On Tuesday, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred announced that he was canceling the first two series of the 2022 regular season as the owner-implemented lockout dragged into its fourth month. He did this because the league and the players as represented by their union were not able to agree to a new collective bargaining agreement by the league's somewhat arbitrary deadline.
In announcing his decision, Manfred first read a statement and then fielded a handful of questions from the assembled media. Here's a look:
As is typically the case with such matters, Manfred's remarks, whether prepared or extemporaneous, were at times spin, revisionism, and misinformation. So now let's have a look at some that stand out and explain why each is misleading.
"On the Competitive Balance Tax, we offered a significantly larger first-year increase than in the last two agreements, bearing in mind that the Competitive Balance Tax is the only mechanism in the agreement that protects some semblance of a level playing field among clubs."
For the uninitiated, the CBT is a levy on team payrolls that exceed certain thresholds. The higher you go and the more often you're a "repeat offender," the harsher those penalties are. In practice, it's become a semi-hard salary cap in MLB. That, of course, is by design. The point of payroll restrictions is to reduce labor costs and by extension increase owner profit margins. It's not to promote competitive balance or to provide "some semblance of a level playing field among clubs."
That's not entirely surprising since MLB doesn't have a competitive balance problem, and there's no correlation between market size and on-field success in MLB (both before and after the implementation of the CBT). Manfred continues to mischaracterize the purpose of the CBT, which, again, is to drag down player salaries, because too many rank-and-file fans and even media members believe that the CBT and similar concoctions have anything at all to do with competitive balance. As for the increases he touts, they don't begin to keep pace with revenue growth in the league.
Later in his presser, Manfred had more to say about the matter …
"We have a payroll disparity problem and to weaken the only mechanism in the Agreement that's designed to promote some semblance of competitive balance is just something that I don't think the club group is prepared to do right now."
MLB has a payroll disparity problem not because of the top end but rather because of the bottom of the scale. Teams like the Pirates, Rays, Guardians, Marlins, and others take in more in revenue sharing than they spend on payroll. Frankly put, the recent high rates of sharing -- 48 percent of local revenues -- means that small-market teams have very little skin in the game. The best way to boost gameday revenues is to invest in the on-field product and improve the roster. Small-market teams, however, receive so much money via revenue sharing that they have little incentive to invest in player payroll. Basically, teams on the lower end of the revenue continuum are guaranteed profitability regardless of on-field results. That's not healthy.
This distills that situation quite nicely:
Reading between the lines, baseball’s smallest markets don’t want to spend more money but they also don’t want to be outspent. Tough to make that work.— Jonathan Judge (@bachlaw) March 1, 2022
It should be noted that the union angled to alter the revenue sharing apparatus so as to infuse some good-faith competition into the sport, but MLB wanted no part of that. Instead, they'd rather continue their efforts to insist the CBT is something other than a means to pay players less.
"Nothing's scheduled right now, and we made a proposal this afternoon. I believe without exception, every topic we have made the last proposal. Every single issue in the Basic Agreement we have made the last proposal. You draw your own conclusion as to who ought to go next."
This is, to put it charitably, curious coming from Manfred. Implicit in these particular remarks is that because the owner side made the last suite of proposals, it's now the players turn to do so. In a vacuum, that would be an eminently reasonable position, but it's quite at odds with Manfred's tortured framing from earlier in the lockout.
You'll recall that the owners implemented the lockout on Dec. 2 in order to, in Manfred's words, "… jumpstart the negotiations and get us to an agreement that will allow the season to start on time."
At the time of the lockout, the players had made the last proposal and did so more than a full day before the CBA expired and MLB's lockout began. The league then dawdled for 43 days before at last making its own revised proposal. Manfred's rationale for wasting all those precious days and making a compromised 2022 season much more likely? "In terms of any delay in the process, that's a mutual responsibility of the bargaining parties," he said. "Phones work two ways."
This, of course, is in acute contrast to what he suggested on Tuesday. Now, it's the players' turn because the owners went last. It seems rationale changes, quite conveniently, when the league isn't playing a stall game.
Related to said stall game …
"I want to assure our fans that our failure to reach an agreement was not due to a lack of effort on the part of either party."
That's from his opening remarks on Tuesday. To counter his claim that both parties have authored great effort, the rejoinder need only be, "Forty-three days."
That, again, is how many precious days Manfred and the team owners who superintend him wasted just after they imposed the lockout.
"I think the best answer to that question is the last 10 days. We've been here, ready to bargain, full committees, owners, players for 10 days, and it got going two days before the deadline. You know, that's the best explanation I can give you."
Here's another telling remark about those 43 days of inaction. Manfred was asked whether that considerable period of inaction brought us to the bleak point of canceling games. His answer, as you can see above, was decidedly a non-answer that in no way addresses the question. This is because he has no means to answer the question.
"I think you also need to remember that the last five years have been very difficult years from a revenue perspective for the industry given the pandemic."
This is both a tired refrain and a lie. The industry is remarkably healthy, and revenues and profits continue to soar, as do franchise valuations. Yes, the league lost money in 2020, as did a vast array of business, but so did players, who, you'll recall, agreed to prorate their salaries based on the number of games played. The league in 2021 returned to tremendous profitability. Owners will continue to claim otherwise -- i.e., lie -- because in almost all instances teams aren't publicly traded. As such, they're not obligated to release their financials. In the rare instances that teams do willingly release such documentation, it's redacted to the point of meaninglessness. There's a reason owners refuse to open the books to outside inspection. To borrow a recent phrase from Manfred, we leave you to draw your own conclusions about what that reason is.
"Throughout the five-year period, there was a lot of rhetoric about dissatisfaction with the deal that they made. A lot of the rhetoric was negative with respect to clubs, the commissioner's office, me. That environment someone else created, and it's an environment in which it's tough to build bridges."
This is in response to being asked whether he regrets not having done more on his side to advance at least cursory discussions during the last five years, where the previous CBA was in force. To the surprise of no one but the credulous, he put the blame on the players for, in essence, saying mean things.
And why would they do that? Why would they indulge in negative rhetoric about owners who lie about their finances with tidal regularity, manipulate service time, treat the game as little more than a line item in a portfolio, and in many instances show no interest in competing? Why would they cast aspersions at a commissioner who has referred to the World Series trophy as "a piece of metal" and suggested that owning a team offers a worse return than the stock market?