Feinstein: MLB Owners Playing Dangerous Game

Manny Machado and Bryce Harper will be just fine, John Feinstein says, but baseball is trending toward yet another work stoppage

John Feinstein
February 12, 2019 - 10:00 am

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I love this week. I love it because, as I sit here looking out my window at a grim February afternoon with freezing rain falling, I know that pitchers and catchers are beginning to report to spring training camps in Florida and Arizona.
I know that entire squads will be working out within a week, and, soon after that, exhibition baseball will start. The real games are six weeks away and I can’t wait.
When I was a kid, I could always tell you, without giving it any thought, how many days were left until pitchers and catchers reported. I not only knew when the exhibition games began but which ones—Mets and Yankees—were on television and on radio.
Not only did I watch and listen to those games, I often kept score. Trust me, keeping score of exhibition games isn’t easy. I loved doing it. How much did I care? I once threw a transistor radio against the wall when the Mets blew a ninth inning lead in THE FIRST EXHIBITION GAME.
The Mets always played their first two exhibition games in St. Petersburg against the Cardinals, their co-tenants at Al Lang Field. I did not like losing those games.
Now that I’m older, I view spring training differently—thank goodness. I haven’t thrown a radio against a wall for about 50 years now, and, when I have the chance to watch a game, it may only be for a few innings.
I’ve written three baseball books that have given me a legitimate professional reason to go to spring training and loved the experience every time. It’s different now—I will get to a clubhouse early to talk to players; hang out on the field before batting practice and then watch the game. I still keep score, but I might leave after six or seven innings to beat traffic.
The point is, baseball was probably my first love, although basketball, football and hockey didn’t come much later. I loved tennis because it was the one sport my dad truly cared about. Golf came years later.
Before I got married—both times—I felt obligated to show the women who had somehow decided to marry me what I called, “My Sports Records.” In-between pieces of construction paper, I had compiled "records" for games I had watched or listened to (or attended) for all sports. I had my own systems for football, basketball and hockey, but for baseball, I kept score. Sometimes as a kid I would score one game on television, while keeping an inning-by-inning count on a game I was listening to on radio.
I thought, before marrying me, someone should understand that my passion dated back to long before I ever got paid to write about any sport.
I’ve been fortunate enough to write 40 books—28 of them non-fiction. Although "A Good Walk Spoiled" and "A Season on the Brink" are the two that sold best, the three that I have the fondest memories of are, "A Civil War," (Army-Navy); "The Last Amateurs," (Patriot League hoops) and "Where Nobody Knows Your Name." In the latter, I spent the season in Triple-A, looking for stories about guys grinding to get to the big leagues or back to the big leagues.
That meant I went to a ballpark almost every night. I loved just about every second of it for the simple reason that I would go to work hours before the game, then spend the evening keeping score—I can’t be in a ballpark and not keep score—from the press box.
So, here we are in the winter of 2019 and pitchers and catchers are reporting. And yet, something doesn’t feel quite right to me. As Justin Verlander tweeted Monday, there are more than 100 legitimate major leaguers without contracts at the moment.
Two of them are Manny Machado and Bryce Harper. Both are 26. Both are big-time stars. And, very clearly, there’s a gap between what their agents told them they would get and what they’ve been offered.
This last happened in the mid-1980s, when big-name free agents were being low-balled by owners. Their actions were so blatant that the players union claimed collusion on three separate occasions and won all three cases. The owners eventually settled the cases for $280 million, which back then was big money as opposed to now when Machado or Harper would look at it as a low-ball offer.
There doesn’t have to be a conference call or a group e-mail among owners for collusion to be going on. I doubt that NFL owners actually got together and agreed not to sign Colin Kaepernick. But I also have no doubt that there was no way one of them was going to sign him after his stance (kneeling) on the national anthem.
I think the same thing is going on in baseball right now—only it’s universal, not aimed at one player. I don’t think the owners are dumb enough to do anything that would cause them to end up losing another collusion case. But I do think they’ve decided to bring salaries down—not just the dollar figures per year but the NUMBER of years.
