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The Morning Dispatch: MLB’s Late-Innings Drama
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The Morning Dispatch: MLB’s Late-Innings Drama

Plus: How the U.S. is countering Putin’s moves against Ukraine.

Happy Friday! Be sure to think about the presidents a lot this weekend.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • President Joe Biden told reporters yesterday he believes Russian President Vladimir Putin will order an invasion of Ukraine “within the next several days” but reiterated that a “clear diplomatic path” is still available. Satellite imagery from Maxar Technologies found that—in addition to field hospitals, artillery, and troop buildups—a new military pontoon bridge has been constructed over the Pripyat River in Belarus near the Ukrainian border.

  • Ukrainian officials and Russian-backed separatists blamed one another for violating a ceasefire agreement in the Donbas region of Ukraine on Thursday. Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine’s minister of foreign affairs, claimed the pro-Russian forces shelled the village of Stanytsia Luhanska, damaging civilian infrastructure. The U.S. Embassy in Kyiv said the shelling hit a kindergarten, injured two teachers, and knocked out power in the village.

  • A State Department spokesperson said yesterday that Russia expelled Bart Gorman, the deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy, from Moscow this week. Russia’s Foreign Ministry claimed the move was a retaliation for earlier U.S. expulsions of Russian officials from Washington, but the State Department called the move “unprovoked” and an “escalatory step.”

  • The Senate voted 65-27 on Thursday to approve a stopgap funding measure that, once signed into law by President Biden, will push the deadline to prevent a federal government shutdown to March 11, 2022. Lawmakers once again plan to  use the additional time to hash out a longer-term spending bill for fiscal year 2022.

  • House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy formally endorsed Rep. Liz Cheney’s primary challenger, Harriet Hageman, on Thursday.

  • The Labor Department reported Thursday that initial jobless claims increased by 23,000 week-over-week to 248,000 last week.

  • Omicron continues to wane in the United States, with the average number of daily confirmed COVID-19 cases falling 67 percent over the past two weeks. Daily COVID-19 deaths—a lagging statistical indicator throughout the pandemic—have decreased about 23 percent over the same time period.

  • Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said Thursday the country will suspend its “green pass” vaccine requirement and further loosen coronavirus restrictions due to the ebbing of the Omicron wave.

  • Quintez Brown, a Louisville Black Lives Matter activist, was arrested and charged with attempted murder earlier this week after police say he fired a handgun at Democratic mayoral candidate Craig Greenberg, who was not injured. Brown was released on bail Wednesday after the BLM-associated Louisville Community Bail Fund posted his $100,000 bond. Brown’s attorney claims his client is “severely mentally ill and needs treatment.”

(Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)

Major League Baseball Season At Risk

For sports fans, the Super Bowl is always bittersweet. Overflowing with uniquely American pageantry, it’s the pinnacle of the NFL season—everything the past 20-something weeks had been building toward. But as the Gatorade is dumped and the confetti falls on the newly minted world champions, tens of millions of viewers take their hands out of the Cheetos bag only to be hit with a sobering reality: They just watched their last meaningful football game for seven months—and they have to go to work tomorrow. For a subset of them, though, there is a saving grace: At least baseball starts up again next week.

Not this year. Pitchers and catchers were supposed to report to spring training on Tuesday, an annual harbinger of winter’s end. But teams’ Florida and Arizona practice facilities are mostly empty, as Major League Baseball’s owners and players’ union (MLBPA) are midway through the third month of the sport’s first work stoppage since 1995.

On the field, baseball’s gameplay is outlined in a 162-page rulebook that dictates everything from the distance between bases to what color undershirts players can wear. But off-the-field issues—salaries, draft structure, when and how players can switch teams—are covered in the league’s collective bargaining agreement (CBA), a negotiated pact between owners and the MLBPA that typically runs for five years at a time. The 2016 agreement—which, for comparison’s sake, is 359 pages—expired on December 1, and, with the two sides failing to reach a deal on its replacement in time, owners implemented a “lockout” at 12:01 a.m. on December 2.

“We are taking this step now because it accelerates the urgency for an agreement with as much runway as possible to avoid doing damage to the 2022 season,” MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred—the owners’ representative in the negotiations—wrote in an open letter to fans at the time. 

