Could the unintended consequence of an unintended consequence help save baseball?
Think of it as, the enemy of my enemy is my friend.
MLB and the Players Association are at the most adversarial since the last labor stoppage of 1994-95. But they do have a common foe, and that is withering belief about the integrity and viability of the sport. Remove that at too high a level and it threatens the ever-increasing money flow into the game. And both sides want plenty of money pouring in, even if they are going to forever fight about how to split it.
So can they work together on Unintended Consequence 1: integrity issues. Will Unintended Consequence 2 be that talking about items like how to use in-game tech forge more positive communication that avoids the looming MLB armageddon of an expiring collective bargaining agreement on Dec. 1, 2021?
Let’s backtrack to Unintended Consequence 1. That springs from MLB wanting to equip managers with the best technology to help decide whether to make a replay challenge when the system was expanded in 2014. However, that multi-monitor apparatus also provided the unbroken close-ups of the catcher’s signals, which most notoriously served as Ground Zero for the Astros illegally stealing signs and creating the game’s biggest scandal since the height of the Steroid Era.
The Players Association and MLB now are having regular conversations to try to decide how to regulate in-game tech use. They are expected to reach an agreement before Opening Day that will — among other items — determine if hitters and pitchers can watch their at-bats and pitches from earlier in the game, as has been allowed until now.
This is not exactly Yalta. But after the coldest of cold wars between the sides since the 1994-95 labor strife led to the cancellation of a World Series, the mere fact the sides have had a good dialogue over the past year about in-game/on-field matters is encouraging. That it has been particularly productive in the aftermath of Rob Manfred’s punishment of the Astros offers some hope of cooling the overheated rhetoric and rancor within the labor issues.
“The lines of communication being open is indeed a positive,” baseball union chief Tony Clark said via email. “Whether the dialogue yields results is the most important measure.”
For now the sides have a common goal. That the Astros’ championship in 2017 and the Red Sox’s in 2018 has been tarnished, at minimum, is a black eye for the players and the institution of the game (Manfred’s ruling on the Red Sox’s illegal sign stealing is expected this week).
As opposed to the slow reaction and obstruction that was part of trying to limit the use of illegal performance-enhancers, MLB and the Players Association appear more quickly unified on trying to stem the potential for cheating that tech, in particular, has created. The motivation is that, yes, they care about the game. But following the money is always the best policy to understand what stirs action.
MLB has national TV rights deals to negotiate for the early playoff rounds, the league championship series and its regular season package, all of which would begin in 2022. TV partners are going to want to know that the product will not be disrupted by a labor stoppage. And the collective bargaining agreement expires after the 2021 season.
Just as important is that the next big pile of money for the sport will come from legalized gambling. Thus, it is imperative that the sport convince the fans that the games are on the up-and-up and not leave open that even the World Series is a haven for cheating.
MLB already is a roughly $11 billion-a-year endeavor. The new TV rights deals and legalized gambling will send that number ever higher, though at least in the short run worries persist about sagging attendance, exacerbated this year by the possibility coronavirus concerns severely curtail crowd size.
The best way for MLB and the Players Association to proceed is to work together to ward off ever-changing obstacles and meet the shared aim of growing the game home and abroad — translation: cha-ching.
But the slow free-agent markets after the 2017 and 2018 seasons created the most heightened distrust — mainly by the players toward management — as has existed since the last labor stoppage. The sides have gained no traction in CBA talks with the current deal due to expire in less than 21 months.
There were eight work stoppages between 1972-95, but four new CBAs have been hammered out since with no disruption in play. Both sides understand that — in a more fragmented entertainment world in which baseball does not resonate nationally the way that the NFL and NBA do — an interruption in play could cause permanent damage to MLB’s popularity. In 1972 or 1985 or 1990, for example, MLB did not have to compete with YouTube, e-sports or MMA in the aftermath of stoppages. Lose a fan now, and you might lose that person for good.
That is why several agents and MLB officials expressed hope that the sides working together on on-field issues (which have economic impact as well) will foster an improved working relationship for CBA talks. The sides needed a stimulus to get back talking in a more constructive way since a work stoppage is potentially so devastating, and there is too much on the table to do a stare-down until the eleventh hour. Among other items, the players want to try to lower the service time for arbitration and free agency while MLB has its eyes on expanded playoffs and an automated strike zone.
Maybe the unintended consequence of an unintended consequence can offer an avenue for more substantive, productive talks on all of these matters.