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MLB

The Owners Are Getting Ornery

20230215E0621DS - Major League Baseball Commissioner Robert D. Manfred Jr. speaks to the media
Daniel Shirey/MLB Photos via Getty Images

The talking point is that Major League Baseball has created an "economic reform committee" because a number of owners hate the way Steve Cohen of Securities And Exchange Commission fame does business—by hurling money at any batting glove that moves and then slapping a "Don't Like My Driving? Call 1-800-GET-BENT" bumper sticker on the lack of his limo.

But the real interest isn't in looking at how Cohen has decided to spend the New York Mets out of their chronic Metdom. It's in looking at the owners who are most agitated by him, because that's when the circle of sclerosis that is billionaires eating billionaires gets fun. Or, as former Miami Marlins president and chief son-in-law David Samson put it (courtesy The Athletic's MLB snoop Evan Drellich):

“Owners are now beginning to dislike each other, not just personally, but the economics of the game is something that you’re gonna have to work through. But it’s not coming till ’26. They’re not reopening the collective bargaining agreement. But … they’re working on the new CBA. Now.

“And that may sound early to you, but it’s not. And the reason they’re working on it now is they’ve got to come up with solutions to get to 23 [votes]. Because if they had a vote on a CBA today, given what Steve Cohen’s done, given what the league looks like, here’s a little terrible fact: They don’t have the votes. And that’s a scary thing if you’re the commissioner.”

To which the rest of us can say only this: May the baseball gods do their damnedest to make this happen, sooner rather than later. Say, maybe by Thursday.

Drellich's full analysis bears a read because it is so gloriously dire. When the Bobs Castellini and Nutting of the world want the heads of the Cohens and Peter Seidlers of the world, the results can be spectacular. Again, Samson: “Rob [Manfred] is worried, as he should be. The biggest problem in ‘94 (the year the owners shot the game in the leg in hopes of letting it bleed out) was owner vs. owner.”

The Bally's problem is a part of this, since so many teams have tied their regional television coverage to a foundering ship that just missed its last interest payment and is heading straight for Bankruptcy Reef. Fourteen teams are affected, but the remaining RSNs don't exactly ooze solvency very far into the future either, so everyone is going to get theirs eventually. And since local teams own their own streaming rights, the Cohen wing is unlikely to want to share with the Nutting wing. The result: More sugary bickering.

The long game here, of course, is that the owners still want the salary cap protections that the NFL, NHL, and to a lesser extent the NBA already have, and they have wanted it since one of them started noodling around Wikipedia and read that the NHL had a salary cap during the Great Depression. They’d have to negotiate it, which means they have to have a workable plan that 23 owners can agree upon, and getting 23 billionaires to agree with each other is like trying to teach 23 squirrels to conga.

After all, it's not like Cohen is the only big spender here. Indeed, the ERC (get used to the acronym, kids, because it's going to become part of the landscape of bullshit) is being chaired by Dodgers owner Mark Walter (whose minority partner Todd Boehly is spending on players at Chelsea like he stole Cohen's midterm), and also includes Detroit's nepo baby Chris Ilitch, Boston's owl impersonator John Henry, and Colorado's idling tractor Dick Monfort. The makeup of that group does not look terribly unified in its spent-it-to-make-it worldview, and the fact that commissioner/coroner Rob Manfred said there will be no publicly released report from the committee tells you that a lot of GFYs will have to be excised.

On the other hand, it might also serve to coalesce the 30 around a single principle, be it revenue sharing, a cap, or both, and Manfred needs a consensus to avoid finding himself in the crosshairs. So the Bally's problem is cover for what is being portrayed as the Cohen problem, which leads inevitably to what Manfred likes to call in his dimly obfuscatory way "absolute upward limitation." Which just happens to be the hill upon which players association is prepared to die—at least we think. Though the union has been turfed enough times now to make one wonder if they have the gut for a lengthy lockout, it has never bent on this issue.

But Manfred is charged to keep trying because he is the hired dog carrying the owners' bone. “When I talk about a more national product, sort of the thought there is that a more national product produces more centrally shared revenue, which, in turn, we hope, would reduce payroll disparities,” Manfred said, according to Drellich. “At various times, we have talked and proposed, including in the last round, about direct payroll regulation, in addition to that, having a minimum payroll. It’s like poker: You got to ante at that number if you want to play. We remain open to those sorts of solutions. Obviously, we’re a long way from the next round of bargaining, but there are ways to get at it. There are ways to get at it.”

For the moment, the way to get to it seems to be through owner-on-owner cannibalism, which would absolutely do a much better number than Pirates-Reds on a Tuesday night.

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