Major League Baseball plunged into its first work stoppage in a quarter-century when the sport’s collective bargaining agreement expired Wednesday night and owners immediately locked out players in a move that threatens spring training and opening day.
The strategy, management’s equivalent of a strike under federal labour law, ended the sport’s labour peace after 9,740 days over 26 1/2 years.
Teams decided to force the long-anticipated confrontation during an off-season rather than risk players walking out during the summer, as they did in 1994. Players and owners had successfully reached four consecutive agreements without a work stoppage, but they have been accelerating toward a clash for more than two years.
Talks that started last spring ended Wednesday after a brief session of mere minutes with the sides far apart on the dozens of key economic issues. Management’s negotiators left the union’s hotel about nine hours before the deal lapsed at 11:59 p.m. EST, and players said MLB did not make any new central economic proposals this week.
MLB’s 30 controlling owners held a brief digital meeting to reaffirm their lockout decision, and MLB delivered the announcement of its fourth-ever lockout – to go along with five strikes – in an e-mailed letter to the Major League Baseball Players Association.
This stoppage began 30 days after Atlanta’s World Series win capped a complete season following a pandemic-shortened 2020 played in empty ballparks. The lockout’s immediate impact is to banish players from team workout facilities and weight rooms while perhaps chilling ticket sales for 2022.
The union demanded change following anger over a declining average salary, middle-class players forced out by teams concentrating payroll on the wealthy and veterans jettisoned in favour of lower-paid youth, especially among clubs tearing down their rosters to rebuild.
“As players we see major problems with it,” New York Mets pitcher Max Scherzer said of the 2016 agreement. “First and foremost, we see a competition problem and how teams are behaving because of certain rules that are within that, and adjustments have to be made because of that in order to bring out the competition.”
Eleven weeks remain until pitchers and catchers are to report for spring training on Feb. 16, leaving about 70 days to reach a deal allowing for an on-time start. Opening day is set for March 31, and a minimum of three weeks of organized workouts have been required in the past.
Management, intent on preserving salary restraints gained in recent decades, rejected the union’s requests for what teams regarded as significant alterations to the sport’s economic structure, including lowering service time needed for free agency and salary arbitration.
Many clubs scrambled to add players ahead of a lockout and an expected signing freeze, committing to more than $1.9 billion in new contracts – including a one-day record of more than $1.4 billion Wednesday.
“It did feel like at least certain groups of free agents were moving more quickly the last few days,” Pittsburgh general manager Ben Cherington said.
Two of the eight members of the union’s executive subcommittee signed big deals: Texas infielder Marcus Semien ($175 million) and Scherzer ($130 million).
“This is actually kind of fun,” Scherzer said. “I’m a fan of the game, and to watch everybody sign right now, to actually see teams competing in this kind of timely fashion, it’s been refreshing because we’ve seen freezes for the past several off-seasons.”
No player remains active from the 232-day strike that cut short the 1994 season, led to the first cancellation of the World Series in 90 years and caused the 1995 season to start late. That stoppage ended only when a federal judge – future Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor – issued an injunction forcing owners to restore the work rules of the expired labour contract.
The average salary dropped from $1.17 million before the strike to $1.11 million but then resumed its seemingly inexorable rise. It peaked at just under $4.1 million in 2017, the first season of the latest CBA, but likely will fall to about $3.7 million when this year’s final figures are calculated.
That money is concentrated heavily at the top of the salary structure. Among approximately 1,955 players who signed major league contracts at any point going into the regular season’s final month, 112 had earned $10 million or more this year as of Aug. 31, of which 40 made at least $20 million, including prorated shares of signing bonuses.
There were 1,397 earning under $1 million, of which 1,271 were at $600,000 or less and 332 under $100,000, a group of younger players who shuttle back and forth to the minors.
Union head Tony Clark, a former All-Star first baseman who became executive director following Michael Weiner’s death in 2013, said players are united and understand the need to stick together to achieve common goals. The sides are still litigating over the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, sniping over how to long the season could have been and taking their positions before a neutral arbitrator.
The union has withheld licensing money, as it usually does going into bargaining; cash, U.S. Treasury securities and investments totalled $178.5 million last Dec. 31, according to a financial disclosure form filed with the U.S. Department of Labor.
“We have a pretty big war chest behind us of money that we can allocate to players,” Scherzer said.
Some player agents have speculated that management’s credit lines already may be pressured following income deprivation caused by the coronavirus pandemic, but the clubs’ finances are more opaque publicly than that of the union, making it difficult to ascertain comparative financial strength to withstand a lengthy work stoppage.
Rob Manfred, who succeeded Bud Selig as commissioner in 2015 following a quarter-century as an MLB labour negotiator, made clear last month that management preferred an off-season lockout to a midseason strike.
“We’ve been down this path. We locked out in `89-’90,” he said. “I don’t think ‘94 worked out too great for anybody. I think when you look at other sports, the pattern has become to control the timing of the labour dispute and try to minimize the prospect of actual disruption of the season. That’s what it’s about. It’s avoiding doing damage to the season.”
Scott Boras, who negotiated Scherzer’s deal and shortstop Corey Seager’s $325 million contract with Texas, has pushed for the union to insist on change to decrease the incentive for lowering payrolls during rebuilding.
“Sometimes the rules of the game require them to do things that are not in the best interest of the game,” Boras said, “for them to be a better competitor for next year, they have to do things that the rules direct them to do.”