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Game of the weak: Baseball owners are locking out more than the players

Anyone who earns a living at or around a major league ballpark is being punished…

MLB: World Series-Atlanta Braves at Houston Astros Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

We can’t say Rob Manfred didn’t warn us.

Nope. He was right up front back in December when he declared that major league players would be locked out until they agreed to a new collective bargaining agreement, and owners were willing to sacrifice games.

Now, after a couple more warnings and a “this time we’re really serious” deadline extension, Manfred and the owners have, indeed, fired the first metaphorical shot — at themselves. They’ve canceled the first two series of the 2022 season, meaning a delayed Opening Day for the second time in three seasons. This is the third straight season without a usual Spring Training routine.

After crying for two years that the COVID-shortened 2020 season, played on their own terms, cost them a fortune in operating revenue, big league ballclubs apparently still aren’t able to do business after a comparatively normal 2021 season.

Now Manfred is saying the pandemic wasn’t the start of baseball’s issues.

“I think you also need to remember that the last five years have been very difficult years from a revenue perspective for the industry,” Manfred explained in a news conference Tuesday.

Now they’re willing to lose another fortune to prove their point by cutting off their own source of income — live baseball games. They’re making it out to be punishing the selfish players, but who’s really getting the business end of the Louisville Slugger? Fans, and more importantly, anyone who earns a living in or around major league ballparks.

So the owners are forgoing their income, and the players won’t be getting paid, but neither will hourly stadium employees, game-day staff, businesses and workers who rely on game-day traffic — anyone with any income connected to a ballpark or game.

Let’s not forget Spring Training communities in Arizona and Florida. People in many professions are suffering as you read this without the businesses patterns and clientele that have served them for generations — for a third straight year.

How does the commissioner address people affected by those situations?

“I think that the concern about our fans is at the very top of our consideration list, followed closely by places like where we’re standing where people’s livelihood depends on baseball, Spring Training baseball, and certainly part of the calculus for us and for our owners,” Manfred said.

That sounds sincere coming from the man who initiated the work stoppage in the first place, doesn’t it?

It’s no longer “billionaires vs. millionaires.”

It’s the sole provider of valuable goods and services withholding its business from communities that may just now have an opportunity to recover from the pandemic. Many teams, like the Washington Nationals, play in stadiums that were sold to their communities as economic-development engines.

A baseball lockout sounds more like an act of class warfare.

Imagine now, baseball in 10 years, a game in which owners have dictated the economic terms since this work stoppage:

Perhaps the Nats are fortunate and sign Juan Soto to a long-term contract that would set a new salary standard for right fielders. Perhaps he will lead the team to a few more postseasons and maybe even another championship before 2032.

But what if Soto is still the game’s highest-paid player in another decade? He’d be nearing free agency at the age of 33, and the Nats might not be even talking to him about an extension.

That’s because another 17-year-old phenom would be waiting in Class AA, and the organization could pick just the right time to bring him up the big leagues to keep him under contract as long as possible at a major league minimum salary. Teams have organized and regimented their minor-league systems to crank out prospects who have been under contract since they were 16, timing their ascension to The Show down to the day to get the most value for every penny.

The next season, the Nats have a new right fielder, and Soto is looking for a job. In fact, very few major league players over age 30 have jobs. Most who do make a big league roster are deciding their career year to year for a relatively low salary because they still want to play. A reigning Cy Young Award winner, at age 32, is offered a minor league deal with an invitation to spring training for a last-place team, just as camps open.

But most of the stars of the past 10 years, like Bryce Harper, Mike Trout, Ronald Acuña, Jr., Shohei Ohtani, and other players who were getting big money in the early 2020s, are now out of work. Almost every player whose career lasts through arbitration eligibility is getting a short-term, team-friendly deal that takes them to or just past their 30th birthday. Then the team presents them with an honorary walker on the way out the door, to an offer of a scouting, coaching, or broadcasting job.

With seven teams in each league making the postseason each year, action at the trade deadline makes offseason free-agency look exciting. Nobody wants to trade an aging 28-year-old on the cusp of free agency, and no one wants to give up their low-priced prospects if they’re going to make the postseason anyway. Any team above .500 at the deadline starts printing and selling postseason packages, many in stadiums that play at half capacity during the regular season.

There’s more anticipation around the four-team draft lottery than around the trade deadline and free agency combined. The lucky first few draft choices will command big enough signing bonuses that they can afford to live a minor-league lifestyle, but will they go right to the majors anyway, to replace the old-timers on their way out?

There’s talk about a senior league, maybe a classic all-star barnstorming tour if big league ballparks can’t be used, but MLB spends millions in legal and lobbying fees to fight it. Then the owners initiate another lockout when the CBA expires because they’re still not bringing in quite enough.

At least one sub-.500 team now makes the postseason each year. A couple have gone on deep runs, but usually, a play-in game between two teams with losing records hasn’t even sold out. In fact, there’s not much buzz about four-hour postseason games until the Division Series roll around.

Half the postseason games are broadcast on obscure, cable-only channels that most U.S. systems don’t carry. The New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles teams’ games are always on the broadcast networks, though.

Your annual mlb.tv subscription is the same price as an upstairs season ticket, and you still need to subscribe to cable to watch your team’s home games, or you can watch them with your funded account on your team’s official sportsbook app.

Or, of course, you can go watch a game in person. There are plenty of great seats still available.

Sounds like fun huh?

That's the future Manfred and major league owners want for us and for the game. It’s the future they want so badly, they’ve broadened their lockout to include not only the players and fans, but now their own hourly employees and contractors.

Such a future must be worth a good bit more to them than the price of the economic suffering they are causing.