thought process. I shall not hold my breath....particularly, when it comes to the latter.