Do Paul Dolan’s Remarks Foretell Labor Strife?

As you might imagine, I go to a lot of baseball games. As a result, I’m on a lot of mailing lists. Every Monday during baseball season, my inbox fills up at 9 a.m. with emails from most teams in the Eastern time zone, with who’s in town, what giveaways are that week and why I should come out to the ballpark (I get a similar but smaller deluge at noon, when all the West Coast teams do the same).

I also get the opportunity to take a lot of fan surveys. The Indians’ survey almost always includes some variation of a question gauging fans’ interest in the team sharing plans about the future. I usually say yes, because as a journalist, I value transparency.

After this week, I’m not particularly sure of that.

In an interview with The Athletic, Indians owner Paul Dolan basically confirmed what Tribe fans have been thinking pretty much since his family bought the team in 2000: That they’re unwilling or unable to spend the big bucks necessary to compete in Major League Baseball.

The Dolans’ ownership coincided with the dismantling of those Indians teams of the 1990s, and we were introduced to the phrase “window of contention.” But in his remarks, he might have also offered a hint about brewing storm clouds.

In a statement that was almost Modell-esque in its pathos, Dolan said that the Indians typically lose money. As Zack Meisel pointed out in the article, as a privately held company, the Indians – and really, all major league teams except the Green Bay Packers – are under no obligation to open their books. There’s no way to verify that statement. So why say it?

Clearly, he wants something beyond sympathy. But I think it’s a veiled warning that labor problems are coming.

It’s easy to forget now, since Major League Baseball has gone the longest of the four major leagues without a work stoppage resulting in games lost, but the Major League Baseball Players Association might be the strongest union in the country today — and one of the most militant. Five times between 1972 and 1994, failed negotiations between the union and owners led to work stoppages. The last one was the most severe, as players went on strike on Aug. 12, 1994. The entire postseason that year was lost, before players returned in May 1995.

One of the main points of contention during that last work stoppage – and really, all the ones since free agency was implemented – was reining in spending. Owners sought a hard salary cap, but what ended up happening is the implementation of a luxury tax. In its current iteration, since 2003, any team’s payroll that exceeded a certain threshold – this year it’s $206 million – had to pay a tax on that payroll. (It’s worth noting at this point that the Indians were assessed more than $2 million in luxury tax in 1997, but nothing since.)

I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that we’ve seen a sea change in Major League Baseball over just the past five years when it comes to procuring and keeping talent. Tanking is now an accepted practice, and when you saw the Astros win the World Series in 2017, well, it’s hard to argue with the results. Management is messing with service time, delaying players’ debuts to gain more team control. The Indians did that with Francisco Lindor in 2015, and the Blue Jays are doing it this year with Vlad Guerrero Jr. (It’s probably not coincidence that former Indians and current Jays president Mark Shapiro is a common thread in both those instances.)

And with a few exceptions, free agency isn’t as lucrative as it once was. Sure, Manny Machado and Bryce Harper got eye-popping deals – and Mike Trout got an even bigger contract extension – but for the second straight offseason, the market has been dormant (this is where I remind you that the Indians were able to snag Edwin Encarnacion because the bottom dropped out of the market).

At some point, something will have to give. The current players’ contract expires after the 2021 season.

Maybe that’s what Paul Dolan is trying to tell us. And maybe he’s trying to stake out the high ground already.

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