MLB labor negotiations start promisingly
And then there's Major League Baseball, which doesn't really have a labor or revenue problem. Unless you count the part about socialism. Or communism. Or whatever you want to call it.
But we'll get to Hank Steinbrenner's magnificent rhetoric in a minute. First, give MLB's politicos credit where it is due.
Point A: The sport is entering a labor negotiation.
Point B: Nobody is talking about Armageddon.
That's it! Credit duly noted.
While the NFL essentially declares open war on its own well being ("We shall slice ourselves thusly with these brilliant, shiny swords!" screeched ownership and labor, respectively) and the NBA commissioner warns of dark, sinister days ahead, the folks over at Seamhead Central have come to a remarkable conclusion on the eve of actual labor negotiations: It ain't that bad.
Michael Weiner, the players union's chief negotiator, has begun making the rounds of teams at spring training, and his message is one of consistent calm. Baseball's current labor agreement doesn't expire until December, yet Weiner and commissioner Bud Selig have agreed to begin talking before the start of the regular season in April.
And as much as I hesitate to ever type these words in connection with anything involving a professional sports league and its labor situation, both sides appear to get it. The money varies between excellent and insanely great. The issues are hardly insurmountable. There is no such thing as a "broken model" in a sports league in which everybody is walking away with a full stomach.
"I don't think either side is looking to fundamentally change the way contracts are negotiated," Weiner told reporters in Florida. That is consistent with a Selig comment issued a month or so earlier that the two sides "are on a very constructive path."
It's almost as if baseball is going to fly under the radar this time around. It wasn't always so, and it is impossible to ignore the fact that Selig was the commissioner of record during the 1994 breakdown that led to the disgraceful cancellation of the World Series. But all signs point to baseball as the sport whose directors and guidance counselors currently understand they have so much more to lose than gain from putting down their equipment and walking off the field.
MLB isn't free and clear, of course. No big-money sports league is ever governed without controversy. Even coming out of a year in which baseball generated record revenues of $7 billion and paid out an average of $3 million per player, they are going to have a few owners, White Sox general manager Ken Williams, players, whomever, who walk around with a stick up their backs.
Steinbrenner checked in over the weekend regarding his distaste for the current revenue sharing/luxury tax system, under which he said the Yankees paid out $130 million last year. Although that money is understood to be directed toward smaller-market franchises that cannot and never will approach the kinds of monster broadcast and marketing deals that teams such as the Yankees command, Steinbrenner and Red Sox chairman John Henry have barked about it.
"We've got to do a little something about that, and I know Bud wants to," Steinbrenner said of Selig. "Obviously, we're very much allied with the Red Sox, and Mets and Dodgers and Cubs, whoever in that area. At some point, if you don't want to worry about teams in minor markets, don't put teams in minor markets or don't leave teams in minor markets. Socialism, communism -- whatever you want to call it -- is never the answer."
I call it revenue sharing, actually, and it has been the answer in the NFL, among other places, for decades. Further, a lot of us like the idea of "minor markets," because the Yankees and Red Sox sort of need other teams to play against, and those little guys can be really useful for that.
For that matter, let me agree with Derek Thompson, who, writing in The Atlantic, suggested what baseball might really need is a stricter set of guidelines for what the small-market franchises do with the money MLB gives them. Neither Steinbrenner nor John Henry can be blamed for being frustrated with a system that takes their money for wildly overspending in an attempt to win the World Series and gives it to teams such as Pittsburgh, whose owners don't use it for payroll but rather to pay down their stadium debt.
But that's a tweak. It is not Armageddon. That is the owners talking among themselves more so than necessarily talking to the players, and Weiner and Selig seem to recognize it.
It isn't all beer and pretzels, no. The looming trials of Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens ought to make that clear. But in a year in which the average sports fan is being asked to fathom that the NFL and NBA somehow suffer so much that these titanic labor battles have to happen, it's refreshing to see an obviously rich sport acknowledge that its problems are few. In a down economy, that's the right play.
Mark Kreidler is a longtime contributor to ESPN.com. His work, "Six Good Innings," was named one of the Top 10 Sports Books of 2009 by Booklist. His next book, "The Voodoo Wave," will be released in August 2011 by W.W. Norton. Reach him at email@example.com.
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