The Stitches Are Showing

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Now that it is over and Manny Machado and Bryce Harper have their money and their jobs, the beginning of baseball’s real season — the border war between owners and players — can begin.

Major League Baseball’s CBA expires in 2021. There hasn’t been a strike since Aug. 12, 1994, when Barry Bonds was in the second year of a record six-year, $43.75 million deal and when Harper was 21 months old. There are no active players who were playing in 1995, when owners unilaterally imposed a salary cap on the striking players and then opened spring camps with replacement players. Only a handful — CC Sabathia, cheap nike nfl jerseys wholesale Fernando Rodney and Ichiro Suzuki, to name three — were playing in 2002, when baseball last nearly shut down. But while the past 16 seasons have commenced without the threat of strike or lockout — the past 24 without either actually occurring — the players and owners have been steadily heading toward conflict, especially over the past two years. In 2018, both commissioner Rob Manfred and players’ association executive director Tony Clark dodged and weaved around the word “collusion” when the free agent market was so slow that J.D. Martinez, a 30-year-old coming off a 45-homer season, didn’t sign with the Red Sox until late February. In 2019, despite Machado and Harper combining for $630 million in contracts, the players — from Justin Verlander to Sean Doolittle — have sounded like Occupy Wall Street when discussing a “broken system.”7

The gap between the owners and players is widening. The owners have made their moves to rebalance a sport they believe has tilted toward the players for the past 40 years. Revenues are up, but the average salary dropped last season for the first time in 15 years. The Machado and Harper megadeals obscure the fact that jobs for the middle class — players with six to eight years of service time — are being squeezed out by front offices that seem comfortable paying the big stars and filling in rosters with less expensive, less experienced, more controllable players.

Owners have re-established control of the reserve system, free agency and long-term contracts, with a big assist from the public. As late as March 1, scores of free agents were still unsigned as front offices divest from players who are 30 or older — All-Star outfielder Adam Jones is 33, Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel is 31, closer Craig Kimbrel is 30. At the same time, teams manipulate the service time of big-league-ready young players such as Vladimir Guerrero Jr. by leaving them in the minors. Teams do this assured in the knowledge that while these veteran and rookie players could obviously help a team, the public condones the anti-labor practice of tanking. Many teams simply aren’t trying to win, and fans don’t care.

Clark gets the blame for the bad CBA signed in 2016; he’s been criticized for conceding too much ground to the owners while angering agents by not sufficiently consulting them during negotiations. The average MLB salary is still $4 million, the minimum salary now $550,000, the one-year qualifying offer $17.9 million. But today’s player, across sports, was born into a country that has demonized labor so thoroughly that some of them do not even believe philosophically in the principles of unions and more quickly turn on one another. It should forever be remembered that when the owners squeezed veterans in the NBA and NFL, the players responded by attacking younger players, advocating for a rookie wage scale.