While the NFL dominated the sports landscape the past two weekends, Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association continued to dawdle and damage their own popularity.
Negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement between baseball's owners and players are set to resume Monday, but there have been no indications that either side is prepared to make the kinds of concessions that would lead to spring training starting on time.
There has been one encouraging development in the baseball world: MLB is prepared to expand use of robot home plate umpires in the minor leagues, instituting it in Class AAA games for the first time.
Robot (or virtual) umpires would guarantee accurate ball-strike calls, eliminate arguments that slow the game's pace of play and erase the constant frustration of watching obvious missed calls that could have been corrected by technology.
Give pitchers a true strike zone and reward them for throwing strikes, and baseball's pace of play will improve. The notion that an old umpire working six games a week can spend three or four hours crouched over an athlete's shoulder and make consistently accurate calls on 95-miles-per-hour pitches while looking cockeyed at an invisible rectangle is silly.
MLB can keep home plate umpires. They can run the game. They can call fair and foul balls and plays at the plate. They can make ball-strike calls if the robot technology temporarily fails. And they can be in charge of pace of play.
It's such a simple way to upgrade the game that MLB and the Players Association should consider it for their labor negotiations.
Before we see a robot ump, we should see a robot arbitrator.
What makes the MLB labor negotiations discouraging are the personalities and issues involved. Commissioner Rob Manfred and MLBPA Executive Director Tony Clark are both relatively new to the job, and both seem more worried about saving face with their constituencies than quickly getting a deal done.
They are threatening to damage a sport that can't afford much more damage.
There is nothing more dangerous in a negotiation than someone who wants to win the negotiation, rather than edge toward a deal that is palatable to both sides.
That's why baseball should institute a negotiating system that empowers an arbitrator — real or hard-wired — to impose a deal if the sides haven't agreed to one by Feb. 1.
A robot arbitrator would look at the issues and conclude the following:
- The Players Association should stop selling out for its highest-paid players and do more for its middle class, its youngest players and those in the minor leagues.
If this is truly a union, it should care more about the player scraping to put together a career than pushing its top stars toward half-billion-dollar contracts. Larger minimum salaries and more pay for minor leaguers are more important to the constituency as a whole.
- Both sides should agree to a salary floor, even if the players won't agree to a salary cap. A salary floor would force struggling franchise to at least try to field a competitive team.
- In exchange for more great-paying jobs, the Players Association could agree to a sterner luxury tax, so the Yankees could still outspend the competition, but only at an inflated cost.
- MLB needs to remove the incentive from losing. Tanking isn't as common in baseball as other sports, but a bad, cheap team can justify tanking by citing money saved and draft position advantages.
Maybe it's as simple as this: No MLB team can draft in the top five two seasons in a row. Nobody is going to tank for the sixth pick in an unpredictable draft.
- A robot arbitrator would want to create robot jobs, so one at each ballpark could monitor a pitch clock that, combined with an electronic strike zone, would speed up the game.
- Both sides should agree to expanding the playoff field. Expanded playoffs would increase revenues and give more middle- and lower-revenue teams a reason to believe they can contend, which would further discourage tanking.