This generation of players has probably already ascertained, just as predecessors such as Tom Glavine and David Cone did, that most fans won't side with them in a labor dispute. Many of the folks who pay to watch the players still view baseball as a child's game, rather than the business that it is, and believe that if they had been born with Mike Trout's speed or Giancarlo Stanton's power or Max Scherzer's slider, they would play for free.
That ridiculous fantasy remains the backbone of popular sentiment, so the players can’t really fret about the responses they’re reading on social media following the union’s seeming threat of a spring training boycott, emitted in tweet bursts Friday from some agents and a statement by union chief Tony Clark (on Sunday, the union released a statement that there is no such threat).
— #MLBPA (@MLB_PLAYERS) February 2, 2018
The players need to do what’s best for them, what’s best for the players' association. To that end, they should present a series of questions to Clark.
No. 1: What is the big-picture, long-term strategy behind the threat of boycotting spring training?
As agents and executives read and absorbed the tweets and statements on each side of their respective labor aisles Friday, there was broad consensus on this: You cannot possibly suggest this kind of serious challenge unless you are willing to back it up, or else your credibility as a negotiator is weakened.
Don Fehr and Gene Orza, past leaders of the union, would construct specific plans around a threat as grave as this. A public volley might be accompanied by a legal filing with the National Labor Relations Board, for example, or a lawsuit. So, what is the endgame for the suggested boycott?
Without laying out that planning, Friday’s tweets and statements are nothing more than tantrums. “Short-sighted,” said one agent. “Impetuous,” said another.
No. 2: What tangible concession is the union aiming to achieve with the boycott threat?
To insist that more players get more money is almost as loose a stance as asking for world peace. Specifically: Is the union threatening a boycott to get an alteration in the collective bargaining agreement? A 26th player for each team? (A proposal that the union inexplicably killed in the last round of talks.) What, exactly?
No. 3: Has the union collected actual evidence of collusion?
Back in 1987, the owners’ conspiracy to not tender offers to free agents from clubs other than their own was completely undermined and unveiled by the plight of Andre Dawson. The All-Star outfielder reached free agency and initially generated zero offers until he embarrassed the Cubs into giving him a contract.
This winter, there are still dozens and dozens of unsigned free agents. But many relievers, from Anthony Swarzak to Wade Davis, were paid well in a frenzy of bidding in early December. Center fielder Lorenzo Cain just got the biggest contract of the winter, a sturdy $80 million from the Milwaukee Brewers, right in line with his market comp of recent years, Dexter Fowler, who got $82.5 million from the Cardinals last winter.
The market for Eric Hosmer hasn’t been as robust as agent Scott Boras would like, but it was apparent early last season that few contending teams would be looking for a first baseman because they already had someone -- the Dodgers with Cody Bellinger, the Cubs with Anthony Rizzo, etc. Hosmer has two nine-figure offers, from the Royals and the Padres. Is it collusion if he doesn’t have more? Yu Darvish probably could sign a deal for more than $100 million today. If he doesn’t get $160 million, is that collusion? Or is that a matter of this era’s better-informed executives defining how much risk they’re comfortable with?
The players should press Clark on specifics, on what hard evidence of collusion has been collected by the players' association. Because if the union cannot make a case for collusion, it cannot ask the players to boycott spring training and take on a fight it will lose without that evidence.
No. 4: What was the thinking behind having CAA agent Brodie Van Wagenen fire off the first major threat with his tweet Friday rather than Clark? Was this coordinated? Or was it completely uncoordinated, with Clark following the aggressive statements of agents with one of his own?
“Either way, it looks weak,” said one agent. “Is Tony in charge? Is he leading these guys? Would Rob Manfred have Theo [Epstein] make declarations like that in advance of labor negotiations? If Tony’s statement came out only because [the agents] made statements, it’s just chaos.”
No. 5: Is the union leadership better positioned for the next round of labor-related negotiations?
It’s imperative that this be addressed immediately. Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that Manfred -- whose baseball legacy is built on his ability to forge more than two decades of labor peace, mostly in concert with the late union chief Michael Weiner -- called Clark this week and said he would be willing to renegotiate parts of the CBA, in return for an extension.
Would the players' association have the legal team and strategy in place right now to best represent the players? Do the players want the same group of negotiators who seemingly got pounded in the last round of talks to bargain for them again? Is more legal firepower needed? Is more time needed?
If you bang the drums of labor war, you have to be prepared for the other side’s appeal for peace. Does Clark and his team know exactly how they would respond? What would the priorities be?
No. 6: If the union follows through with an attempted boycott of spring training, could it be violating labor law?
This was a popular topic among baseball lawyers Friday: Could the union simply refuse the honor a labor agreement it negotiated just 15 months ago?
It used to be that the owners would recklessly expose themselves to complaints and suits and would get crushed in court. What potential fallout is the union risking?
No. 7: What are the potential gains from a spring boycott weighed against the potential damage done to the players and their industry?
Clark should offer best-case and worst-case forecasts for the players.
No. 8: If Manfred’s response to a spring training boycott is to do nothing and not relent in any way, what is Clark’s next move? Will he recommend to the players that they sit out the entire 2018 season? Or will the plan be to ask the players to report to camp only when they are required to do so?
No. 9: Could it make sense for the union to separate the pace-of-play discussions from the possible spring training boycott?
For now, the union seems to be lumping it all together, refusing to budge. If they won’t talk, then MLB will inevitably implement a pitch clock and other rules. In the end, would it be better to talk through proposals on pace of play, lest the players get stuck with a bunch of rules they don’t want -- particularly with MLB indicating a willingness to be flexible on the pitch clock?
No. 10: How will the threat of a boycott affect the unsigned free agents?
The market is painfully slow already, but there was some anticipation among agents and teams that as camps opened, more players would get deals. If the union intends to boycott, what is Clark’s assessment of the collateral damage done to those players?
No. 11: Has the union leadership fully reviewed the CBA talks of 2016, identified mistakes and taken corrective measures?
In 2016, the union delayed the talks for months, rushed through a last-minute deal while under Manfred’s threat of a lockout ... and seemed to miss a lot. Even then, it seemed incomprehensible that the union did not take preventative measures to combat the growing number of tanking teams, which had already been discussed for years -- including among the owners.
The other day, veteran Brandon Moss spoke frankly about the union’s current plight and suggested that the union was responsible because of the terms negotiated in the current CBA talks. Many other players agree.
No. 12: Does Clark believe the players are fully prepared and united to shut down the game?
The most dangerous development for the union Friday was that Clark and the agents maintained that the players and their representatives are in agreement about the notion of collusion and the idea of a boycott.
That’s simply not the case. Based on phone and text conversations Friday, it’s apparent some players and agents strongly disagree that skipping spring training is a viable option. Rather, they think it would lead to another disaster.
Some of them worry that leaders who made terrible mistakes the last time are now considering pointing them over a cliff.
Those concerns would need to be addressed before the union acts on any threat of a spring training boycott.