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Sunday, December 12, 2021

MLB, union must solve these issues to avoid lockout: Sherman

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The World Series ended Tuesday night and instantly the most important game switched from the field to Zoom or boardrooms or wherever exactly MLB and the MLB Players Association will be negotiating.

The collective bargaining agreement expires at midnight as Dec. 1 becomes Dec. 2. If there is no agreement, the expectation is the owners will lock out the players. That would put a freeze on, among other things, all transactions such as free-agent signings and trades. The Hot Stove would go cold and what would follow is the familiar declaration from many fans declaring animus toward both sides and pledges not to return to the sport, which will mainly be forgotten whenever play resumes.

Thus, the sides have roughly a month to resolve this or chill what has promised to be a fascinating offseason with a deep, starry free-agent class and many clubs poised to aggressively spend.

There will be lots of talk otherwise, but as always the bargaining will revolve around core economic issues. We can over-complicate this, but it is just like any business — workers want more, owners want to limit costs and, thus, increase profits.

I would suggest a deep-breath moment for both sides to note that even with the perception that the players were soundly beaten in the last two CBA negotiations, players still have never had it so good. The pay is great and the perks so much better than they ever were in areas such as travel, accommodations and health care.

MLB lockout 2021
MLB commissioner Rob Manfred (l.) and MLBPA executive director Tony Clark (r.) at Game 1 of the World Series on Oct. 26, 2021.

Conversely, no matter how many cries abound from management about the bad business of owning a baseball team, the value of those clubs continue to remain high. There is no run to sell these franchises and when one can be purchased, the price remains staggering whether an ineptly run franchise is sold amid a disinterested fan base in South Florida or in a hotbed of baseball passion in Queens.

So even when things are “bad,” they are actually quite good for both sides. It is why I believe the biggest issue faced by these parties is not how to split $11 billion annually.

It is about issues that plague the on-field product and further threaten the popularity of the sport.

Again, I am not naive. Negotiations are for fierce advocates to fight for money. But both MLB and the union have insisted that these talks take on a broader range. That, in fact, how players are paid and by which teams and in what stages of their careers is part of an on-field integrity that needs to be addressed. How to define and limit tanking, for example, is embedded in these talks.

Look, folks have been complaining that the game is not what it used to be or is dying since almost the birth of baseball. So, I will not offer that the sky is falling. But it certainly is cloudy.

To watch this season and playoffs was to, on one hand, recognize that more great athletes play Major League Baseball than ever before and to equally bemoan how infrequently we get to see that athleticism. The dead time between each pitch and each next time the ball is in play all but begs generations with a shorter attention spans to move to the next channel, device or app.

When I was a kid, it was a treat to go to a double feature. The idea of dedicating four hours at the movies was a joy. But the double feature has gone the way of the rotary phone. Yet, in baseball the games have become double-feature long, but not with the action of multiple Bruce Lee movies that would literally have me and my friends doing midair kicks in the theater aisles.

There is too much dead time between each pitch and each next time the ball is in play during an MLB game.
Getty Images

I am going to watch and be interested in baseball no matter what. I love the game and derive a living from it. But my children don’t care at all and I sense that epidemic. Most days at the ballpark, I think this is not a movie I can sell. We have gone from a sport played at an unhurried, but steady pace to one in which we are often watching people stand around and think. The goal daily has become to throw 150 unhittable pitches a game. And pitchers are actually so good at it, that the counter is to recognize stringing hits together is a fool’s goal; so consistently strive for the only sure way to score — hit a homer. It is a philosophy that leads to a conveyer belt of high-octane relievers, strikeouts and inactivity.

MLB knows the problem and has been experimenting with potential solutions in the minors. Players insist they are most impacted and want to be stewards of positive change. There are all kinds of hurdles, naturally. Big- and small-market teams do not see the problems nor solutions the same way nor does a union that is split near equally between position players and pitchers.

But like a championship baseball team such as the 2021 Braves that unites to a common goal the highly paid and the minimum wage and pitchers and hitters, MLB and the union need to find a commonality of purpose. It does not mean backing down from advocacy. It means seeing fixing the game together as the most vital economic issue of all. Perhaps gambling or the next deep-pocketed streaming service will always assure that the sides have oodles of money to fight over.

But the greatest certainty for economic well being is to provide an entertaining, competitive product that relentlessly makes us want to come back for more. The owners and players don’t agree on much, but I would find it difficult to believe that either side thinks that was the product offered in 2021.

How to get to that product while retaining the essence of the game is so challenging that it is going to demand a cooperation and trust not currently present. It is going to be way more difficult than how to divvy up $11 billion. It also is going to be way more important.


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