There were seven work stoppages in Major League Baseball from 1972 through 1995. Since the disaster of the 94-95 strike ended, the sport has seen a 26-year window of peace, unprecedented in the times of unionized athletes. As profits surged throughout the late 90s and into the 2000s both players and owners were happy with the economics of baseball.
It is abundantly clear that peace time is over.
After enduring ugly and public fights with Minor League Baseball and the union throughout 2020, Commissioner Rob Manfred and the owners are digging in for their next fight. Reports have leaked out in the past week that MLB is seeking to start the season late, so that the COVID-19 vaccine can have time to be deployed and fans can safely attend games. Players are pushing for a full 162-game season. They argue that they played safely without a vaccine in 2020, and they can do it again in 2021.
Much like the fight over the 2020 season, this clash has nothing to do with the pandemic – it has to do with money. Owners are seeking a way to not pay the players as their contracts stipulate, and the players are seeking full compensation. After all, they made major sacrifices in 2020 after fighting for longer seasons to eventually accept a 60-game schedule.
MLB’s problem in this particular fight is two-fold. First, when you sign a player to a contract, you assume all of the risks involved, including a pandemic that makes it impossible to have fans in the stands. If you say you are going to pay someone a certain amount for work performed, you have to honor that.
Second, while their argument for 2021 may be a good one, a long history of half-truths, lies and manipulation in labor disputes grants teams no benefit of the doubt. Just last month, Phillies owner John Middleton said the team lost $2 billion in 2020, only to walk it back and say they only lost $145 million after enough people had the common sense to know that was a lie.
That is not to brush aside a $145 million loss, that is very significant. But the idea that it was initially presented as nearly 1400% greater only breaks down public trust in what ownership says and causes automatic skepticism of all claims.
Even before the labor fights of 2020, there were rumblings that the next Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations would be contentious. The way free agency has progressed over the past three seasons has left many players furious. The luxury tax as structured in the last CBA has acted as the very salary cap that players struck against. It is likely that Tony Clark and the union will push back against the gains the owners have made, and that won’t be pretty.
With a new owner in place and this brewing labor dispute on the horizon, the main question is where will Steve Cohen come down? While he has been impressive during his short time in control of the team, ultimately the first real test of how good of an owner he will be comes at the end of the 2021 season when the CBA negotiations open up.
The first possibility is that he falls in line with the rest of owners and either holds the line where it is or joins a push for a hard salary cap. It is hard to imagine that Cohen would have been approved by MLB so resoundingly in his purchase of the team if they thought he was going to step out of line and go rogue in CBA negotiations.
But of course as the man who is by far the richest owner in baseball, a hard salary cap stands to hurt the Mets more than any other team. Cohen has the competitive advantage of being able to pay players more money than anybody else, so why would he fight to neutralize that? In 1994, Bud Selig was able to persuade George Steinbrenner to relent and support a cap, but will Manfred really have that same kind of power over Cohen?
Ultimately it will come down to answer to this question: “Does Cohen view his ownership of the Mets as an investment or is it fun?” Early indications say that he thinks of it more as fun than a business investment, and hopefully that is the case. But of course words are one thing, but actions are another. Let’s hope Cohen’s actions back up his words.
Joe Vasile is a broadcaster for the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders and Bucknell University. He is the host of the baseball history podcast Secondary Lead.