But neither side has exhibited as much urgency over the past 78 days as fans would like. After the lockout began, more than two weeks passed before negotiators got in a room together—and even then, they only discussed smaller, “noncore” issues. The first significant meeting came on January 13, about a month out from spring training’s scheduled start date. Proposals have gone unanswered for days, and when the counterproposals do come, the demands are essentially unchanged. A much anticipated summit in New York City yesterday lasted just 15 minutes.

But given the nature of the standoff, the two parties were never going to accomplish much until they absolutely needed to—and it appears we’re now reaching that point. Late Thursday night, The Athletic’s Evan Drellich reported that owners told the MLBPA an agreement would need to be reached by February 28 in order for the regular season to begin on March 31 as scheduled. ESPN’s Jeff Passan added that the two sides could begin holding daily bargaining sessions as early as Monday. “A majority of industry people believe a deal could come together very quickly and that things will accelerate at [the] end of February,” he noted. 

On one hand, the gulf between the parties’ latest two proposals remains substantial. But on the other, the nature of that gulf is such that it will theoretically be much easier to bridge. Previous work stoppages in baseball were over large structural issues like the implementation of a pension system, salary cap, or free agency, William Gould IV—the former National Labor Relations Board chair who helped negotiate an end to the 1994-95 MLB strike—told The Dispatch. “This time, it’s just a question of flat out money.”

Due primarily to mammoth TV contracts, MLB revenues have exploded over the past three decades, from just under $2 billion in 1993 to nearly $10.5 billion in 2019, the last season unaffected by the pandemic. Every five years or so, the owners and players get together and haggle over how to divvy up these gains. Estimates vary because most teams keep their financial data under lock and key, but it’s generally agreed upon that the players’ share of revenue in recent seasons has been around or just under 50 percent—and it’s falling.

“I don’t think that the union did an effective job the last couple rounds of bargaining of thinking ahead in terms of where the economics of the game were going, and what the effects of the CBA they were agreeing to might be five or 10 years down the road,” said Nathaniel Grow, an Indiana University professor who studies antitrust and labor law in professional sports, arguing the MLBPA prioritized quality-of-life concessions (team chefs, travel accommodations, etc.) over financial ones. “And now … they’re trying to catch up on a couple rounds of bad bargaining in one CBA, which is going to be incredibly difficult.”

The MLBPA has dropped some of its heftier asks—allowing players to reach free agency (where all 30 teams can compete to sign them) earlier in their careers, and doing away with some of the league’s revenue sharing provisions that ensure even owners who don’t spend money on building a winning team are generating profits—but given its overall goal of shifting more money to younger players, several key impasses remain. 

The union wants to raise the minimum salary to $775,000 from $570,500; the league’s latest proposal is at $630,000. The union wants to lift the competitive balance tax—which essentially operates like a team’s soft salary cap—from $245 million in 2022 to $273 million in 2026; the league is offering $214 million to $222 million. The union wants to create a $115 million bonus pool every year to be divided among the best young players making the minimum salary; the league has agreed to the creation of such a bonus pool, but a $15 million one. The union wants to allow more players to move off the minimum salary more quickly; the league does not. 

All in all, baseball writer Joe Sheehan calculates, accepting the players’ latest proposals would cost the 30 teams, collectively, between $440 million and $610 million per year. To counteract some of these increased costs for ownership, the union has reportedly agreed to two changes that would bump revenue by hundreds of millions of dollars over the course of the CBA: expanding playoffs from 10 teams to either 12 or 14, and allowing advertising on uniforms. The legalization of sports gambling is also expected to goose earnings substantially.

“Given all the new revenue streams that the owners have obtained in this century, and the value of their clubs,” Gould argued, “the players’ demands are fairly modest.” Grow, meanwhile, views the players as asking for “a lot more” than the owners, largely to make up for past blunders.

Spurred on by a largely pro-player baseball press corps, the negotiations are spilling out from their smoke-filled rooms and into the court of public opinion. Countless players have changed their social media avatars to a grayed-out mannequin to mock the league for scrubbing all their pictures from the league’s website as part of the lockout. Manfred—who led MLB’s labor negotiations before becoming commissioner in 2014—is routinely vilified online as “hating baseball” and shilling for billionaires. His claim in a press conference last week that the return on investment of owning a baseball team is below “what you’d expect to get in the stock market” was widely mocked, as the Kansas City Royals—one of the teams most recently sold —increased 942 percent in value between 2000 and 2020.

