MLB lockout blame game: Why fans usually side with owners during a labor dispute

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Baseball’s first work stoppage since the contentious 1994-1995 strike — a nasty rift that led to the cancellation of the 1994 World Series and a 144-game schedule in 1995 — has arrived.

The Collective Bargaining Agreement that was agreed to by the MLB owners and MLB Players’ Association in 2016 expired Wednesday night at 11:59 p.m. ET and commissioner Rob Manfred and his owners soon after locked out the players. Both the failure to reach an agreement and the lockout were anticipated developments; it’s long been known that the sides were far apart on the multiple issues on the table. 

MORE: MLB’s lockout, explained: Everything you need to know

Here’s another development that won’t be surprising, if history is any guide: The players will shoulder the lion’s share of the anger, criticism and hostility from baseball’s fans angered about the stoppage. The players will not win the public relations battle. 

“I know from my own experience,” Hall of Fame pitcher Tom Glavine told The Sporting News during the World Series, “having gone through a couple labor stoppages and been in the players’ union and been a guy who has been vilified, people will say all the time, ‘These greedy players! If I had the chance, I’d play for free. It’s a kids game!’”

Glavine, who often spoke publicly supporting the MLBPA’s position during the 1994-’95 stoppage, was so vilified by baseball fans that he was roundly booed in his own ballpark when the strike ended, despite that he’d been an established and successful figure in Atlanta baseball history, pitching eight years for the Braves and finishing first, second and third in the NL Cy Young voting the previous three full seasons.

And yet, the booing started when he went out to the bullpen to warm up on April 27, 1995. He wasn’t alone. Pirates shortstop Jay Bell, another player active in the MLBPA, was booed at home on Opening Day. White Sox outfielder Mike Devereaux had a beer dumped on his head in the outfield, at home. Fans were not happy with owners, either, of course, but the players were the primary targets of the wrath.

But, and maybe this is a simple question: Why?

A matter of motivation 

Why does the default position of so many fans seem to place more blame on the “greedy” players than the owners? What’s the reasoning behind that? To help understand the answers, TSN asked Susan K. Whitbourne, a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who has studied and written about the psychology of sports fans. 

The answers start with dueling concepts: intrinsic motivation vs. extrinsic motivation. 

“Intrinsic motivation,” Whitbourne said, “is what we put onto the player when we think, ‘They’re doing it because they love the game.’ And the extrinsic is, ‘They’re doing it because they’re getting paid.’ When you start to focus on people getting paid for something they love, putting a dollar sign on it just changes it.”

Of course, fans know that most players are paid large sums of money. But when you’re watching a baseball game, that’s easy to set aside while you’re enjoying a sport you played as a kid. You’re just watching an athletic contest, simple and pure. When the games stop — or, in this case, when the offseason Hot Stove season stops — that illusion goes away. 

“It’s a dose of reality most people would rather not contend with,” Whitbourne said. 

It’s a dose that changes perspectives. 

“It’s called Motivational Crowding Out,” Whitbourne said. “When you do something because you love it, like a kid playing sports because they love it, and then you start to get rewards for something you loved to do, it starts to take on a more commercial aspect. It’s called Motivational Crowding Out because the extrinsic crowds out the intrinsic, which was there to begin with.”

This work stoppage will not be as severe as the 1994-’95 strike. That time, owners were insistent on implementing a salary cap, and players refused. Neither side budged for months and months, and baseball fans watched that strike last for 232 days. There is no singular issue like that this time. 

MORE: A history of MLB work stoppages

But there are issues, and most of the changes being pushed for come from the players.  

“The players have been seeing their financial position deteriorate over the last few cycles, and the last few years in particular, when the average player salary has declined, which is unprecedented for MLB,” said Nathaniel Grow, an associate professor of business law and ethics at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business who has written extensively on baseball’s CBA topics and issues for several years. “Within that bucket is the service-time manipulation, which helps feed into some of these salary issues.”

“The players don’t think they’re getting a fair shake, is a fair general consensus. The question becomes, where do they go and how do they try to improve their financial position?”

These CBA negotiations are the time to fight for the changes. Two of the players on the eight-player MLBPA executive subcommittee — Max Scherzer and Marcus Semien — were free agents and signed very large contracts in the days before the deadline passed. Scherzer, at 37 years old, signed a three-year deal with an average annual value of $43.3 million per season to play for the Mets. Semien, at 31 years old, signed a seven-year, $175 million deal with the Rangers.

