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MLB owners are failing in their duty of care

A deadline is a deadline is a deadline

MLB Owners Meetings
Rob Manfred, pictured here watching a child fall into an abandoned quarry
Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

Every morning, I wake up and grudgingly scoop a lump of chalky, cakey collagen powder into my coffee. The canister declares it to be quick-dissolving—lies!—and tasteless—lies upon embroidered lies!—but of course it is neither, requiring the dilution of my dark roast with liberal doses of milk or creamer or, in a pinch, hot cocoa powder. I have been drinking my coffee black since age 18, but I am well past that age now, far past enough that I have need of the wretched collagen in the first place, or else squatting down to retrieve something from a low shelf results in a macabre symphony of bone gleefully screeching against bone. So I dutifully spoon the flour-like substance into my coffee every morning because of all the miserable ways to consume collagen, this is the most effective and least offensive, and because I have made a grudging deal with my body to recognize the services it renders, services that literally cannot be provided by any other body, and to provide it the minimal looking-after it requires to do its job, even though the cost of that is something quite dear to me, both in dollar amount and in quality of life. It is the trade-off for being the caretaker of this thing, this body that does not always seem like a great return on investment, but can occasionally provide moments of joy, or even transcendence.

This is a compromise MLB owners remain unwilling to make in the care of the precious and irreplaceable body that has been entrusted to them; they want all the transcendence with none of the sacrifices. Last Wednesday, an MLB spokesperson said that if an agreement isn’t reached with the union by today, February 28, games will be cut out of the regular season; they will not be made up, and players will not be paid for them. “A deadline is a deadline,” said the spokesperson, shingling off the last bits of their soul and feeding them to MLB’s PR machine. while conveniently omitting the fact that this deadline is based solely on the owners’ own Jeremy Bearimy timeline, having been unilaterally, arbitrarily imposed by MLB after the owners locked out the players, attempted to sweat them out for six weeks, and then immediately shut down any meetings where the union attempted to engage any larger-picture financials. “A deadline is a deadline” has the authoritative ring of axiomatic truth, with a bonus sprinkle of sneering machismo, but on closer inspection, isn’t a phrase that means anything at all. A deadline is, per dictionary definition, “the latest time something should be completed,” but who determines when “should” is? Why is “should” now, when losing regular season games becomes inevitable, and not sometime earlier?

Instead, what a deadline is, in this case, is a grim reminder that “should” belongs to the ruling party of the sport, which does not mean the people talented enough to carry out the labor of the sport. It’s a bitter pill to swallow, remembering that the owners are the people who ultimately control baseball—and all the histories, personal and political, tied up in that, the memories made and yet to be made. As much as they pitch fandom as a vision of ownership over “your team”, the spectacle of togetherness that is everyone uniting at the ballpark in matching jerseys, cheering and singing, fans own a stake in their teams the same way children own things in the house they grow up in: an illusory, indulgent type of ownership that can be retracted without notice. Meanwhile, owners, like parents, cannot be voted out or fired; they have the latitude to act as cruelly or kindly as they wish, and it is a spin of fortune’s wheel whether a fan inherits an owner truly invested in the duty of care over their franchise, or one who slashes payroll to a nub while screeching about wire hangers.

To be fair, the owners should not be viewed as a hegemonic unit. There are a multitude of owner-types bound up in the collective body that is ownership, some cruel and some kind and some quixotic; some watchmakers present, and some absent. But it is fair to say that in their collective quest to maintain total financial control over the sport, they resemble no one more than the rich and reckless Buchanans, Tom and Daisy, in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby:

“They were careless people...they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”

The owners do not care if they smash up baseball, if the cost of that is smashing up a newly invigorated and assertive players’ union. These are not men who made their fortunes by backing down in power struggles, those of them who made their money, rather than simply inheriting it. The world, to them, is expendable; they can always replace what they smash up in the quest to earn more power or money, and collateral damage is simply the cost of doing business, no matter how damaging it might feel to the average person.

Rob Manfred has argued throughout this process that baseball teams are actually a bad investment, apparently compared to other ventures like being heir to a tobacco fortune or foreclosing on family farms during the Depression or investing in Ponzi schemes. Like most things Manfred, he is both wrong and right about this; true, baseball teams do not return on investment like, say, buying up silicon mines. It’s one of the pesky things about a group of athletes playing a sport for spectators rather than stripping the land of its resources, exploiting tax shelters, or ruining people’s lungs. But it is insulting to the collective intelligence of fans to act like a baseball team is a bad investment, with the kindly paternal owners ensorcelled by a sense of duty to their communities, while all the data we can see suggests that for anyone who isn’t obsessed with wringing the highest possible profit out of the lowest possible investment, a baseball team is a fine investment, if not a little better than that.

And if Manfred wishes to argue on sentimentality, on behalf of the philanthropic, kindhearted owners just trying to enact a public good in sponsoring MLB clubs like the local print shop for a Little League team, then it’s fair to hold the owners accountable to the duty of care of being entrusted with one of baseball’s thirty franchises. These aren’t just teams they own; they’re people’s memories. It’s the memory for the couple who got engaged at the ballpark pointing out their special spot to their friends; it’s a kid going to their first game, still breaking in the brand-new glove and hoping for a fly ball; it’s me wheeling my grandfather to the Night Court game, the last game he would ever see in person, and helping him ease his promotional t-shirt over his papery skin and bird bones, a shirt I’d take back home and fold into my own drawer just a few months later.

The owners are currently failing in their duty of being a caretaker to the one precious body entrusted to them. They instituted a defensive lockout but then didn’t come to the table for six weeks, at which point they refused to entertain discussions on larger-picture financials with the union and called for a mediator rather than engage the MLBPA directly. They have repeatedly made proposals regarding the CBT that have actually gone backwards from the status quo. They have done everything they can to make the players seem unreasonable, intransigent, and greedy, while being themselves unreasonable, intransigent, and greedy. They are not only unwilling to accept a slight dilution in their morning coffee to ensure the health of the body which has been entrusted to them, they are defiantly shaking the collagen powder into the nearest open sewer and throwing the coffee in for good measure. They are doing this all at the cost of your memories, past and present and future, and they are doing it not because they need the money, but because they want the power, and they do not care what they smash up in the process, or where bone meets bone.