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.

16 comments on “Where will Steve Cohen stand in labor fight?

  • Steve S.

    It does appear that Cohen is in it mainly for the fun.

    The owners have approved him, and are not going to rescind their vote for him if he is a “dove” on the salary cap.

    I can see him going over the luxury-tax threshold this year in fact.

    • Joe Vasile

      I really, really, really want to believe that. Him coming in as owner has made me more optimistic about the direction of the team as I have been in a while. But when push comes to shove who knows how he’ll act. When George Steinbrenner bought the Yankees, he said that he was going to be a hands-off owner who trusted his baseball people. We all know how that turned out.

  • Rich

    Youre not getting a salary cap because the players will never agree. And I hope they never do.

    • Joe Vasile

      I think you are right in that they will never agree, but again, the current structure of the luxury tax is essentially a salary cap.

  • Dan Capwell

    It probably won’t matter, too many hard-liners on both sides for there not to be a strike in 2022. It is absolutely about money.

    Ownership stands to lose money in 2021, even if there are fans in the seats by July. Having a player’s strike is the ultimate cost-cutting move for them. Some owners, (likely Cohen to be among them) will want to play, but will fall in line.

    On the player’s side, Tony Clark is nearly as intransient, probably in over his head; and is haunted by the ghost of Marvin Miller. In fairness, he is in an impossible situation whereby if he gives even an inch to ownership, he leaves the door open for further concessions (and future hauntings by MM’s ghost).

    Expect no season in 2022. Probably a late start to the ’23 season as well. At some point the clubs will figure they have washed as much of the red ink from the ledger as the can, and will want to be back in the business of printing money again.

    As for the fans? P’tuui

  • JimO

    Having endured the last decade of self-imposed Wilponian salary caps, I hope to G*d that there isn’t one externally imposed on us at the next round of negotiations.

  • Bob P

    I’m probably in the minority on this but I think a salary cap would be better from a baseball perspective. Right now there are big market and small market teams and the deck is stacked against the small market teams. I realize that it is a business and that’s how business works but from purely a competitive baseball standpoint a salary cap would put all teams on relatively equal footing. If you were running a youth baseball league or even a fantasy league you wouldn’t give one group of teams the ability to stack their rosters while others had to take the leftovers. I’m not saying it will happen, and it may not be the right thing from a business standpoint, but from a pure baseball standpoint it would even the playing field.

    • Mike W

      A lot of teams have self imposed salary caps. Most amazing team is Tampa Bay who is near the bottom in payroll, but manages to field competitive teams almost every year.

      Hearing that Springer is down to the Mets and Blue Jays.

    • Brian Joura

      Dodgers-Rays
      Nationals-Astros
      Red Sox-Dodgers
      Astros-Dodgers
      Cubs-Indians
      Royals-Mets
      Giants-Royals
      Red Sox-Cardinals
      Giants-Tigers
      Cardinals-Rangers

      That’s 13 different teams represented in the World Series in the last 10 years.

      Chiefs-49ers
      Patriots-Rams
      Eagles-Patriots
      Patriots-Falcons
      Broncos-Panthers
      Patriots-Seahawks
      Seahawks-Broncos
      Ravens-49ers
      Giants-Patriots
      Packers-Steelers

      That’s 13 different teams represented in the Super Bowl the past 10 years

      Lakers-Heat
      Raptors-Warriors
      Warriors-Cavs
      Warriors-Cavs
      Cavs-Warriors
      Warriors-Cavs
      Spurs-Heat
      Heat-Spurs
      Heat-Thunder
      Mavs-Heat

      That’s 8 different teams represented in the NBA Finals the past 10 years

      I don’t see how salary cap leagues give more chances to more teams than MLB does.

