As Major League Baseball imposed a lockout that is nearing its 100th day and has already wiped out two weeks of early-season games, commissioner Rob Manfred has made for a convenient and often appropriate target. It was Manfred who called the lockout a “defensive” and necessary tool to strike a collective bargaining agreement with players, and Manfred who ultimately failed to deliver on that promise.
Yet despite his bare-knuckle negotiating style and a lack of regard for public perception, Manfred ultimately possesses only so much influence on baseball at its highest level. No, for a CBA to be approved, it is his bosses di lui – the 30 franchise owners – who must give the OK. Twenty-three of them must vote in favor of an agreement, a process rife with factions, back-biting, coalition-building and egos larger than the 100-foot yachts they might pilot in their spare time.
So, who might be the likeliest billionaires to torpedo a season based on a few million dollars of luxury tax ceiling? Which might be more willing to bend? Who’s too old to much care anymore?
USA TODAY Sports breaks down this unpredictable coalition helmed by 30 privileged men who nonetheless, represent a diversity of perspectives on the game they rule with iron fists.
Can you find at least eight irrational no votes from this group? Let’s explore:
New money, big money
Mark Walter, Dodgers: Estimated franchise value, $ 3.6 billion, estimated net worth, $ 4.3 billion. (Estimates via Forbes, USA TODAY research).
Steve Cohen, Mets: $ 2.5 billion / $ 12 billion.
Make no mistake: These are the franchises teams fear when pondering a loosened luxury tax ceiling. While Walter’s Dodgers exhibited relative discipline in his early years as they built a player development juggernaut, go time arrived in spectacular fashion, when the club traded for Mookie Betts in 2020 and gave him a $ 365 milllion contract extension, and then guaranteed Trevor Bauer $ 34 million for season the following winter. The result was a $ 285 million 2021 payroll, $ 75 million over the threshold. Cohen’s less than two years as owner included a trade and guarantee of $ 341 million to Francisco Lindor, and a record $ 43.3 million yearly salary given Max Scherzer. For all the small-market hand-wringing, though, the Dodgers have just one World Series title in Walter’s decade-long reign while it remains to be seen if Cohen’s Mets can marry cash and competence.
John Henry, Red Sox: $ 3.5 billion / $ 3.6 billion
Boston’s 2018 World Series title came with an additional price: A $ 12 million luxury tax bill for their $ 239 million payroll. While it’s hard to fault Henry’s commitment to winning – no team matches Boston’s four championships this century – he’s also willing to take a PR hit to avoid more bills. The club’s 2020 trade of Mookie Betts famously inspired fans to develop “2020 Luxury Tax Champs” paraphernalia, and the team landed $ 5 million under the threshold in ’21 even with a club that fell two wins shy of the World Series. Henry will spend, for sure. But only to a point.
Take it to the limit
Charles Johnson, Giants: $ 3.2 billion / $ 5.8 billion
John Middleton, Phillies: $ 2.1 billion / $ 3.4 billion
Jim Crane, Astros: $ 1.9 billion / $ 1.4 billion
Lerner family, Nationals: $ 1.9 billion / $ 4.5 billion
Peter Seidler, Padres: $ 1.5 billion / $ 3 billion
Welcome to baseball’s upper-middle class, with high-revenue teams that care about competing and are willing to pay an extra price to do so. Seidler took over the Padres from Ron Fowler in 2020 and has not hesitated to spend, joining the Dodgers as the lone clubs above the tax threshold in 2021. The Nationals and Giants each exceeded the tax threshold last decade, while the Astros would have in 2020 had the season not been truncated by COVID-19. And the Phillies, very much in win-now mode, will almost certainly exceed it this year as they fill out their roster – unless a new CBA hikes the ceiling appreciably. While it’s challenging to forecast how owners will vote, it’s not hard to imagine a good portion of this group endorsing a relaxing of the threshold.
Hal Steinbrenner, Yankees: $ 5.3 billion / $ 3.8 billion
Tom Ricketts and family, Cubs: $ 3.4 billion / $ 4.3 billion
Behold the game’s two biggest brands, yet despite their virtually guaranteed revenues thanks to huge TV contracts and fervent fan bases, the Cubs and Yankees somehow find reason to cry poor rather than acting like the fiscal bullies they could be. Steinbrenner has indeed treated the tax threshold like a salary cap, retreating in both 2018 and 2021 to reset his tax penalties while leaving the Yankees multiple players shy of a championship-caliber club; you get the sense he’d be fine to keep the ceiling low and the family business’s costs contained. Ricketts, meanwhile, famously decried the “bibilical” losses suffered by ownership in 2020 and then proceeded to dismantle the last of the Cubs’ championship core, resulting in empty seats at Wrigley last summer. Ricketts doesn’t need a high ceiling to flex on his NL Central counterparts and thus he may not have much use for a higher tax level the coastal elites might enjoy.
Jerry Reinsdorf, White Sox: $ 1.7 billion / $ 1.7 billion
Bill DeWitt Jr., Cardinals: $ 2.3 billion / $ 4 billion
An interesting duo. Both have played significant roles in labor wars / negotiations over the years, sit at the helm of contending franchises yet are getting on in age and may view the competition / moneysaving equation through a different lens. Reinsdorf, 86, was a hawk in the 1994-95 strike that led to the cancellation of the World Series. Yet he is more of a background figure in the fraternity now, eight years after he nearly succeeded in obstructing Manfred’s election as commissioner. DeWitt, 80, was named the game’s most powerful owner by USA TODAY Sports in 2017, but many of his best bullet points di lui – championing Manfred’s candidacy, playing a key role in developing the league’s advanced media arm – are remnants of the past. The White Sox enjoyed startling attendance success in 2021, bucking all pandemic trends, and the Cardinals’ fan support is, um, well-documented. How far would either of these clubs go to imperil a 2022 season?
