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The only thing more abundant in baseball than money is shame

John Romano | On the day pitchers and catchers were supposed to report, MLB owners and players continue their senseless bickering over billions.
The Rays, along with most other teams, were scheduled to report to spring training this week. Instead, ballparks in Florida and Arizona are mostly quiet during an MLB-imposed lockout.
The Rays, along with most other teams, were scheduled to report to spring training this week. Instead, ballparks in Florida and Arizona are mostly quiet during an MLB-imposed lockout. [ Times ]
Published Feb. 15

CLEARWATER — Winter was supposed to end today. Perhaps not according to local meteorologists or a distant moon, but by the hallowed calendar adhered to by baseball fans in Florida.

The day pitchers and catchers report to spring training is the moment when hope and time begin anew. It is marked not with celebrations, but with the comforting sight of a pitching coach standing with arms crossed in the bullpen and listening to the thwat of a fastball hitting a catcher’s mitt.

Instead, today, we have lawyers bickering and sources whispering. We have hockey still playing, football now basking and baseball, once again, self-flagellating.

We are 78 days into MLB’s lockout and the only certainty is that we are now closer than ever to having games in the spring, and possibly regular season, cancelled or postponed.

Congrats, baseball. You’ve stepped in it, again.

If you understand nothing else about this labor dispute, if you don’t care about competitive balance taxes or service time manipulation, you need to know this:

This dispute was entirely preventable and irredeemably shameful.

Around this time last year, Mike Zunino, left, and Ryan Yarbrough chatted after a bullpen session during a workout day for pitchers and catchers at Charlotte Sports Park. All is quiet in Port Charlotte this week thanks to the lockout.
Around this time last year, Mike Zunino, left, and Ryan Yarbrough chatted after a bullpen session during a workout day for pitchers and catchers at Charlotte Sports Park. All is quiet in Port Charlotte this week thanks to the lockout. [ WILL VRAGOVIC | Tampa Bay Rays ]

I’m not suggesting there aren’t legitimate differences facing owners and players, but they’re not trying to solve a complicated problem like global warming. They’re just trying to figure out who gets more time in the vault with the billions of dollars that fans, networks and sponsors are throwing at them.

And, trust me, that is neither flippant nor exaggerated. Baseball’s revenues have exploded in the past two decades, even while its popularity has seemingly waned.

The value of teams has risen more than tenfold during that time, to the point that MLB will likely be able to charge prospective owners $2 billion or more for the next round of expansion. To put that in perspective, the Rays cost Vince Naimoli $130 million in the mid-1990s.

So, yes, it is entirely fair and appropriate to call them greedy %$@#*&!s for not having a deal done by this morning.

Not that the players should be absolved. I know it’s chic to point out how younger players have been taken advantage of by the current collective bargaining agreement, but you can’t bemoan the $605,000 bargain that Vladimir Guerrero Jr. was in 2021 without acknowledging the same system allowed Albert Pujols to pocket $140 million while being a below-average player for the past five years.

The only real problem baseball is facing today is figuring out a system that creates a balanced playing field that gives every team an equal opportunity to win. And one that does not penalize smarter teams.

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You know, that’s the fear around here. Because Tampa Bay’s revenues are more limited than most teams, the front office has had to be more creative and innovative while building a roster.

That means supplementing the baseball operations department with revenue sharing funds. (Which are now in danger of being reduced.) That means stockpiling younger players whose salaries are more controllable. (Which is currently being reassessed in labor negotiations.) That means using the entire 40-man roster with a shuttle between Triple-A Durham and Tropicana Field. (Which could face new restrictions.)

Will Charlotte Sports Park, home of the Rays' spring training games, eventually start buzzing this month or next?
Will Charlotte Sports Park, home of the Rays' spring training games, eventually start buzzing this month or next? [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

It is entirely fair for the players’ association to argue against Tampa Bay’s manipulations of the current labor agreement, but it is also incumbent on the lords of baseball to make sure that progressive front offices such as Tampa Bay, Oakland and Cleveland are not handcuffed.

The success of the Rays in recent years — they have the best winning percentage in the American League since 2019 — has led some to argue that market size and revenue streams are irrelevant. That’s just not true.

You can’t point out a few outliers and claim that everything is equal. The reality in recent seasons is that teams in the top third of MLB in payroll have reached the postseason at a rate slightly above 50 percent. Teams in the middle third are a little above 30 percent. Teams in the bottom third — and this would be the neighborhood where the Rays reside — are closer to 15 percent.

That seems to be a pretty good description of class warfare in baseball.

So what is the solution? I honestly don’t know.

But owners and players have had months to work on a solution, and instead have mostly ignored each other while suggesting the other side is being A) uncooperative, B) unrealistic, C) disingenuous D) all of the above.

That’s not just disappointing, it’s also disgraceful.

There are enough smart people in baseball to come up with a system that works for everybody involved. Heaven knows, there’s already enough money to go around for everyone.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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