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What to know about the Major League Baseball lockout

Baseball’s popularity has never been more precarious, and labor strife only adds to the sport’s mounting problems.

Visitors to the Twins site found no mention of the $100 million contract Byron Buxton signed just Wednesday morning.
Visitors to the Twins site found no mention of the $100 million contract Byron Buxton signed just Wednesday morning.
Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Shortly after midnight on Thursday morning, moments after Major League Baseball locked out its players, visitors to mlb.com and associated team web sites noticed something strange: All photos and content about players on 40-man rosters had been removed. 

Visitors to the Twins site found no mention of the $100 million contract Byron Buxton signed just Wednesday morning. Instead, they saw a letter to fans from Commissioner Rob Manfred (yuck) and a bunch of old stories about the 2022 schedule, the 1987 World Series and Bert Blyleven’s 3,000th strikeout.

What’s up with that? MLB says that to comply with federal labor law, it won’t promote players’ names, images and likenesses during the lockout. (Minor leaguers not on 40-man rosters aren’t affected because they don’t belong to the MLB Players Association.) It’s yet another sign that both sides remain far apart on key issues, and the 2022 season probably won’t start on time. 

And you thought four-hour playoffs games were MLB’s biggest problem.

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If you’re wondering how MLB went from 26 years of labor peace to this, here’s one way to look at it: Imagine two people at a table in Giordano’s, the Chicago-style pizzeria, when a manhole-sized deep dish arrives. There’s plenty of food to go around. No one’s leaving hungry. And yet, the two of them bicker and argue over how to slice it up. It’s selfishness at its finest, and it starts with the owners.

Major League Baseball is an $11 billion a year industry, bolstered by national television contracts that give each club roughly $50 million annually. Gate receipts, local television contracts and assorted other revenue add to the swelling pot.

Some clubs generate less local revenue than others, but no one should be pleading poverty, especially after the industry threw $1.4 billion at free agents Wednesday alone. Clubs get away with charging $15 for craft cocktails and $6 for popcorn popped three days ago. It’s a nice racket. 

And yet, in the post-expansion era (since 1961), players have never been more disposable.  The superstars always make their money, regardless of era. But then there’s everyone else. It’s not so much the average salary, which has fallen gradually since topping out at $4.1 million in 2017, but the nature of contracts that has come to irk the MLBPA. 

It used to be, a veteran first baseman hitting 20 home runs a season could expect a sweet multi-year deal from his club or another. Now that first baseman is often designated for assignment after the season, goes to camp the following spring on a minor-league contract and, if he’s lucky, sticks with the big club for the one-year veteran minimum. Then the cycle begins again the next winter.   

It’s all about cheap labor, and “team control” has become the buzz phrase of choice. Clubs generally “control” a player for six seasons of major league service before they can become free agents. Most are eligible for arbitration after three seasons (some earlier). Once non-superstars reach a certain salary level through arbitration — former Twin Eddie Rosario is a good example — clubs often cut them loose and give those jobs to a rookie making the $570,500 league minimum. (Hello, Alex Kirilloff and Trevor Larnach.) 

Why should the average fan care about squabbling millionaires and collective bargaining agreements? Because baseball’s popularity has never been more precarious, and a lockout only adds to the sport’s mounting problems.

It’s a sport that’s too slow, too white, and too unappealing to younger age groups it needs to attract to survive. Hardly anyone steals bases anymore, and defensive shifts dramatically reduce the acrobatic glove work that used to bring fans to their feet. (Thankfully, a healthy Buxton helps the Twins in all regards.) 

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There isn’t one easy fix to four-hour games because so many factors got us here, but here’s one thing to consider: Contracts are so hard to come by that veterans treat every at-bat like it’s Game 7 of the World Series. Every pitch thrown, swung at or taken could mean the difference between landing another major-league contract or not. (That’s why pitchers bark so much at the plate umpire.) All that leads players take a little more time between pitches, which adds up over a full game. Fixing that is a good place to start.

For a deeper look at the labor issues, Derrick Gould of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch lays it all out nicely here. Players aren’t paid during the off-season, so there’s little reason to expect significant movement until Opening Day, March 31, approaches. 

For baseball, this winter shapes up to be long, cold and fruitless. Maybe it’s time to start watching the Timberwolves.