Once again, a silly sport can’t bring itself to play ball

To get mad at baseball is to be Charlie Brown endeavoring to kick a football, still believing Lucy won’t pull the ball away at the last second – even though she has every time before. Baseball is the silliest of sports. Owners and players claim a deep love of the game while hating one another with a passion. The shock isn’t when baseball gets something wrong. The shock is that it ever gets anything right.

That the 2022 MLB season wouldn’t start on time was written on the wind. The league’s collective bargaining agreement with its players was set to lapse Dec. 1, 2021. That would prompt the owners to lock out their players, which would induce the players to throw a fit, which would mean that each side spent two months mostly ignoring one another. When they finally got around to talking, they decided they’d rather stop talking than let the other side win.

Not that everything in life can be explained by “The Godfather,” but I’m reminded of the scene where Clemenza gives Michael the gun that will be used to clip Sollozzo and Capt. McCluskey. How bad, Michael asks, will the ensuing strife get? “Pretty bad,” Clemenza says. “But that’s all right. These things got to happen every so often. Helps to get rid of the bad blood.”

If we don’t count the squabbles over how to restart the COVID-delayed season, it has been 27 years since the inherent enmity between owners and players halted play. By baseball standards, that passes for peace, if not quite bliss. Fun fact: The first World Series after the last work stoppage was won by the Braves; the last World Series before this lockout was won by the Braves.

What, you ask, is the crux of the matter? Same as ever. Players want to make more money. Owners want to pay less money, though the same owners, left to their own devices, can’t help splurging on free agents. In March of last year, the Mets signed shortstop Francisco Lindor to a 10-year extension for $341 million. His presence enabled the Mets to finish 11.5 games behind a Braves team that didn’t break .500 until August.

Undeterred, the Mets made big news on the eve of the lockout by signing pitcher Max Scherzer, who’s 37, to a three-year contract for $130 million. This will enable them to finish third again. They’re the Mets. What can we say?

As crass as the owners can be, the players aren’t entirely altruistic. The average big-league salary last season was $4.17 million. That’s down from $4.38 million in 2019. The players blame this on the luxury tax, which exists because MLB – unlike the NFL, NBA and NHL – has no salary cap. A baseball team can spend as much as it wants, though the most profligate clubs must pay a fee.

The players say this suppresses spending. It wouldn’t appear to suppress it all that much. The Mets paid $201 million last year for a roster that didn’t make the playoffs. Spotrac estimates their payroll for 2022 at $235 million. We say again: The owners can’t help themselves.

As much as the owners cry poverty, the players won’t believe it until teams open their books. “Show us where you’re losing money,” the players say, but only one of the 29 teams based in these United States is owned by a publicly traded company, which means only that one – Liberty Media’s Atlanta Braves – is compelled to report quarterly earnings.

Last week, Liberty Media reported the Braves’ revenue for 2021 was $568 million. Yeah, they won the World Series, but still: That’s an indication that, even after the COVID-ravaged 2021 season, serious money is being made in MLB. (And that sound you hear in the background is fans screaming, “So why haven’t we given Freddie Freeman what he wants?”)

The problem with all baseball disputes is that it’s hard to root for either side. It’s millionaire players against billionaire owners. Fans, the majority of whom are “thousandaires,” just want to see baseball played. It will be, eventually. But we were overdue for the millionaires and billionaires to work up a righteous indignation.

These things need to happen every so often, though the bad blood in baseball never goes away. Owners see the players as ingrates. Players regard the owners as misers. At some point, both sides grasp the higher truth: If baseball doesn’t get around to playing baseball, nobody makes a dime. As much as the players and owners despise each other, they need each other more.