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  • Keir Adamson

The Major League Baseball Lockout Threatens to Take Even More Away From Players

At midnight on December 1st, the decades-long Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) between the MLB and the Players Association expired. Just a minute later, the league initiated a lock-out, halting trade discussions and communication between players and coaches. The first of its kind in 25 years, this lockout represents an effort from owners to once again squeeze all they can from the players that make their wealth possible.

The main points of contention around the next CBA are, unsurprisingly, about money. Paul Sewald, a veteran relief pitcher on the Seattle Mariners, told ESPN Seattle that one of the main demands of the players union is raising the minimum wage salary for players playing in their first three years of service time. These players, who are often at the youngest and healthiest they will be during their career, are making $570,500 a year—an enormous sum of money, to be sure, but much less than the billions that the owners are pulling in. While MLB players are hardly bastions of the working class, the money that they make while on the field is often their main source of wealth for the rest of their lives. Moreover, the players deserve a fair share of MLB’s wealth simply because they are the ones creating it—not the owners.

Sewald also told ESPN Seattle that players want an end to service time manipulation and “tanking.” Service time manipulation refers to the practice of teams keeping players in the minor league past the time that most coaches, managers, and players would agree they are ready for the majors, for the purpose of gaining more years of control over them. Players also want to increase competitiveness in the majors by placing restrictions on “tanking,” or putting together a purposefully bad team in order to obtain better draft picks. Sewald argues that this practice discourages fans from attending games, as teams are often not competitive for five to six years.

It is important to note, however, that even if MLB owners meet the demands of the Players Association with the new CBA, it will do nothing to change the abhorrent conditions of players in the minor leagues. Minor league players often only earn a few thousand dollars for their entire season while working sixty to seventy hours a week. Though major league players could and should advocate for their colleagues in the minor leagues, there is little evidence that this subject has been introduced in negotiations. In fact, in the latest round of discussions, the owners requested the ability to eliminate hundreds of minor league roster spots, potentially threatening the livelihoods of hundreds of players.

Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred has attempted to paint MLB players as ungrateful and obstinate,  releasing a letter in part that read “the MLBPA has been unwilling to move from their starting position, compromise, or collaborate on solutions.” Players have responded to the lockout and Manfred’s statements on Twitter, with dozens of athletes, including avowed socialist relief pitcher Sean Doolittle, changing their profile image to the blank avatars that is presently using instead of player images. This protest is indicative of the power that the players hold over the owners—no one watches baseball because of Yankees owner Hal Steinbrenner.

The owners have very few demands for the current negotiations, as they already have an extremely favorable contract in the status quo. The 2017-2021 CBA gave owners the ability to severely restrict free-agent spending and international amateur benefits in exchange for clubhouse chefs and extra off-days. Players do not seem to be as amenable to these concessions in this round of negotiations, as they have already rejected the owners’ first proposal in January. This proposal would only make minor changes to the draft-pick system, with no movement of revenue sharing or players’ salaries.

There is little indication of when the lockout will end, though it seems too early to expect that it will delay the regular season, or even spring training. Veteran fans will likely remember the lockouts and labor strikes of the 90’s and early 2000’s, which cut seasons months short. A long-term lockout could severely reduce the bottom line of the entire league.

Players appear to be holding strong against the owners, as they should. Billions of dollars across the league are at stake, and instead of enriching the already obscenely rich owners, they should go to the people that make baseball worth watching—the players.

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