NEW YORK — You may have heard:
The business of baseball is closed down indefinitely, with the owners’ lockout of the players in the wake of the stalled negotiations over a new labor agreement. It’s another self-inflicted wound for the game struggling to maintain its fan appeal, and for the players, it’s especially bad optics to now being insistent on blowing up the system that was created by their “Moses,” Marvin Miller, after just reaping a $1.7 billion haul of free-agent contracts.
This is nuts, folks, if only because there’s an easy solution to the core issue of this dispute — clubs not spending enough of their revenue on players — on which both sides actually agree. The deal is right there in front of them, but it can’t begin to get negotiated until Tony Clark, Bruce Meyer and Scott Boras on the players’ side get off this demand of lowering free-agent eligibility from six years to five and salary arbitration from three years to two. Those are non-starters for the owners, and to be perfectly frank, they have nothing to do with tanking and owners pocketing their revenue sharing instead of investing it on payroll, the very issues the players rightly want to address.
Before we get into the essence of the deal, it is worth reviewing how Miller, now finally a Hall of Famer, came up with the concept of what was actually limited free agency in 1976. After arbitrator Peter Seitz ruled against the owners and determined players could become free agents upon the termination of their contracts, it was necessary to quickly create a mechanism for implementing free agency. At the time, Oakland A’s maverick owner Charlie Finley proposed making all the players free agents every year.
As Miller recounted in his 1991 autobiography “A Whole Different Ballgame”:
“It suddenly dawned on me, as a terrifying possibility, the owners might suddenly wake up and realize that yearly free agency was the best possible thing for them; that is, if all players became free agents at the end of the year the market would be flooded and the salaries would be held down. It wouldn’t be a matter of teams bidding against each other for one player as of players competing against each other. … Initially management proposed a 10-year service requirement for free agency and gradually inched down to seven. The owners wanted as few players as possible to become free agents and I wasn’t entirely opposed to this. But what would be likely to produce the optimum mix of supply and demand? I proposed four years but my feeling was that five years would be better and that if the choice came down to four or six years I would choose the latter.”
It’s a system that, for 45 years, has worked extremely well for both sides. Free-agent players have experienced ample competition for their services while the clubs have had at least six prime seasons of their homegrown players. But because of the clubs’ manipulation of service time in recent years — holding players back in the minor leagues — a lot of them are near 30 or older by the time they’ve accrued their six years. In their last proposal before the lockout, the owners sought to address that as well without lowering the six years eligibility, by offering free agency to players reaching the age of 29.5.
That would be part of the deal that’s right here to be made.
On the core tanking issue:
At the same time the owners would raise the competitive balance payroll threshold from the present $210 million to, say, $230-240 million with substantially increased tax penalties for payrolls over $250 million, a payroll floor of $90-$100 million would also be established. At the end of last season, there were 13 clubs with payrolls of less than $100 million, 10 under $90 million, most of them revenue sharing recipients. Those clubs receiving revenue sharing that do not comply with the floor would lose the difference in revenue sharing, which would then be distributed to the other revenue recipient clubs as a “bonus” for meeting the floor.
Those clubs which do not receive revenue sharing and are not in compliance with the floor, would be penalized with the loss of international spending money and/or draft picks. Besides providing a sufficient detriment to teams tanking, this would also put an end to teams receiving revenue sharing but still deliberately keeping their payrolls low. (Example: The Tampa Bay Rays had a $76 million payroll in 2021 but took in almost the same amount in revenue sharing.)
By implementing this system, there would be no need to create a lottery for the amateur draft. In addition, free-agent compensation would be tweaked with clubs signing free agents who had been given qualified offers by their previous clubs would no longer be penalized with loss of draft picks. Clubs losing free agents, however, would still get supplementary-round draft pick compensation.
Addressing the arbitration issue is even easier. For one thing, how many players with two years of service time are we really talking about? Twenty? Thirty? Certainly not much more and certainly not worth shutting down the game over. A simple solution is to create a few more “Super Twos” by whatever formula the two sides can agree on.
We should only hope it doesn’t take three months and into spring training for the two sides to realize there’s an easy deal to be made here. Once they do maybe they can figure out a way to squeeze another $7 million a year out of an $11 billion industry to bring the 609 former players who got screwed out of the 1980 pension deal up to the same $10,000 a year stipend MLB awarded former Negro League players in 1997.