Shoe Controversy Surrounding Cubs' Ben Zobrist A Microcosm Of Much Bigger Issues

League owners and the union continue to have tension.

Bruce Levine
May 16, 2018 - 12:16 pm
Cubs infielder/outfielder Ben Zobrist

Dennis Wierzbicki/USA Today Sports

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By Bruce Levine--

CHICAGO (670 The Score) -- The controversy surrounding the black shoes that Cubs utilityman Ben Zobrist has worn despite a warning against it from MLB seems appears to be a launch pad amid the broader issue of who controls the individuality in the game of baseball.

The black cleats that Zobrist has worn during day games at Wrigley Field for the past two years violate MLB's uniform guidelines because they aren't 51 percent of the Cubs' dominant color. After the league ignored Zobrist's habit for a long time, it sent him a letter recently informing him that he could be fined and further disciplined if he continued to wear the black spikes, which he did in a loss to the Braves on Monday.

This kerfuffle is about much more than cleat colors. MLB's rules enforcement department appears to be testing the will the MLB Players' Association against that of owners in the league. 

The union remains unhappy with how a slow-moving free-agent market played out last winter, as owners took a hard-line stance against extending long-term contracts, for the most part. That represented a power shift back to owners. 

The question now is will the union push back over the uniform issue?

"There is something definitely going on," Cubs reliever Steve Cishek said before referencing the success of Players Weekend in 2017. "Last year when we were wearing uniforms one day with all of the nicknames and all of that what they wanted on their shoes, it turned out awesome. MLB gave us full reign to wear anything we wanted to. At that time, they did not put any restrictions on us. A lot of guys ordered their custom spikes to show and grow the game. Nobody said anything to us. Now all of a sudden, out of nowhere, they are dropping warnings and fines on people."

The competitive balance (luxury) tax threshold of $197 million certainly played a part in owners' reluctant to hand out really lucrative contracts. And there's nothing illegal with owners looking to control expenditures by scaling back on payroll, so long as they're not acting in unison to artificially set contract terms to players.

Baseball's current collective bargaining agreement runs through 2021, and there hasn't been a work stoppage since 1994.

While this cleat color issue is minor, it's an example of something that could escalate if players feel the presence of big brother breathing down their necks.

These seemingly minor issues might indeed escalate if the players begin to feel the presence of big brother breathing down their necks.

"This whole thing has been interesting," Cishek said. "They want us to work together with them on a lot of situations. Now they crunch down on something as small as this (uniform rules). This is really confusing. I don't know how this tries to build trust."

Bruce Levine covers the Cubs and White Sox for 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter @MLBBruceLevine.​