But plenty of fans are also likely turned off by players who make a minimum of $570,050 a year (and as much as $43 million) complaining about their economic position. Just this week, 23-year-old superstar Juan Soto told ESPN he turned down a $350 million contract extension from the Washington Nationals.

So what comes next? With today’s crop of players never having gone through a strike before, Grow sees the owners as having the upper hand. “Why would you start throwing freebies, so to speak, at the players before you have to?” he asked. “If I were the owners, I would test their resolve a little bit too. The players have shown no appetite for a work stoppage the last couple times around. Let’s push them a little bit and see how many paychecks they’re really willing to miss, and how close to the start of the season they’re willing to push it.”

“But at the end of the day,” he continued, “I think both sides realize that they’re playing with fire a little bit. If this does become a substantial shutdown, the game’s already slipping anyway, in terms of popularity.” According to Gallup, just 9 percent of Americans list baseball as their favorite sport to watch, down from 39 percent in the middle of the 20th century.

Putin Keeping His Options Open

We’ve done our best to keep you apprised in Quick Hits, but a whole lot has happened on the Russia-Ukraine front since our last big update on Monday. Kremlin officials claimed they were beginning a partial withdrawal of troops along the border, and Western officials called them liars. The “most powerful” cyberattack to ever hit Ukraine took down government and bank websites, and Russian propaganda continued to lay the groundwork for a false-flag operation. Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday accused Ukrainians of perpetrating “genocide” in the Donbas, and by Thursday pro-Russian forces were shelling a school in the region.

In a piece for the site today, Charlotte places all these developments in their proper context, and, with the help of some intelligence analysts and regional experts, outlines the various directions the next few days could go. 

Keeping the West guessing is key to Moscow’s overall geopolitical posture.

Putin’s latest moves could be last-ditch bluffs to force concessions from the West. They could be bait to draw Ukraine into a broader conflict. They could also be a way for Putin to go through with his stated drawdown without projecting weakness. Very few, with the possible exception of Putin’s inner-circle, know what to expect next. 

“He loves options,” Jim Townsend, former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for Europe and NATO, told The Dispatch. “Don’t believe people who tell you they know the answer, because no one does. We’re just going to have to wait and see.” 

According to John Sipher, a 28-year veteran of the CIA and former head of its Russia operations, Putin’s disinformation campaigns during geopolitical crises is a time-tested strategy. “Putin’s a former KGB officer. He’s into the whole game of deception and covert operations. In fact, if you look back at 2008, when they went into Georgia, they did the same thing,” he told The Dispatch. “They announced to the world they were pulling out, they moved a few troops out, and then they went in.” 

That isn’t the only similarity to prior Russian invasions we’ve seen this week.

Putin unnerved the world on Tuesday when he declared clashes in eastern Ukraine a “genocide,” invoking the same language weaponized to justify his 2014 invasion. In the days since, Russian media has released a torrent of unverified reports by the separatist Donetsk and Luhansk republics alleging renewed aggression by the Ukrainian government forces along the line of contact. “The risk of moving from mud-slinging to consequences that would cause a new outbreak of war in the immediate vicinity of our borders is always lurking,” said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Thursday, priming onlookers for escalation.

The uptick in alleged ceasefire violations coincided with the Investigative Committee of Russia’s release of a report claiming to have uncovered mass graves of civilians killed in Ukrainian shelling. “The intent to exterminate the inhabitants of Donbas is obvious,” the pseudo-investigation alleged. 

Ironically, Moscow leveled the new accusations against the backdrop of renewed attacks by its local proxies. On Thursday, separatist militias shelled a school in Luhansk with 53 children and 16 adults inside, injuring two, in an apparent effort to provoke a response by Kyiv. Russian media later published the rebel group’s denial of responsibility.  

The group also alleged Ukrainian President Zelensky “personally issued the order to escalate the conflict” in the Donbas following his visit near the frontline.  

“Everyone in his right mind understands that this [is] another trick of Russia. They are playing that ‘that’s not us’ game,” Ivan Syniepalov, a translator based in the eastern Ukrainian city of Mariupol, told The Dispatch. “Out of 47 violations of [the] ceasefire that they made today, 38 were made with an artillery that is forbidden by the Minsk agreement. But they pretend that that’s not them. So when (and if) Ukraine responds, they will play victim.”