Giving up the game
Liberty Media, Braves: $ 1.9 billion / $ 12.4 billion
Rogers Communications, Blue Jays: $ 1.7 billion / $ 25 billion
Jaded baseball fans know the four best days to circle on the calendar. No, silly, it’s not pitchers and catchers reporting, Opening Day, the All-Star Game and the start of the World Series. Rather, it’s Liberty Media’s quarterly earnings reports, where corporate execs must paint a sunny picture of the Braves’ financials – rhetoric that runs counter to privately-held MLB owners and officials who claim their business model is under siege by greedy players. Last month, Liberty execs gleefully reported $ 111 million in 2021 operating income from the Braves, not including the rake from 9 million visitors to The Battery, the team development adjacent to Truist Park. Meanwhile, the Blue Jays under Rogers keep their pivot foot active, behaving like a poverty club for years on end until feeling the need to enhance the Rogers baseball product on the Rogers-owned TV properties, hopefully delivering cheery final-score alerts to fans on their Rogers mobile devices.
John Sherman, Royals: $ 1.1 billion / $ 1.25 billion
Ray Davis, Rangers: $ 1.8 billion / $ 2.4 billion
John Stanton, Mariners: $ 1.6 billion / $ 1.1 billion
A tough trio to figure, simply because their regimes have either been too brief or unremarkable to easily define. Davis inherited a playoff-ready franchise, managed to finesse a new stadium in North Texas and then underwent a quiet rebuild, only recently dropping a half-billion dollars on free agents to generate interest in that facility. Sherman hopes to finagle a new, downtown stadium himself, even if locals are perfectly satisfied with Kauffman Stadium. Stanton stepped out of the shadows just long enough to fire his club president, whose comments were a too-candid description of how this industry actually operates.
Take care of their own
Mark Attanasio, Brewers: $ 1.2 billion / $ 700 million
Jim Pohlad, Twins: $ 1.3 billion / $ 3.7 billion
Couldn’t be us propagating the trope of good, solid Upper Midwest folk who quietly earn their keep. Yet the Brewers and Twins largely live up to that ethos, with Attanasio, in particular, pouring much of what he receives in revenue back into the Brewers. The results are evident: Milwaukee, despite a market size smaller than any big league club (and several with no MLB franchise) has made the playoffs four consecutive years and six times in the last 14 while drawing at least 2.8 million fans seven times in that span. Both clubs might benefit from a more stringent luxury tax, yet both have proven they can flourish on the field and profit off of it without one.
Little Brothers of the Poor
Art Moreno, Angels: $ 2 billion / $ 3.6 billion
Ken Kendrick, Diamondbacks: $ 1.3 billion / $ 600 million
Bob Castellini, Reds: $ 1.1 billion / $ 400 million
Ilitch family, Tigers: $ 1.3 billion / $ 4.4 billion
Dick Monfort, Rockies: $ 1.3 billion / $ 700 million
Ah, Team Obstructionist. The dirty laundry of bargaining is rarely aired, but when ownership leaked to The Athletic the four members within who opposed MLB budging at all from its antiquated $ 210 million luxury tax level, suddenly Moreno, Kendrick, Castellini and Chris Ilitch were cast as enemies of the sport. Given the robust revenues and franchise values enjoyed by the Tigers and Angels, and their typical embrace of big-ticket free agents, Ilitch and Moreno’s inclusion in this bloc was particularly troubling. Almost like they want an excuse not to try too hard. While Monfort was not among this reported quartet, we’ll toss him in here based on his role di lui within MLB’s executive council.
Begging for mercy
Paul Dolan, Guardians: $ 1.2 billion / $ 4 billion
John Angelos, Orioles: $ 1.4 billion / $ 2 billion
There’s still no such thing as a bad investment in baseball, but these franchises are in slightly tighter straits than others given population and attendance arcs heading the wrong direction, albeit some of it self-inflicted. As such, the Guardians recently agreed to sell a 35% stake in the franchise to investor David Blitzer, who according to multiple reports could become a controlling partner within five years. The Angelos family, meanwhile, may look to sell the club as well. In any case, despite Peter Angelos’ relatively pro-labor history, both clubs would certainly hope to contain costs.
John Fisher, A’s: $ 1.2 billion / $ 2.5 billion
Stuart Sternberg, Rays: $ 1.1 billion / $ 800 million
Bob Nutting, Pirates: $ 1.3 billion / $ 1.1 billion
Bruce Sherman, Marlins: $ 1 billion / $ 550 million
If ever there’s a wing that might draw ire from both sides of the bargaining table, it is this quartet. In 2018 the MLBPA filed a grievance against all four teams, claiming that they were not spending revenue-sharing funds in the manner intended by the CBA. (In short, not pouring it into the baseball product, which also angers big-market clubs cutting them checks for no apparent reason). While the A’s and Rays are near the bottom of MLB franchise values, they’d both skyrocket with new stadiums and / or relocation. The Pirates received their publicly-funded stadium nearly a quarter-century ago and still have not spent more than $ 39 million on a single free agent. And while Sherman was not yet Marlins owner for much of the period covering the grievance, just consider this part of the debt he inherited from Jeffrey Loria. CEO Derek Jeter’s departure doesn’t inspire much confidence a culture change is afoot.