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MLB’s threat to lose games confirms that the league’s lockout was always a cynical ploy

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Suspicions stemming from the early days of the lockout have been validated.

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MLB: ALDS-Chicago White Sox at Houston Astros Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

On Dec. 2, in the wake of Major League Baseball’s implemented lockout, commissioner Rob Manfred wrote “A letter to baseball fans.” In the eight-paragraph missive, one sentence stood out:

This defensive lockout was necessary because the Players Association’s vision for Major League Baseball would threaten the ability of most teams to be competitive.

Ignoring the comical claim made at the end — baseball already has a problem in regard to competitive balance, with several teams apathetic about winning — the key word comes at the beginning.

“This defensive lockout.”

For starters, a defensive lockout is an inane notion if not an oxymoron. Secondly, the framing was a blatant attempt by Manfred and the owners to deflect blame for the work stoppage — despite initiating it. The intent behind the lockout’s implementation was quite clear from the beginning, and what was reportedly said during a meeting between the league and players on Monday was confirmation, courtesy of The Athletic’s Evan Drellich:

In a meeting with the Players Association on Monday, Major League Baseball deputy commissioner Dan Halem said that MLB is willing to lose games over some of the outstanding issues the sides have, people with knowledge of the talks said.

MLB conveyed what much of the industry has been expecting to hear since early December: The owners are not playing defense, they’re very much on the offensive.

Halem’s inauspicious remarks were not made in response to any provocation by the MLB Players Association, they were made in a meeting where the PA reportedly withdrew their request for an altered free-agent system, one that would have decreased the amount of service time needed for some players to reach free agency.

By all accounts, what Halem said was unprompted. That in and of itself is rather telling.

While it remains to be seen how serious the threat is, it sounds like the league is willing to take drastic measures in order to secure another advantageous collective bargaining agreement.

For the owners, baseball is purely a business, nothing more. Losing games and millions in revenue would be bad for business, but based on Halem’s comments, the long game is the priority. The CBA of 2015 is universally considered to be lopsided in the owners’ favor, and with how revenues increased substantially under that CBA while the average player salary more or less remained the same, there’s reason to believe the league is in fact OK with losing games if it meant obtaining similarly favorable terms of seven years ago.

The players got walloped in 2015 and paid for it in the following years, which has resulted in increasing feelings of resentment and animosity toward the owners. This time around, the PA is looking to drive a harder bargain, focusing on, among other things, improving the minimum salary, overhauling the arbitration process and increasing the Competitive Balance Tax.

They want the owners to spend more money on player salaries to keep in line with the revenue increases of recent years, and the owners want to maintain the gains they’ve made.

In a battle of billionaires versus millionaires, the ordinary fan may not care if a fair deal is struck, because regardless of which side prevails, both will still be making exponentially more money than the millions of customers who fund their lucrative business. Manfred and MLB are undoubtedly hoping to conserve this sentiment of indifference, thus enabling them to employ strong-arm tactics such as threatening to drop games, all while not having to deal with any significant pushback from the public. Selling the lockout as a defensive strategy against a supposedly greedy, unreasonable opposition was merely an early-stage gambit in their PR playbook.

Thanks to Drellich’s reporting, the next big move — should it be deemed necessary by the owners — is now known. The focus may shift back to the PA’s side of things, but whether the players hold their ground in the coming months could be considered immaterial. They did not initiate the work stoppage, nor have they threatened to squash games in an attempt to strengthen their stance in negotiations.

In his letter to the fans, one of Manfred’s concluding statements reads, “I do not doubt the League and the Players share a fundamental appreciation for this game and a commitment to its fans.”

When it comes to caring about baseball and exhibiting a commitment to its fans, the state of the game is apparently not a priority for those who happen to be its stewards.