TORONTO – At the very edge of the “disastrous outcome for this industry” that commissioner Rob Manfred warned of, Major League Baseball ended three months of brinksmanship and decided not to jump yet.
Instead, real progress toward a new collective bargaining agreement was made in marathon negotiations as Monday became Tuesday, raising hopes the scheduled March 31 opening day would be saved, the loss of regular season games averted and free agency soon reopened.
Talks are to resume Tuesday after a pausing deep in the night, agreement on a post-season expanded to 12 teams, instead of the 14 owners wanted, preventing enough movement toward key player asks on the Competitive Balance Tax thresholds and pre-arbitration bonus pools, according to an industry source.
Still, agreements on concepts and frameworks, if not numbers, marked a dramatic turn in the owners’ lockout of their players ahead of an MLB-set deadline for an agreement Monday that was pushed to 5 p.m. Tuesday.
After months of incremental-at-best progress and a Monday morning session that left players convinced an on-time start to the season was all but lost, owners decided to make their first genuine moves to try and get a deal done.
Given the industry’s reliance on deadlines to get things done in all realms of the business, perhaps MLB’s slow play shouldn’t have been surprising. But with threats of cancelled games combined with a series of non-starter proposals after owners went 43 days without making an offer once the lockout was imposed, the lack of progress served to galvanize player resolve.
One player said he wasn’t surprised owners played hardball but expected movement sooner once it became clear the union wouldn’t cave. When that didn’t happen, it became clear they’d have to be willing to fight to get a fair deal.
That the owners were willing to risk damaging the first potentially normal season after the pandemic truncated 2020 and impacted 2021 without any real goals in negotiations other than expanding playoffs and limiting player pay underlined what the players were up against.
For fans who lived through the trauma of the players strike that cancelled the 1994 World Series, and the owners’ cockamamie replacement-player plan the following spring, MLB’s approach was like a time machine back to those dark days.
The game struggled to recover for years afterwards although the now-tainted summer of 1998, when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa both broke Rogers Maris’ home run record, helped reignite passion for the game.
Embarking on the first labour stoppage since 1994-95 suggested owners were taking fan loyalty for granted, while seeking to further restrict player salaries. But unlike past disputes, when owners often successfully painted players as greedy malcontents who should be happy with their salaries to play a kid’s game, this time around fan sentiment, at least on social media, seemed to largely reject that notion.
Amid the hardships caused by pandemic health restrictions, there was bound to be less sympathy for billionaire owners seeking to better leverage already coldly commodified players, whose share of industry revenue was in decline even before COVID hit.
Worth remembering, too, is that teams have nothing but logos, laundry and empty stadiums without players.
Part of the irony is that the current generation of young players is so enticing, that owners could count on them to undo any damage caused by missed games. Between Mike Trout, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Juan Soto, Fernando Tatis Jr., Bo Bichette, Ronald Acuna Jr., Shohei Ohtani, Jacob DeGrom and Mookie Betts, to name just a few, there is enough compelling baseball ahead to believe that disgruntled fans would have been won back.
The owners took the players right to the precipice where they would have to had find out. Progress toward a deal pulled the industry back to more stable ground, with a chance to avoid the disaster the Manfred had forewarned.
Editor’s Note: One of the 30 MLB teams, the Toronto Blue Jays, is owned by Rogers Communications Inc., which also owns Sportsnet.