By Tim Baffoe–
(670 The Score) Whether it be high school kids being pimped by AAU, college athletes pointing out the absurdity and hypocrisy of the NCAA’s chattel system or professionals taking issue with ownership, always remember this: Side with the players.
Why any fans would opt to defend those with more money and, therefore, more power makes little sense, but it always seems to be the collective reflex. National signing day is good because we consider those kids to be commodities and not human. College athletes are paid in their scholarship — the simplicity of such a bad argument has to make it true. Millionaires are ungrateful and disloyal to billionaires who would just as soon sell a Blake Griffin after telling him in the offseason that he would be cherished at home forever.
This is why a big part of me hopes that baseball players make good on a threat to boycott the upcoming spring training. Brodie Van Wagenen, an agent and co-head for CAA, tweeted Friday: “There is a rising tide among players for radical change. A fight is brewing. And it may begin with one, maybe two, and perhaps 1,200 willing to follow. A boycott of spring training may be a starting point, if behavior doesn’t change.”
Now, an agent who’s invested in players getting paid so that he can get paid sending out a rumor of a boycott does not a labor movement make. (And the players’ union denied any plans for it, besides the legal issues that would put a large hole in such an attempt.)
So despite me not caring much about the tease that spring training is (“Yo, No. 84 looks like a viable fourth outfielder!”) and a lack of it having a serious effect on the quality of play in 42-degree April games with three weather delays a week, an actual boycott is a pipe dream. But I’m with the broader meaning of Van Wagenen’s words.
Besides missing the periodic morphine injections of typical Hot Stove season signings, free agency this winter has been a damn insult to more than just desperate fans who need the chatter and attention for quote-tweeting a signing announcement from Ken Rosenthal with “Wow.” While several big names linger without homes, front offices across Major League Baseball are intentionally icy if not in all likelihood colluding. There’s precedent from ownership in baseball history to nudge, nudge, wink, wink stuff against players, but not long ago owners literally tried to legalize collusion.
In February of 1995 — i.e., deep in the wild heart of the 1994-95 labor stoppage/meltdown — the owners agreed to pull from the negotiating table their demands for a salary cap but they unilaterally struck down the provisions against collusion. The National Labor Relations Board filed a complaint soon thereafter, and eventually federal judge Sonia Sotomayor restored the terms of the prior CBA. The owners’ effort to systematize collusion didn’t work, but that same effort reminded us how important it was to them.
Owners also had to pay MLBPA $12 million in 2006 for collusion it didn’t have to admit. No matter the championships your favorite team wins, at the end of the day the owners don’t care about you the fan or the players any more than you all generate revenue. Owners will dismantle teams, make business decisions that rip your heart out, push for changes to a game that harm players if they make a buck and even move to another city.
The evidence of labor management in sports proves this over and over again to the extent that it should be common sense to never side with the owners. Recently retired from playing Derek Jeter just gutted the Marlins down to what should be one of the worst and lowest-attended teams in the league, and he’ll still profit in 2018. See what joining the dark side can do? Despite teams being wealthier than ever, owners will always look for a way to put their thumbs on the scale of the supposed free market of players being able to ply their trades for the most money offered.
Free markets are only touted when they benefit the status quo. This includes sacrificing the stars whose jerseys sell. J.D. Martinez, Jake Arrieta, Yu Darvish, Eric Hosmer and several other players who would significantly improve several teams remain unsigned. This isn’trandom. After crunching numbers, Ryan Pollack and Travis Sawchick of Fangraphs found that “by percentage of players signed through January, there has never been a slower offseason in the history of free agency… and it’s the slowest offseason in terms of volume of signings in at least the last 18 years.”
The tanking virus — of which in Chicago, admittedly, the Cubs have greatly benefited from and the White Sox hopefully will — has spread to several teams. Dodgers pitcher Alex Wood believes 12 to 15 teams are tanking or not putting their best team on the field. I’m not here to argue against a proven design of bottoming out and building up through five-ish years of drafting, prospect acquisition and growth. It produced the greatest sports season of my life.
But there’s also a flip side, one that upsets MLBPA executive director Tony Clark.
“This year a significant number of teams are engaged in a race to the bottom,” Clark said a week before pitchers and catchers report. “This conduct is a fundamental breach of the trust between a team and its fans and threatens the very integrity of our game.”
When I hear that, my reflex isn’t to tell the wealthy players to stop whining. Having one-third or more of the league intentionally not making an effort to win at the moment does warp the regular season and make paths for some teams to the postseason too easy. What was a market inefficiency exploited by the a few teams early in the decade has perhaps become too good of an idea. With their issues attracting new fans of late, owners might want to consider what effect having so many bad products on a daily basis for six-plus months might have on PR.
But besides that, this seems to be a genuine case of labor getting the shaft by the richer management. Clark wants to say this but can’t because of that large, odd group of brainwashed proles who barf about athletes demanding a fair cut and Scott Boras being Satan in favor of the “job creators” who aren’t actually hiring the most qualified people in baseball. They’re giving retorts, though, that sound a tick above Homer Simpson running for sanitation commissioner.
When you don’t care about that abuse of power — or, worse, side with it — you don’t get to complain later on that length of games or faulty umps is hurting baseball or your interest in it. You’re greasing the wheels of owners hell-bent on crushing a product into a fine pulp that can be most easily sucked through a revenue straw, regardless of the people on the field who make the game actually fun.
Tim Baffoe is a columnist for 670TheScore.com. Follow Tim on Twitter @TimBaffoe. The views expressed on this page are those of the author, not Entercom or our affiliated radio stations.