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Baseball needs a savior after players’ counteroffer botch

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Well, let’s hope you enjoyed the 13 minutes in which professional baseball players enjoyed prosperity in the court of public opinion. If you blinked you missed it all, kind of like Kevin Maas’ career as Yankee Clipper 2.0.

It isn’t that the MLBPA was wrong to counter the owners’ 60-game schedule Thursday with one 10 games longer, one that includes a slightly larger piece of the financial pie. In a normal negotiation, in truth, that would simply be a part of the dance: you say 60, we say 70, let’s meet at 64 (or 66; an even number is an imperative) and then, in the words of Rex Ryan, let’s go have a damned snack and we’ll meet you at spring training.

But there is nothing normal about this negotiation, mostly because of the unmitigated and unyielding contempt both sides have for each other, partly because the featured players, Rob Manfred and Tony Clark, have both shown a blind spot for actually remembering what it is they actually say whenever they actually get together to talk.

And partly because of this:

“Tell us when and where.”

Look, we are all tired veterans of this process by now and we know that was simply an easily hashtagged rallying cry that was designed to illustrate the unity of a union that, historically, is about as unified as unions ever get. That was Clark’s response to an ownership proposal last week that the players found laughable enough that they simply assumed Manfred would, as his powers as commissioner allow, impose a truncated mad dash of a season. The union chief said his rank-and-file were ready and eager to get back to work. The rank-and-file adopted the slogan. Many tweeted it out.

MLB
Tony ClarkAP

And a funny thing happened:

Through the long history of owner and player disagreement, while the players have most always occupied the moral high ground they have almost always been strangled by their own public relations. When it’s come time to choose sides, the public almost always gathers behind the billionaires. This is not a new thing. Joe DiMaggio once held out for a couple-of-thousand-dollar raise, early in his career. When he ultimately had to settle for whatever crumbs the Yankees were willing to part with, he not only had to endure the harsh critiques of his bosses but had to serve an extended penance with Yankees fans, too, who booed a player they would later elevate in memory to the status of cherished secular saint.

Of course DiMaggio held out in the teeth of the Great Depression, and if the terms had been invented yet he surely would’ve been accused by the sports columnists of the day of being either “tone deaf,” or utilizing “bad optics,” or “failing to read the room.” Similarly, this labor skirmish takes place in the midst of a national calamity so the first reaction of many was to rip the players for refusing to take an even greater haircut than the one they already took once the first half of the season was amputated.

But even in more prosperous times the players have a hard time winning this fight. Everyone who ever played Wiffle Ball, stickball, porch ball or any form of organized baseball — or simply invested a soul in the game — looks at players walkouts as a fundamental betrayal. Everyone knows better, of course. Anyone with a job, asked if they would work for free, would have to stop laughing before they answered the question. Yet there is still a part of many that believes baseball players, who make their living playing baseball, ought to be grateful for every nickel.

That was always a given.

Except this time, it seemed, the players actually had the people on their side. Not all, no. But baseball’s owners are such a distasteful bunch, and Manfred, their puppet, is such a ham-handed leader, it was hard to fall in line behind them, either. They cried poverty and, boom: a billion-dollar TV deal appears! They claim to be sportsmen and defenders of a public trust and yet — voila! — some have expressed private hope the season is never played. At best this is always an airline-food-versus-hospital-food debate, but more than ever before it felt like the players had a fair share of public sentiment on their side.

Then they were told where, and

Tell us where and when!

Told when, and … well, they wanted more. Now it is their right to want more. It is their privilege. And it is easy to believe that Manfred and Clark, who can’t agree on if water is wet, would have different interpretations of how their little face-to-face went the other day. Of course they did.

But this isn’t about right or wrong. It’s about perception. It’s also about finding adults who can stand up and, ultimately, do what’s right and, more and more, it seems obvious the players are going to have to provide that adult supervision.

In the NFL, in a similar crisis, there are numerous voices with enough gravitas to help preach reason. John Mara. Art Rooney II. Robert Kraft. Clark Hunt. Baseball? You tell me who can pull that off. The best team in recent years is the Astros — not exactly a candidate to offer moral authority on anything. The defending champions are the Nats, and their billionaire owners had to be shamed by the players into not cutting off their minor leaguers. Maybe a Hal Steinbrenner/John Henry parlay could work, but the more likely scenario is they’d be viewed as big-market beasts looking after their own interest.

So who is the adult? Manfred? Clark? Anyone? The players had the ear of the public for 13 precious minutes or so, but they also have an army of right-thinking, forward-thinking members who have actually shown themselves to be quite admirable these past few months. Think of the many players who have offered to underwrite minor leaguers, and the others who’ve spoken eloquently in the face of the social vitriol of the past month. Maybe someone can figure a way to talk sense into the people that make this decision. I still think if that happens, it’ll come from the players side. But someone needs to do it, and soon.

The game turns its lonely eyes to you, whoever you are.

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