Why I am Happy About MLB-Players Association Dialogue

photo: Rob Manfred, KC Mayor Sly James, Tony Clark (Denny Medley/USA TODAY Sports)

I feel out of place as one of the few around baseball who is actually somewhat happy right now.

The reason is simple – Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association are talking here in February, 2019.

When Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic broke the news Tuesday evening that MLB and the Union have been discussing the merits of a series of proposed rule changes, it also temporarily drew attention away from this winter’s slow free agent market.

As a result – at least if I can judge by the level of fan angst on social media – the idea of a universal designated hitter or a lowered mound or any of the other many ideas being floated are causing high levels of concern and widespread emotional debates. Many media members and bloggers are filling the internet with opinion pieces on why a 20-second pitch clock or pitchers no longer hitting would be the end of baseball as we know it.

Don’t worry. This is NOT another one of those boring editorials, in which I try to convince you to change your mind about which something you have already decided on long ago.

It is great that a lot of people care, and want others to know, but the stark reality is that in the big picture, our opinions do not matter. The Lords of Baseball are going to carry out their negotiations without care over fan or media points of view. That is just simple fact. If you believe otherwise – that social media rabble-rousing moves the decision-making needle – you are just fooling yourself.

Further, consider the process. Anyone who negotiates regularly knows to come in with a longer list of demands than you would settle on. That way, as the two sides move toward compromise, less important items can be sacrificed to ensure you get what you really want. However, at this point, we have no idea what is most important either to MLB or the Players Association. So a bunch of proposals have been thrown up against the wall with no knowledge of which ones will stick.

Against that backdrop, my point of view is there is no reason to get upset.

Looking ahead to December 2021

Like I wrote above, I am actually pleased – even if no significant rule changes are enacted any time soon.

That is because the two sides are already talking. Now that it has begun, they need to continue to meet in earnest for the next three years. As soon as they knock out the rule-related items, the talks should move on to free agency, salary caps, tanking and the myriad of real problems across the game. The items on the table now are just noise in comparison.

From my distant vantage point, it appears that the two sides usually wait too long to open serious negotiations prior to the expiration of baseball’s key operating document, the Collective Bargaining Agreement. The current CBA has some very large holes – at least from the perspective of the players. With almost three years of the five-year term remaining, the specter of a work stoppage is already being discussed.

Instead, if the two sides get serious now – or hopefully, remain serious – they can increase their chances of working out their major issues before the CBA expires and/or a strike is called.

Siding with players or owners?

A friend of mine, the product of a union household and later trained in the legal profession, recently contacted me, frustrated over the general perception that the owners receive significantly greater fan support while the players are often considered ungrateful and greedy.

My initial comment was that the players agreed to the rules in place and it is their fault they signed an agreement that is unfavorable to them. Instead of whining about it, they should build their game plan to win their key battles within the major battle for the next CBA.

My friend then asked what I thought should be done to shift the perception from favoring the owners to siding with the players.

My reply began with an observation that if a work stoppage occurs, it will most likely be called by the players. That sets them up as the bad guys for taking the game away from its fans – strengthening the perception my friend believes already predominates.

My belief is that changes must begin with Tony Clark and the Players Association, who to-date have done a poor job marketing their stances to the public. Once they decide the battles they want to fight in the next CBA negotiations, they need to get their talking points and supporting data in front of the media, and therefore, the fans.

Explain what they are asking for and why.  Open the lines of communications with fans and the press and answer their questions – initiatives unheard of by ownership. Take the high ground in the court of public opinion and hold it.

Recent hirings by the Union – Chris Dahl as Director of Communications and Jerry Crasnick in a new role of Senior Advisor: Player, Agent, and Media Relations – suggest an increased resolve to communicate more effectively outwardly. Only time will tell if they are effective.

No one wants a strike, but if it is deemed necessary, the Union needs to have built and communicated its motives over a long period. Otherwise, if worst comes to worst, without a change in perception, if the players call a work stoppage, the owners will likely still have the majority of the fans on their side.

There is time to change that – if the Players Association gets serious about it. Talk, talk and talk some more.

Friday, February 8 update

In events not surprising to me, MLB clarified its position. Those hoping for the universal designated hitter in return for minor changes like a 20-second pitch clock are going to be disappointed.

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Brian Walton can be reached via email at brian@thecardinalnation.com. Follow Brian on Twitter.

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