Machado and Harper have both been looking for 10-year deals. It’s pretty apparent no one wants to give it to them and no one wants to pay them in the $300-$400 million range both were expecting to receive.
Weep not for Machado and Harper, who will both be very wealthy when all is said and done. But, as Verlander points out, this is the second straight spring that a number of good, very good and great players will begin spring training not knowing where they’re going to play.
A year ago, when spring training began, J.D. Martinez didn’t have a deal. The Red Sox signed him two weeks later to a five-year deal worth $110 million. He did just fine. But why did it take so long to sign a guy who had hit 45 home runs a year earlier? Martinez turned out to be a key in the Red Sox drive to the World Series.
One of the things I think most baseball fans look forward to is looking at a spring training roster. Who is new to the team? Who is gone? Who are the guys who might make the team if they have a great exhibition season? It’s all part of the ANTICIPATION of spring.
How exactly can fans of the Washington Nationals—for example—do that right now? For all the propaganda put out by the team and the local media about the various offseason moves the team made, they know everything changes if Harper returns.
Or, if you are a Phillies fan and kept hearing last summer and fall while the team was collapsing that 2019 would be the year to make a move because the team had so much money to add Harper or Machado, things would be WAY better in the coming season. Heck, there was even talk the Phils might sign Harper AND Machado.
As spring training begins, the Phillies big pickup is J.T. Realmuto, a fine offensive catcher, but hardly a superstar. Did the Phils do enough to compete with the Nationals and the Braves? Unlikely. If they added Harper or Machado, that feeling would certainly change.
The larger point is this: the owners are playing a very dangerous game, one that got them burned almost 30 years ago. Maybe many of them don’t remember the disastrous strike of 1994-95 when they tried to impose a unilateral collective bargaining agreement on the players, forcing them to strike. Only (then) federal court judge Sonya Sotomayor ruling that you can’t claim you have "collectively bargained" – when you haven’t actually bargained – prevented the awful specter of scab players opening the season. As it was, we all had to endure an entirely scab spring training in 1995, after a fall without a World Series in 1994.
There’s been labor peace since then, perhaps because the owners, having had their heads handed to them one way or the other through SEVEN work stoppages, decided to be reasonable. Or perhaps it was because both sides realized that everyone was making so much money, another work stoppage would be utterly ridiculous.
Now, the owners seem to be treading on dangerous ground again. The current CBA doesn’t expire until after the 2021 season—meaning nothing significant will happen for three more seasons. But if the owners don’t stop their "stealth" collusion, there could be trouble coming down the track by the end of 2021.
In 1992, when I was researching my first baseball book, “Play Ball,” then-commissioner Fay Vincent was blunt about what a 1994 work stoppage would do to the game. “Most fans would see it as greedy millionaires fighting greedy billionaires,” he said to me. “That wouldn’t be good for baseball.”
Vincent was concerned because the owners had hired a self-proclaimed union buster named Richard Ravitch as their negotiator with the players union.
When I expressed this concern to Tony LaRussa, then the manager of the Oakland Athletics, he smiled and said. “Fay’s concerns are legitimate. But the game will ultimately be okay, because the game is better than all of us.”
Both men were right. Ravitch led the owners into the strike of ’94-’95 and the game suffered greatly. But it survived—not, as some of my colleague insisted because of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa—but because LaRussa was right: the game is better than all of us.
It starts again this week. I can’t wait. But I worry about another work stoppage down the road. I would hate to get to February 2022 and not be able to count down to pitchers and catchers reporting.
It happened in 1995. I was miserable. I don’t think I was alone.
John Feinstein’s most recent non-fiction book, “Quarterback—Inside The Most Important Position in The National Fooball League,” is still on the New York Times sports bestseller list after two months. His latest novel, “The Prodigy,” is the story of a 17-year-old phenom who has a chance to win the Masters all the while holding off his father, agents and shoe company reps who want to turn him into a human ATM machine. John’s website is: JFeinsteinbooks.com