      • Bob P

        I prefer to look at it in terms of wins and losses rather than WS appearances, since the more wins a team has, the more likely it is to get into the playoffs, and the more likely to win a WS. The playoffs being a smaller sample size are more susceptible to luck, hot streaks and injuries than over the course of a full season. I looked up the COTS opening day salaries for each team in the NL from 2010 to 2020 as well as the number of wins for each season. The average of both are below with where they rank in payroll in parenthesis:

        Team Avg Wins Avg PR
        Dodgers 87.5 183,135 (1) 0
        Cardinals 84.5 122,793 (6) 4
        Nationals 82.3 127,413 (5) 2
        Braves 79.8 90,002 (10) 6
        Brewers 77.5 86,234 (12) 7
        Cubs 77.4 137,296 (3) -3
        Giants 77.3 144,500 (2) -5
        Mets 74.5 120,232 (7) -1
        Dbacks 74.4 90,690 (9) 0
        Phillies 74.1 132,030 (4) -6
        Pirates 73.7 67,497 (15) 4
        Reds 73.3 95,446 (8) -4
        Rockies 70.7 89,871 (11) -2
        Padres 70.5 75,838 (13) -1
        Marlins 67.1 70,443 (14) -1

        The column to the right is the difference between each teams ranking in wins and ranking in payroll. In looking at this the Dodgers had by far the highest average opening day payroll and the highest average win total by a pretty big margin. The Rockies, Padres and Marlins were the bottom 3 in wins and were 11th, 13, and 14th in average payroll.

        In looking at teams whose win totals were not as close in line with their payrolls, the Braves and Brewers both “outperformed” their payroll as they were 4th and 5th in wins, respectively, but 10th and 12th in payroll. The Giants and Phillies were the other extreme, as the Giants were 7th in wins with the 2nd highest payroll and the Phillies were 10th in wins with the 4th highest payroll.

        There will always been teams that over or under perform compared with their payroll, but there will also be the haves (Dodgers) and have nots (Marlins) even if the have nots occasionally get into the playoffs or WS. I just think it would make things a lot more even if there was both a cap and a floor for each team.

        • Brian Joura

          I appreciate the work you put into this.

          Still, in my opinion, your solution doesn’t solve the problem. And the problem most likely can’t be solved. So, why create another problem?

          The Vikings last year had to get rid of Linval Joseph, Trae Waynes, Everson Griffen, Mackensie Alexander, Xavier Rhodes and Josh Kline to fit under the cap. Plus Reily Reiff restructured his contract. The only reason it wasn’t even more was because they traded Stefon Diggs for draft picks.

          That’s seven starters out of 22 and another who took a pay cut – I just can’t fathom wanting to bring that type of chaos to MLB.

          • Bob P

            I hear you and realize there’s no perfect answer. I guess I’m just a little jaded from years of watching the Yankees buy whoever they want, and do things like trading for A Rod and getting him to change positions because they were one of the few teams that could afford him.

            Now that the Mets are in a better position financially, I’m excited but I also don’t want them to become Yankees 2.0 and throw money at every issue.

  • Brian Joura

    I think this is an important question to ask.

    Owners always try to divide the players but what we’ve witnessed over and over again in MLB labor disputes is that the players stick together and the owners don’t.

    And it was a reasonable question for the owners to ask – How would this group of players, who weren’t involved for the last labor dispute, react? And we saw the answer last year – they stuck together, just like they always did.

    • JImO

      I guess the players know that the owners can’t use “replacement” players. That’s a big card to hold in your hand.

    • Joe Vasile

      Yeah, I’m hopeful that Cohen will be less of a hard-liner for a cap or cap-like measures, but who knows until he is there? I mean, who would have thought that in 1994, the Wilpons were one of only 3 ownership groups who voted against the cap considering how the last decade of their ownership went? I don’t think Manfred has the persuasive ability that Bud Selig had, but if he can get Cohen on his side that would be huge.

  • TJ

    The landscape seems to suggest that there will be a work stoppage before the next deal is made, but it is not a given. To some degree, the unique situations of 2019 and 2020 provide these two sides with some practice. A strike hurts both sides, and the fans. There are more than enough things to fix in the game, but I do see a hard salary cap as a non-starter. From what we’ve seen of Uncle Steve, he may “go along” with the gang, but why would he want a hard cap? We also know from history that big payrolls don’t guarantee success.

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