Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 10, 2022

Out Of The Abyss

A NOTE TO READERS:  As regular visitors to this space know, the most recent post began with a notice that On Sports and Life was taking a brief break for travel, and that during this period there would be no posts “barring an unlikely breakthrough” in baseball’s CBA negotiations.  Honestly, had I known all it took to get a deal done was my threatening to stop writing, I would have done so back in December.  There will still be no post on Sunday.  The usual twice weekly schedule resumes Thursday, March 17.  Thanks for reading.

Ninety-nine days after it began, the owners’ 2021-22 lockout of players, MLB’s first work stoppage in more than a quarter century and its second longest ever, has ended.  News of the tentative agreement between owners and the Players Association was first reported midafternoon Thursday by, appropriately enough, ESPN’s Jeff Passan; one of the most thorough and fair of the many scribes who cover a baseball beat.  Far too many media members are content to simply regurgitate talking points, most often those offered up by representatives of management.  But Passan has earned his rank as one of the best baseball reporters by not simply reprinting either those tidbits, or the spin from players and agents.  Instead, he takes it all in and then digs deeper to understand the details, context, and nuance of complex issues that too often get reduced to headlines or soundbites.

Despite that hard work and his many contacts, it looked for a time like Passan would be shut out of the big story, for even as the two sides moved closer together, his Twitter account was hacked.  But he was able to regain control of the social media mechanism just in time to tweet the breaking news that “baseball is back,” to which he humorously added, “and so am I.”

The tentative deal became official early Thursday evening, after the MLBPA’s executive board voted 26-12 in favor and MLB’s owners added their unanimous, 30-0, approval.  And with that, a mad dash to a slightly delayed Opening Day on April 7 began. 

There are still nearly 150 free agents looking for homes for the coming season, including some of this offseason’s biggest names, like Carlos Correa, Freddie Freeman, and Kris Bryant.  Aside from the immediately recognizable stars, the number also includes scores of midlevel veterans, who some pundits predict will wind up losers under the new CBA, because of the union’s decision to prioritize increasing the league minimum salary and other issues of special concern to younger players.  But the reality is that ballplayers in their first few years as big leaguers are both the most rapidly growing segment of Players Association members, and subject to the greatest amount of team control.

At a broader level, the next few days will bring a myriad of analyses about which side “won” this bitter labor fight.  It’s almost certain that every such report will to some extent be wrong.  That’s simply because of the complexity of the agreement.  Each iteration of MLB’s Collective Bargaining Agreement touches on vastly more issues than are covered in the headlines.  It simply isn’t possible to understand the interplay between all those details in a matter of hours or days, especially because some provisions will inevitably be open to interpretation and, perhaps, manipulation over the five-year term of the CBA.

What we can say is that, especially after the one-sided nature in favor of the owners of the last two deals, these negotiations were conducted on management’s turf.  In the simplest of terms – retaining the majority of revenues – owners could have agreed to the union’s initial positions last December and still emerged as winners.  And the MLBPA never made any real push for fundamental change in the management-worker relationship.  Radical moves like eliminating the Competitive Balance Tax or reducing the service time needed to be eligible for free agency probably would have been on Marvin Miller’s agenda, in another time; the first because the CBT has become a de facto salary cap and the second because it is a fundamental restriction of a player’s right to a free market.  But in the here and now, the former was never even broached and a modest proposal on the latter was quickly withdrawn.

Still, public perception is important, and however the new CBA’s numbers eventually play out, the early count on that score is favorable to the players.  That’s in part because, as previously noted here, social media sites have made fans’ heroes vastly more relatable.  As was never the case during work stoppages of an older generation, this time fans could hear directly from players by simply glancing at their phones or laptops.  It’s also because much of what fans heard from the owners lacked credibility.  While apparent throughout the duration of the lockout, this point was hammered home in recent days when deadlines were announced and then ignored, games were cancelled and then only “removed from the schedule,” and so on.

And in a small, but not insignificant way, the players’ win was highlighted within an hour of the new CBA’s ratification.  All of MLB’s team websites were down for most of that time, and when they finally came back up, each predictably featured a story about the agreement, complete with video of commissioner Rob Manfred.  But just one mouse click away, on the team roster page, was a change that explained the need to have spent some time doing website maintenance.  There were all the photos of players on the roster, the same pictures that had been unceremoniously replaced with anonymous silhouettes during the lockout.  It was a tacit admission by thirty club owners and MLB’s administration of what fans have always known – it is the players who are the sport, it is the players who we pay to see.

Now, after 99 days of the owners trying and failing to break the union, we will see them again.  With the start of Spring Training, the Great Game returns.  But this year, the beginning of a new season is not just about pitchers and catchers.  On Sunday, everyone reports.

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