The United States has sought to head off Putin by repeatedly leaking or declassifying intelligence about his next move. But the strategy is not without risks.

“It’s whack-a-mole. We expose something and he does something else, we expose that and he does something else,” said Townsend. “This is trying to counter the narrative and counter the tactics. We’ll have to see if it works. The jury is still out, but I think it’s making him delay.” 

While the method gives the Kremlin room to change course and cast doubt on the U.S. intelligence community—as Putin appears to have done at least once already—it also forces him to rethink the compromised plans. 

“In this case, there’s only one target and that’s Putin,” Sipher explained. “So if we put out intelligence about what the Russians are up to, he knows if it’s true or not. It doesn’t matter really if the American public does or if journalists do. If Putin knows that we’re onto him or we know the things he’s doing, he’s gotta wonder: ‘What else do they know? How do I change my tactics?’ The administration is trying to throw everything they can against the wall in the hopes that, at some point, it’ll be the straw that broke the camel’s back and he’ll back off.”

Worth Your Time

  • With the peak of the Omicron surge well in the rearview mirror, the hope is that the virus will continue evolving to become less and less virulent, like the flu. But Benjamin Mazer thinks another analogy is more apt. “The ‘new normal’ will arrive when we acknowledge that COVID’s risks have become more in line with those of smoking cigarettes—and that many COVID deaths, like many smoking-related deaths, could be prevented with a single intervention,” he writes in The Atlantic. “[The pandemic] might come to resemble our decades-long battle with tobacco. We should neither expect that every stubbornly unvaccinated person will get jabbed before next winter nor despair that none of them will ever change their mind. Let’s accept instead that we may make headway slowly, and with considerable effort. This plausible outcome has important, if uncomfortable, policy implications. With a vaccination timeline that stretches over years, our patience for restrictions, especially on the already vaccinated, will be very limited. But there is middle ground. We haven’t banned tobacco outright—in fact, most states protect smokers from job discrimination—but we have embarked on a permanent, society-wide campaign of disincentivizing its use.”

  • Of all the wonderful tributes to P.J. O’Rourke over the past few days, Matt Labash’s might be the best. “Good writers make you want to read, but great writers make you want to write,” he notes in his Slack Tide newsletter. “When I first picked up [P.J.’s] Parliament of Whores and Give War A Chance, I don’t remember if my hands shook while reading them, but my world sure did. Going on a journalism odyssey with P.J. was like being on a road trip with your wiser, worldlier friend—the guy drinking Beam straight from the bottle in the backseat, laughing all the while, giving running commentary on the passing carnival, everything he says ringing true. He made you see it all with more good sense and precision than if you just went at it by your lonesome. It also didn’t hurt that he was funny as hell.”

Presented Without Comment

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Also Presented Without Comment

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Toeing the Company Line

  • In this week’s Stirewaltisms, Chris advocates for an age limit on federal officeholders. “America needs more young leaders,” he argues. “But if places for them to arise are disproportionately filled by octogenarians and, maybe one day soon, nonagenarians who enjoy substantial competitive benefits over younger office seekers, we will miss out.”

  • On Thursday’s Remnant, Jonah talks with Andrew about his piece on the latest John Durham filing and how it was filtered through our fractured media. Plus: Stick around ‘til the end for Andrew’s early review of fatherhood.

  • David and Sarah are so confused about Judge Jed Rakoff’s decision to enter a judgment notwithstanding verdict in the Sarah Palin defamation case. What was he thinking? Also in yesterday’s episode of Advisory Opinions: Revisiting the latest Durham allegations, discussing the constitutionality of Florida’s “don’t say gay” law, and getting wild with Supreme Court Rule 22.4.

  • On the site today, Andrew Fink details how Russia and China are partnering to spread propaganda about a nonexistent U.S. bioweapons program. Plus, Andrea Stricker analyzes the new nuclear agreement the Biden administration hopes Iran will sign. Spoiler alert: It’s not very good.  

Let Us Know

What is your favorite sport to watch? Does it differ from your favorite sport to play?

Reporting by Declan Garvey (@declanpgarvey), Andrew Egger (@EggerDC), Charlotte Lawson (@lawsonreports), Audrey Fahlberg (@AudreyFahlberg), Ryan Brown (@RyanP_Brown), Harvest Prude (@HarvestPrude), and Steve Hayes (@stephenfhayes).