The Pen: Baseball's labor strife can make you cynical. Don't fall into the trap.

Commissioner Rob Manfred and union chief Tony Clark will be negotiating in private and re-litigating their cases in public as Major League Baseball faces a difficult labor battle ahead of the Collective Bargaining Agreement's expiration after 2021. (LG Patterson/MLB via Getty Images)

I assume that all generations fancy themselves the first to discover cynicism as a signifier and sometimes substitute for critical consideration of a deeply flawed and frankly f---ed up world. Adulthood arrives and with it, the sense that you were a fool to ever believe in Santa Claus, meritocracy, that politicians want the best for their constituents, or that professional sports are a pure expression of a childhood game. Rather than protect our dismay for the sake of retaining a sense that things should be better, often we overcorrect for our earlier foolishness by becoming blasé about the many disappointments in the world and scolding anyone who is not yet similarly disillusioned. 

(This will be a baseball column soon, I promise.)

This is happening all the time, I have to think, and so it’s not that this particular moment in baseball labor relations is special or even uniquely disenchanting, but maybe people are saying it more than ever, or more people are saying it, or more people are seeing what’s being said — or now just happens to be when I’m allowed to talk about it. 

Baseball is a business. The people in charge are motivated by money. The people involved are, too. It’s why anyone does this; it’s also why it’s hard to be a baseball fan as adult. Doing so makes you a sucker for funding these greedy elites squabbling over the chance to get rich off a game — or at least that’s how it seems sometimes. It’s tempting to dismiss the sort of fans who feel that way (or at least tweet that way), and the ones who use a rhetorical willingness to play for free to bludgeon the earning aspirations of professionals deserve to be dismissed. But as a transactional matter, sports fandom involves handing over increasingly more money in exchange for the enjoyable, intangible fiction that the people involved are motivated by something other than money — that is, winning — and so, from a purely practical standpoint, the whole thing loses a little of its luster when that is routinely undermined. 

(Yahoo illustration/Amber Matsumoto)

This isn’t intended to be puritanical civility scolding about the impropriety of public salary conversations (declassify all corporate economic information as far as I’m concerned) but rather an accommodation of the reality that often the bottom line is at odds with The Good Of The Game — by which I mean it’s overall vitality, popularity, aesthetic value, and the consumer experience. And every time, it seems like The Good Of The Game will lose out.

That said: we can accept this and plan to navigate it, mitigate it when necessary, without preemptively capitulating to the more damaging effects that capitalism can have on the sport.

We — not a royal ‘we’ but a specific subset of the media and the most vocal of fans — can refuse to throw up our hands in resignation and simply say “baseball is a business” by way of explanation without bothering to interrogate it further. We can decide that it’s not actually mawkishly naive to care or even talk about The Good Of The Game. We can expect the people who have the power to impact these things to care about it too. 

Cynicism is often accurate, but it’s not ambitious. It’s an easy default to seem savvy and world-weary, which is generally justified but does not justify the disaffection that often accompanies it. Cynicism is an abdication of responsibility for ourselves and others. When team owners commit some craven act of penny-pinching at the expense of better, more interesting baseball and the reaction focuses on how that’s just good business sense, or even if it scoffs at how predictable this all is, that lets owners off the hook from having to do it differently.

We’re two years away from needing a new Collective Bargaining Agreement and as negotiations ramp up, Major League Baseball and the Players Association seem content to play hot potato with the moral high ground. Which is, of course, not what economic negotiations between management and labor are about — but it would seem to be an advantageous position to occupy for a battle that will be waged in private and perpetually re-litigated in public.

The owners, whose interests the league represents, can’t stop talking about how they plan to save money by not trying. Even as the offseason gets off to a roaring start compared to previous years, new loopholes emerge. Rob Manfred keeps saying the quiet part out loud. 

Red Sox owner John Henry, who this fall fired World Series-winning GM Dave Dombrowski and installed former Rays executive Chaim Bloom as the top baseball decision-maker, has openly expressed a desire to cut payroll. (Matt Stone/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald)

And yet, save some ire for the union, as well. Which is not how I’ve always felt. Ideologically, I believe that unions exist to antagonize their employers and in doing so act as a counterbalance to the inherent power disparity. Their role isn’t to compromise for the sake of decency or even a sympathetic third party. But as a member of that unrepresented third party (fans, not minor leaguers — although them too), I wish they wouldn’t mortgage young players’ earning potential for the sake of veterans or forestall the chance to negotiate for a salary floor when the owners already treat the competitive balance tax like a cap anyway. 

I understand that they have a fiscal responsibility to their constituents, especially those with more service time, and that the way the media covers the MLBPA can (hopefully) color the larger perception about the value of organized labor in less lucrative fields. But even if it’s viscerally more satisfying to be on the side of millionaires over billionaires, the union is not a benevolent steward of the sport and its interests align with fans only incidentally.

Being pro labor isn’t radical (in this particular instance in which the workforce is already well compensated and comparatively powerful). You know what’s radical? Challenging the assumption that capitalism is some sort of immutable force like gravity and not a self-serving ideology that we’re all choosing to opt into. 

It’s not naive to be frustrated by this lack of accountability on both sides. The people in charge are not profit-seeking robots incapable of considering the bigger picture. Like the Old Testament allegory said, you’ll end up with half a dead baby if you don’t take a step back and consider what’s best for baseball. 

Saying that can seem like a pearl-clutching euphemism for aspiring to a pre-Marvin Miller style of labor relations but that’s not what I mean at all. I think baseball can be better than it’s ever been — more progressive and accessible, with administrations leading both sides of the sport that treat the fans as smart enough to take issue with a negotiation that will consider their interests last, if at all. 

Maybe it’s smarter — and certainly easier — to predict impending doom or at least a slow degradation; but that kind of cynicism will make you complacent. 

Notes from the stands

I’m not especially interested in Hall of Fame debates on the granular, individual level because those are tedious and often devolve into extrapolating a series of statistical guidelines from a collection of players who were elected before we paid too much attention to advanced analytics. However broader discussions of the role and scope of the Hall can illuminate how and what we value in the sport. 

And so I’m curious from people who care: How “big” should the Hall of Fame be? Let me know at or on Twitter. (You don’t have to answer this with specific numbers but I am concerned that I’m about to be inundated with innuendo.)

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