Ben Frederickson: Now would be great time for MLB to swap lockout nonchalance for action

ST. LOUIS — You know what would have been nice?

Locked-out Major League Baseball giving its fans some good news Monday.

Americans returned to work during the ongoing pandemic and attempted to shake off a rather stubborn holiday hangover. A little sunshine from their national pastime would have warmed the cockles. Instead they got more of the same cold shoulder.

No one who is being realistic expected MLB owners and players to spring into 2022 by suddenly discovering common ground, but some signs from both sides that signaled a shared determination to get there sooner rather than later would have been encouraging. No news would have been bad enough. The arrival of frustrating news made things worse.

USA Today reported that as of midday Monday there were no new negotiating sessions scheduled between the commissioner’s office and the players’ union. Perhaps Commissioner Rob Manfred and players’ union leader Tony Clark forgot to unwrap their 2022 planners during their lengthy holiday breaks? Or maybe Manfred was too busy taking care of something more important. The New York Post reported Monday that respected MLB writer Ken Rosenthal was let go from MLB-owned MLB Network because he had written critically about the commissioner.

Priorities, right?

For those keeping score at home, there have been just two known meetings between players and owners in the last month, and neither dug into the big economic issues at the heart of baseball’s first work stoppage since the 1994 strike. Maybe it’s good that some progress was at least being pursued on the issues not related to who makes what, but considering that debate is the real reason this lockout exists, players and owners avoiding talking about anything but exactly that topic kind of seems like scheduling meetings about carpet color before nailing down the terms of a mortgage.

The economic issues in play are complex, and both sides seem to be more interested in spinning than solving.

Players are swinging away at tanking owners, pinpointing service-time manipulation as something that must be stopped and prioritizing a faster track toward arbitration and free agency in a sport that has retreated from paying top dollars to non-elite, aging players in the post-steroid era.

Owners are not so keen on overhauling the game’s economic model. They think players have a better setup than in other leagues, because of a lack of a salary cap and lengthy, guaranteed deals for those who can earn them. Shifting around the amount of money spent on salaries has been the theme of the owners’ suggestions, but increasing the money spent on salaries will be contested.

This bitter territory is where the bulk of the battle will be waged. The wait to get into the trenches is a tactic. It’s also insulting.

When this lockout started last month, Manfred made a big deal about the timing. It guaranteed time. Time to negotiate. Time to protect the 2022 season. Time to do the least damage possible. That was back when baseball had nearly four months to work with before what is supposed to be opening day. Monday marked the 32nd day since then. Players and owners have managed to mostly squander more than a quarter of their available negotiating days.

And don’t forget spring training. Even if rushed, players will need about three weeks to get ready.

The start of the regular season is the only real deadline, and both sides know it. Fans should, too. That’s when real money starts getting lost for players and owners. That said, the general sense of apathy both sides have shown will go from frustrating to unforgivable if the 2022 regular season winds up wearing so much as a scratch.

Owners should fire Manfred if opening day arrives late. Players should fire Clark if more time to negotiate is wished for in the end. If the whole world sees a cliff coming and the two men most responsible for avoiding it can’t get their parties on the same page before the crash, it will be time for new blood in those jobs.

There’s time, but precious days have been wasted as Manfred’s lockout enters its second month.

Owners can afford nonchalance. Most players can, too. Baseball cities that rely on the regular season, not so much. Same for businesses in stadium footprints and the hardworking men and women selling hot dogs and parking cars. And then there are the fans who don’t want to make a dollar off baseball, the ones who just want to pay their dollars so they can watch a sport that is acting like it has something better to do than solve its problems.

So, how about a little more urgency?

It would be nice.