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MLB Labor WARz: Why the millionaires vs. billionaires argument is all wrong

Don’t let yourself get sucked into the easy complaint.

MLB: JAN 28 MLB Lockout
Don’t slide head first into this base!
Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

There’s enough division in America already, and many baseball fans don’t want to concern themselves with the roiling division inside the sport they love.

That’s understandable. We’re all exhausted. It’s tiring constantly arguing online with people about issues like politics, vaccines, race, masks, and whether or not we’re contributing anything positive to society by constantly tweeting our daily Wordles.

People want sports and, in this case, baseball, to be an escape from all that.

It is for those reasons why, with regard to MLB’s current labor strife, many fans don’t feel anything for either side. Earlier this week, I saw a tweet from a fan in response to someone else that said the following:

“When the millionaires and billionaires come to an agreement on how to divide a s***load of money, let me know and maybe I’ll care again.”

We heard this in 1994, when ownership and players were in the midst of their disastrous work stoppage, and we hear it in every professional sport in which two sides of mostly very wealthy people cannot come to an understanding on the economics of the game.

“Millionaires vs. Billionaires. Wake me up when they’re done fighting.”

There’s no doubt a work stoppage that takes games away from the casual fan is damaging. The reputation of the game, the league, the owners and the players all take a hit, because all some fans want are for the games to be played. They don’t care how the revenue is split, and they don’t care how much money the players make because, for most of us, it’s likely a factor of 10 more than we’ll ever see in a given year.

They don’t want to see how the sausage is made.

But if you truly love the game and want it to be the best sport it can be, the economics of have a direct impact on the product on the field. Los Angeles Dodgers hurler Max Scherzer, one of the leaders of the player’s union, made the point below recently on Twitter.

The player’s union wants the league to reduce the penalties teams are faced with regarding its competitive balance tax, a.k.a. the luxury tax, or to have the tax increased to a point where owners can spend more money without being penalized for doing so.

As Phillies fans, don’t we want John Middleton to have less of an excuse not to spend more on players? The team has resisted going over the tax in recent years, despite holes on the roster that could have been filled if they had been willing to spend a bit more. How does it benefit fans for teams to have a tax in place that acts as a hard cap?

Sure, some teams blow by it, and the Phils should, too. But they don’t. Reducing the penalties or significantly increasing the threshold would give the team more flexibility and increase the odds the team would add more quality players. Don’t we all want that?

Fans always complain about teams signing players in their early 30s to free agent contracts when they are most likely beginning the decline of their careers. A player’s most productive years are generally from their mid-to-late 20s, although there are exceptions. However, most players are either making the league minimum or close to it for the first three years of their careers and then are subject to the arbitration process for the next three unless they agree to a one-year deal each of those seasons or a long-term, usually team-friendly extension.

Doesn’t it make sense for players to be paid more when they’re at their best, and less when they start to decline?

In 2015, the Cubs’ Kris Bryant was the top hitting prospect in baseball and went on a rampage in spring training that showed everyone he was more than big league-ready. And yet, team management kept him in the minors long enough to give them an extra year of control, delaying his free agency by a full year. This is service time manipulation and, not only did it cheat Bryant out of a potentially better free agent contract last off-season, it deprived fans of seeing Bryant start the ‘15 season with their team.

Wouldn’t it be great to know that if a hot, young Phillies prospect is lighting the world on fire in the spring that we wouldn’t be deprived of seeing him on the Opening Day roster simply because waiting five weeks would give the team another year of service time? And isn’t it a good idea to end this underhanded tactic entirely for moral reasons?

While I wouldn’t call what the Phillies did from 2015-17 “tanking,” it was clear they were engaged in a full-on tear down and rebuild of the franchise. They decided not to spend money on the big league roster because they believed it would be wasteful. Their talent level dropped to a point where they were no longer expected to compete for a division title and, as a result, we watched some pretty awful baseball during those long three years.

But with the Phillies, we always knew the team would spend money once the farm system began to develop what we thought was going to be good, young talent. To their credit, despite not exceeding the luxury tax, they have spent about $200 million a season on the roster each of the last three years. But not all teams are doing that.

Every year, “small market” teams like the Pirates, Orioles, Reds, A’s, Rays and others spend as little on their on-field product as possible. And while the A’s and Rays have largely been successful doing that (although Oakland will likely be awful in 2022 as they once again strip payroll), fans in Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Baltimore and other cities know coming into every season that they have no shot at competing for a playoff berth.

Can’t we all agree the economics of the game should be changed so teams aren’t convinced tanking is the proper way to conduct business? Wouldn’t a salary floor or some other mechanism that forces teams and owners to spend a certain amount of money on their roster be good for the fans of those teams?

Keeping the status quo in place means none of the issues are resolved, and some of the fundamental weaknesses of the sport, weaknesses that make the game worse, would not be solved. It would allow other issues, like pace of play, defensive shifting, universal DH, expanded playoffs, etc., to be addressed, too.

Baseball is a great sport, but it has problems that need to be addressed, and it’s not as simple as a “millionares vs. billionaires” debate, as much as some would like it to be.