During a press conference with reporters on Sunday, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred stood in front of God and everyone and argued that the labor situation in baseball—a sport in which player payroll has declined as league revenues have gone up, more teams than ever are openly tanking, and two 26-year-old superstar free agents remain unsigned as spring training starts—is actually just fine.
Manfred made his case by deploying the kind of bad-faith arguments you’d see every night on Tucker Carlson’s show if Tucker Carlson were interested in baseball instead of white supremacy:
I reject that payroll is a measure of how much teams are trying or how successful that team is going to be. Baseball has always been a cyclical business. People have gone through a cycle of building their teams by going young, husbanding their resources and trying to get a group that comes together as a team in the quintessential team sport. I just don’t buy the idea that running around spending money is necessarily indicative of whether or not you’re going to be successful on the field. I mean, one of the teams that finished with the worst record in baseball last year—I think the worst record in baseball—was one of the biggest spenders in the free-agent market last year and nobody points that out.
Then he tried to get into specifics:
The trick Manfred is trying to pull here isn’t even a sophisticated one. Pointing out three teams with low payrolls that all managed winning records is akin to a moron yelling, “So much for global warming!” every time it snows; saying that every team is trying to win despite plummeting payrolls is no different than arguing that nobody can truly know if the guy who says a lot of racist thing is actually, in his heart, a racist.
Manfred is trying to move the conversation from the concrete to the abstract, and disingenuously reframe it in a way that best suits the interests of the owners. If the argument suddenly becomes about the intentions that exist or don’t exist inside the heads of MLB owners, then it’s an argument that the players can never win. The A’s could run out a lineup of beer-league softball players and still claim that they are trying to win, just in a way people aren’t used to seeing, and who are we to call them liars?
But this isn’t a competitive issue, it’s a labor issue. It’s about money. Yes, the A’s, Rays, and Pirates managed to win more games than they lost despite having low payrolls, but they also banked hundreds of millions of dollars from revenue sharing, MLBAM, and broadcast rights fees that never made their way anywhere near the pockets of the players. You can excuse that behavior all you want by arguing that teams are thinking differently than they used to and that there are many different ways to win a baseball game, but none of that changes the fact that the free-agent market has bottomed out and that players aren’t getting their fair share. That’s a problem, no matter how desperately Manfred wants to pretend it isn’t.