So, yeah, more than one person has asked, “How can Max Scherzer want to shut down the sport when he just signed a deal for $43 million a year?” 

It’s not that simple, of course. 

“There are divergent interests within that broader membership,” Grow said. “Yeah, there are players who would be better off to raise minimum salaries and shorten the time to arbitration and all that stuff, and let’s sacrifice something so the Mike Trouts and the Gerrit Coles don’t make as much money. But that’s never been the union’s MO. The union’s always been ‘a rising tide lifts all boats,’ focus on free agency and get the best players paid, and that will trickle down through the arbitration process through comparable salaries and all that.”

Uneven familiarity

But the question does get to a larger issue: Players such as Scherzer are known quantities. They are the faces of baseball, the ones with the HD cameras focused on their every move, the ones written about in newspapers and on the web. They are the ones fans follow on social media accounts, the ones the fans feel like they know. 

Fans are drawn into the world of the players.

But the owners — well, aside from the Mets’ new top boss? 

“In a way, owners are owners. They’re running a business, so they’re seen as doing their job,” Whitbourne said. “I’m sure there are some people who take it out on the owners, but the majority of people identify with the players, see the players, feel like they’re the players, feel like the players are doing it for the love of the game, and when that underbelly shows through that they’re doing it for the money, yeah, you feel like, ‘Why did I put my faith in this person?’ You expect if from an owner, but not from a player.”

And that familiarity isn’t just about Instagram accounts or watching games on the MLB app or on TV. Here’s another important element of the equation: Everybody knows exactly how much the players make. Cot’s Baseball Contracts is an indispensable site for baseball writers and fans; you can instantly find out how much any player in baseball is making, and how much he’s made every year of his career. Does his contract have an opt-out? Club options? Vesting options? Performances bonuses? 

It’s all right there. Owners? Not so much.

“It’s a lot harder to look at an owner and look at his books, trust that the books are accurate and be able to make an assessment of what the owner’s really making. Again, in my day, that was a huge point of contention and a huge part of the animosity: There was no trust between players and owners,” Glavine said. “There was no trust for what their books said. In fact, they wouldn’t show us their books. We famously had some owners tell us in private, ‘With a good accountant, you can make a $4 million gain look like a million-dollar loss overnight.’ It’s hard to really trust what you’re being told. But with players, there’s no guesswork. You Google Tom Glavine’s salary and there it is, right there. There’s nothing hidden about it, nothing left to guess. It is what it is.”

That difference matters. 

“It all comes back to the shroud of relative mystery an owner enjoys, and players are out there, exposed,” Whitbourne said. “We immediately identify with them. It’s being reminded that, ‘They’re not doing it because they love me, but because they’re getting paid.’ You’ll turn on them. Logically, you might know they’re doing the right thing for themselves, but it’s hard to turn off that emotional identification side of it.”

MORE: MLB free-agent tracker: Latest rumors, deals

So that brings up another question: With all we’ve talked about, is it even possible that players can get the fans on their side in a labor dispute? Glavine once thought so. 

“Looking back on my experience, if there was one mistake I made, it was that. I never turned down an interview, for the most part, and I know that was part of the reason people hated me so much, because they saw me so much,” he said. “I was naive. I felt like, ‘OK, every interview I do is an opportunity’ and I was going to make somebody see what we were doing and I was going to change somebody’s mind. And that just wasn’t going to happen, y’know? People, they were either on our side or they were on the owners’ side. I don’t think very many people changed their minds, and that was a mistake I personally made, thinking I could.”

He paused. 

“I guess my answer to your question is I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know how you go about trying to win that battle, or if you even can.”

Maybe it’s not worth expending energy to win that battle.

Last year, a piece at FiveThirtyEight.com looked at attendance and broadcast figures before and after a strike. Attendance dropped slightly right after the two-week strike during the 1972 season, but was back up again the next year. In 1981, when the strike split the season into two messy halves, in-season attendance dropped that year, but was back up again, above 1980 levels, in 1982.

Neither of those stoppages compared to the 1994-’95 stoppage. Attendance dropped sharply and took years to get back to pre-strike levels. But interest? That stayed high, as evidenced by the 1995 World Series; 4 million more people watched that series than the 1993 World Series. 

“Eventually the fan base more or less comes back to them,” Whitbourne said, “but it’s a painful period.”

Oh, and Atlanta fans did welcome Glavine back into their good graces. It probably didn’t hurt that, in his final start of 1995, he tossed eight shutout innings in Game 6 of the World Series, helping the Braves clinch their first championship in Atlanta.



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