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Did MLB really have to scrub its website of current player photos?

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The answer is... “Probably not.”

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The image above is what you’ll see at MLB.com if you look at any club’s roster page, like this one for the Cubs. Player pages, like this one for Kyle Hendricks, have a generic photo of stadium lights. It’s also been used by some current players to replace their Twitter avatars, for example, former Cub Trevor Williams did it on his Twitter page.

MLB claimed they had to do this when players were locked out for legal reasons. Not only that, the league pretty much scrubbed any evidence that current players even exist, per this article in The Athletic:

Their headshots were removed from rosters, their highlights hidden, their names wiped from promotional schedules. (April 30 is “Cardinals Third Baseman Bobblehead” day at Busch Stadium.) Team social media accounts quieted and ceased referencing players at all; the league’s Twitter account went nearly three days without activity this weekend. MLB Network and MLB.com employees were instructed to mostly avoid mentioning active 40-man players’ names on air or in articles for the duration of the lockout.

The writers of the article in The Athletic, Stephen J. Nesbitt, Mike Vorkunov and Evan Drellich, spoke with a number of lawyers — as you know, Commissioner Rob Manfred is a lawyer — about why MLB might have found it necessary to do this, and came up empty:

“I can’t think of anything,” said Dave Leach, a professor at Brooklyn Law School and a former regional director for the National Labor Relations Board. “I’ve never seen a case which had similar facts. And I was there for 45 years, so I saw a good number of cases at the board.”

Bruce Meyer, the lead negotiator for the players’ union, said MLB made the decision on its own, “and you’ll have to ask them for their reasons.”

“It’s a little bit of a mystery why they think this is somehow required legally,” said Jason Wojciechowski, a lawyer at Bush Gottlieb and former editor at Baseball Prospectus. “I don’t know what aspect of the law they think they’d be in violation of. As a union lawyer, my suspicion is that’s cover. But on the other hand, cover for what?”

This was widely called out as “petty,” among other things, when the lockout began a week ago. I suppose I can understand the lawyerly Manfred wanting to make sure the letter of the law was being followed, but, according to Daniel Gilbert, a labor and history professor at the University of Illinois quoted in The Athletic:

Legal questions aside, Gilbert said, the optics of wiping websites and instructing reporters to ignore players suggest it’s “the owners trying to present themselves as the trustees of this industry that is bigger than and not dependent upon … the labor of any particular players.”

“But it seems to be such a foolish strategy,” Gilbert said. “By scrubbing the images from the website, they’re making one of the union’s fundamental arguments for them. I think the union is on solid ground by arguing that you can’t have something called Major League Baseball without the players who make it happen. You don’t have the Angels without (Shohei) Ohtani and (Mike) Trout. You don’t have the Dodgers without Mookie (Betts) and (Walker) Buehler. You don’t have the Yankees without (Aaron) Judge and (Giancarlo) Stanton.”

That’s the entire argument in one paragraph. No one goes to a baseball game, or watches one on TV, to see owners own teams. They go to see the best baseball players in competition.

The Athletic article goes on to note that the NBA and NHL didn’t use player images during their recent (within the last 10 years) league lockouts and limited coverage of current players. However, per the article:

That choice, the league told The New York Times then, was a tactical one, not a legal one.

As noted above, there don’t seem to be any specific legal reasons for MLB to have made the choice they did. MLB.com now features a lot of baseball history articles, something I’ve done here in the offseason for many, many years, as does cubs.com. Earlier this month cubs.com posted this Jordan Bastian article listing the best Cubs by jersey number. Does that seem familiar to you? (Incidentally, most of my selections and Jordan’s are the same. The differences are largely because I chose mine strictly on the basis of bWAR. Also, a couple of players are in Jordan’s article who weren’t in mine because... they hadn’t been Cubs at the time I wrote mine in January 2019.)

I am not limited here in writing about current players and will continue to do so.

Anyway, there hasn’t been any news at all regarding player/owner negotiations in the week since the lockout was called, so there’s nothing to write about on that front, and in my view there likely won’t be perhaps into early January. I guess that means this statement by Manfred isn’t really true:

I don’t see the process moving forward. Do you?

In the end, while the scrubbing of player images and info isn’t a big deal, it does seem like a petty move by Major League Baseball. This, I think, sums up MLB’s action: