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MLB Is Fighting To Make Baseball Shittier

Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

Baseball's lockout blew past its second deadline, following a 17-hour bargaining marathon that finally broke up around 2:30 Wednesday morning. Owners had threatened that failure to reach a deal by the end of Tuesday's session would result in a second week of canceled regular season games. Nothing has been set in stone, but with no deal in place and with "significant issues" still outstanding, there's a very good chance MLB will now lop off another chunk of the season, and owners and players will have to add the matter of 2022 service time and prorated pay to an already overfull plate of negotiating items.

It's clear by now that the next collective bargaining agreement, whenever it drops, will not include the sweeping reforms to baseball's salary structure and distribution of revenue that the players association has identified as important to the game's competitive integrity. The dreaded competitive balance tax (CBT), the particulars of which are still being negotiated but which so far functions for most teams as a salary cap, isn't going anywhere. Young players will still be snared in pre-arbitration hell, with only a limited bonus pool to dip into and close the gap between their worth and their pay. Revenue sharing will still allow cheapskate owners to turn a profit from baseball operations they've stripped to the bone.

This all aligns with the general sense that players are seeking reforms and owners are defending the status quo. If you're a fan, and you're exhausted of this shit, and you're desperate for a season, and nothing in particular about the most recent chapter of big-league baseball bothered you too much, it can be easy to slip into a kind of complacency about all of this. Baseball, as a sport played on fields in stadiums, was basically fine, and if the math stuff between owners and players was screwy, maybe we could punt that as a concern down the road to a time when a little bit less of the world around the sport is quite as beshitted as it presently is, and accept the status quo, and play some damn baseball.

But a thing that is coming into focus as particulars of the negotiations make their way to the public is that it gives owners a little too much credit to describe what they're fighting for as the status quo, rather than as new ways to maintain it. Look at this:

Jeff Passan reported early Wednesday morning that owners are proposing a system where teams would be "penalized a draft choice" for "signing a top free agent"—a sort of reverse compensatory pick—but that they are willing to back off of this proposal in exchange for an international draft. Baseball's current system for scouting, signing, and developing international players is a nightmare cesspool of corruption and graft and exploitation, but that is not why owners want it overhauled, something that should be obvious when you observe that owners are the ones benefiting from the grafting and exploiting. In fact, owners are willing to barter a proposed overhaul of this awful system in exchange for a mechanism for penalizing teams for bidding for the services of good free agents. What owners want here either way is a new system to push cheap young talent to cheap loser teams, and for the real cost of spending in free agency to be as severe as possible.

Here's more of the same:

Under this proposal, small-market owners—this can be understood to mean "owners who are cheap and who are already soaking up revenue from MLB's handful of serious outfits"—would have double the bites at the apple in the lottery portion of the annual player draft, precisely because they've declined to bid for the services of players who can improve their baseball teams. This shit sucks!

Every update has been like this. The owners will express a willingness to give slight ground on something that seems objectively good for the workforce—a lottery to scramble the top of the draft, a bonus pool for young players, the disincentivizing of service-time manipulation, etc.—but only in exchange for something that's bad for baseball and makes it a worse sport to follow: An absurd 14-team playoffs, say, or a new ultra-punitive third tier of the CBT. OK, sure, we can move forward with improving the sport in this narrow way, but only if we are allowed to make it worse in equal proportion, over here. The thing that owners are asserting and seeking to formalize is the prerogative to inflict whatever gruesome injuries to baseball's competitive landscape are necessary to make losing a more profitable undertaking than winning. That part, at least, very much is status quo.

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