The first sign that baseball is roaring toward labor quicksand at full speed with their Lamborghini headlights turned off is when they begin the battle for public opinion.

Guess they have forgotten that hearts and minds never follow.

The good news is the current CBA runs through 2021. The bad news is you can already hear the drumbeat of war, threatening the first MLB work stoppage since 1994-95.

And it's all about this winter's free-agent market -- or lack thereof.

There are many theories and narratives being tossed about as both sides stake out positions, and nearly all of them are wrong.

The biggest reason for the lack of spending is very simply that the players got beat at the bargaining table when they signed this CBA some 14 months ago.

After fighting 40 years to avoid a salary cap, so much blood and treasure exhausted, a rookie negotiator -- players boss Tony Clark -- got taken by veteran Rob Manfred.

The "Competitive Balance Tax" is working like a soft cap in most years and a hard cap this year as teams position themselves for a monster free-agent crop at the end of the 2018 season.

The tax threshold is barely moving up -- currently $197 million -- even though industry revenues have exploded.

So whose fault is that?

"Everybody wants to look up and scream collusion," said Oakland's Brandon Moss on MLB Network last week. "Sooner or later, you have to take responsibility for a system you created for yourself. It's our fault."

This is correct. The players signed a bad deal, and free agents are getting crushed because of it.

There's no organized collusion. Coincidental sanity, maybe, but not collusion.

Those of us who covered the collusion era know what it looks and smells like, and this isn't it.

There's no superstar like Andre Dawson out there failing to get a single offer and ultimately signing for 20 percent of what he's worth.

It's all about the annual tax and -- more specifically -- the repeater tax, which can cost teams as much as 90 percent if they exceed the payroll limit several years in a row.

The collusion story didn't gain any traction, so the next narrative was that the middle class of players was being priced out of the market.

Also ridiculous. It has been this way since the late '80s, with some cycles more obvious than others. The stars get the big money, the young kids keep the payroll down, and the middle class shrinks or gets punished financially.

Nothing new here.

And finally the realization that it's disgraceful when teams collect revenue sharing, make boatloads of money and don't care about winning.

Not exactly breaking news.

There have always been teams like the Pirates and Marlins. In fact, it has frequently been the Pirates and Marlins.

We're not talking about tanking teams that rebuild as did the Royals, Cubs and Astros, and now the White Sox.

No, the villains are the Pirates and Marlins, who aren't trying to rebuild, only trying to cut payroll.

There have always been teams like this, but there are fewer of them today than there were 10 and 20 years ago.

To be clear, the players have always previously been in the right.

Having covered many strikes and lockouts, it's clear that work stoppages were -- each and every time -- a result of small-market owners being unable to police big-market owners, the game shut down as some owners -- and always the commissioner -- attempted to force the players to curb owners' spending for them.

But the players have inexplicably given the owners a de facto salary cap and will have a bloody difficult time putting that genie back in the bottle.

They were warned at the time that it was a terrible idea, and now it has come home to roost, artificially limiting salaries and crushing the market.

It would be fun to blame the owners, the billionaires making money off the players' talent and watching franchise values skyrocket.

But for all the screaming by the players about how unfair this is, the players are themselves to blame.

They never should have signed that deal.

brozner@dailyherald.com

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