Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 21, 2021

The Great Game Is On The Clock

A NOTE TO READERS:  On Sports and Life will be traveling over the upcoming holiday weekend.  There will be no post next Thursday or Sunday, with the usual schedule resuming on Thursday, December 2nd. As always, thanks for reading. A different but not insignificant means of support could come later this week. In between the turkey and the NFL, as you celebrate the generosity shown by the Wampanoags to a small group of European settlers in coastal Massachusetts four hundred years ago, take just a moment to remember how in the years that followed, the kindness was not returned. 

Ten days to go.  Just a week and a half remain until the current Collective Bargaining Agreement between MLB and the Players Association, ratified in December 2016, reaches the end of its five-year term.  As the Owners Meeting that comes each year on the heels of the season’s conclusion wrapped up in Chicago last week, commissioner Rob Manfred reiterated his goal of hammering out a new agreement prior to that deadline.  The two sides have been meeting regularly, and the most positive sign has been the absence of news since that indicates both owners and players remain focused on negotiating the terms of a new agreement.  When one or both parties decide to start setting expectations and jockeying for public favor, which is to say when baseball writers with contacts in both the owners’ suites and players’ clubhouses start tweeting leaks about this unacceptable proposal or that refusal to bargain in good faith, fans will know that prospects have soured and the Great Game’s first work stoppage since the 1994-95 strike is near at hand.

Still, the absence of daily – or hourly – public posturing is no guarantee that Manfred and MLBPA head Tony Clark will be scheduling a joint press conference just as the clock approaches midnight on December 1st.  To the contrary, the odds of that happening remain exceedingly long.  Manfred appeared to acknowledge as much last week when he said, “time is becoming an issue.”  Then again, the team with the worst regular season record of all ten that made the playoffs just staged a championship parade, so one can always hope.

At a high level, the obstacles fall into two broad categories.  The first is trust, or more accurately, the lack of it.  Last year’s rancorous and ultimately failed talks on first postponing and then reconfiguring the 2020 season in response to the pandemic left leaders on both sides angry and bitter.  Whether because of a proverbial “failure to communicate” or something more sinister, the union believed MLB arbitrarily redefined the terms of the postponement deal, while Manfred was convinced that Clark reneged on a handshake agreement outlining the elements of a truncated season.

But well before those disastrous negotiations played out, the Players Association lost faith in owners who were changing the Great Game’s basic economic structure.  While the fine points have evolved, for many years the basic financial deal has kept a player under the control of his team for his first several years in the majors, including not just what uniform he can wear, or whether it belongs to the major league franchise or a minor league affiliate, but also how much he gets paid for wearing it.  As a career progresses, the player gradually gets an increased say in the terms of his livelihood through salary arbitration.  Finally, and for the typical player this happens in their early thirties, he wins the right to sell his services to the highest bidder through free agency.  That last step has always been the reward for possibly – absolutely in the case of stars – being underpaid throughout the first phase of a major league career.

The oddity in this structure was that the reward of a fat free agent contract might well come from a team other than the one that got the benefit of a player’s youthful heroics.  As advanced metrics enabled franchise front offices to develop detailed evaluations of player performance, teams shifted away from volunteering to be that “other” club, the one that paid handsomely for past performance even as a player’s skills declined during the term of his free agent deal.  While this shift made sense in terms of the statistics and economics, to players it looked like little more than theft, as the owners shut down the back end of baseball’s basic economic deal while leaving in place the team-friendly restrictions of the front end. 

One cannot overstate the level of mutual distrust created by all of that, which alone could make agreement before the deadline impossible.  Even if suspicion only complicates negotiations, it could do enough damage because the second obstacle is the sheer volume of issues included in the CBA.  While fans and much of the media focus on economic matters like the luxury tax threshold and service time required to reach free agency, the agreement extends into myriad other issues. 

This weekend On Sports and Life had a chance to discuss the future of the Great Game with several longtime fans, people who truly love baseball.  The group had dozens of ideas for expanding the sport’s appeal.  Not one dealt with how much a player gets paid.  But almost every suggestion, from lowering the mound to making the designated hitter universal to multiple thoughts on how to speed up play, require agreement between owners and players before becoming reality.  There are also big deals like the number of teams in the postseason and little details like the daily travel allowance, all of which must be discussed and agreed upon before a new CBA comes to fruition.

We fans don’t know how many of those details have already been ironed out.  We don’t know the temperature in the room as representatives from both sides continue their talks.  So much like the early days of Spring Training, fans remain hopeful and focus on the best possible outcomes.  But it would not be a bad idea to bone up on exactly how a lockout works, and perhaps consider purchasing refundable tickets for that planned trip to Spring Training.


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