Jim McIsaac/Getty Images: MLBPA Executive Director Tony Clark
For the first time since the infamous 1994-95 strike that cancelled 938 games and the postseason, Major League Baseball may be headed for a lockout. Given that the current Collective Bargaining Agreement is set to expire on December 1st and the relationship between MLB and the MLB Players Association has been looking virtually non-existent for several years, it’s fair to say that a lockout to begin 2022 Spring Training seems more likely than a resolution. But how did baseball get here, and what will the two sides need to agree on to guarantee a full season in 2022?
Back in June, ESPN’s Buster Olney reported that the relationship between the MLB and the Players Association is at an all-time low.
“At the owner’s meeting [in June], the conversation among owners wasn’t whether or not there was going to be a lockout, it was WHEN there was going to be a lockout.”
Coming from someone who covered the 1994-95 lockout, this certainly doesn’t paint a hopeful picture, and it reflects the deteriorating, practically nonexistent relationship between the two sides. The MLB and MLBPA have been in constant conflict since the debate over how to play the 2020 season if it was to be played at all. Those talks, of course, were so unproductive that last season was shortened to just 60 games.
In February of this year, the Players Association rejected a proposal to shorten the 2021 season to 154 games and expand the postseason format to include more teams. In rejecting the proposal, MLBPA representatives cited a lack of salary or service-time protections for games cancelled due to COVID-19 as well as the fact that postseason TV revenues, per the current agreement, go entirely to the owners. The players, perhaps fairly, viewed this proposal as an attempt by the owners to recoup some of their pandemic-related losses by raking in additional postseason revenue.
Then, in May, the MLBPA filed grievances against the league for “not negotiating in good faith to play as many games as possible” during the shortened 2020 season. Despite agreeing to do just that—play as many games as possible—the league’s proposals for a season longer than 60 games all included salary cuts that they had to know the players would never accept. The Players Association is seeking up to $500 million in damages from the league, and the grievance hearing began in the first week of October.
Normally, talks over the new CBA would have begun much, much earlier, but the two sides didn’t meet in person for the first time until mid-August, in Denver. While it’s good news that they’re finally talking, they have just two months to agree on a new CBA before the current one expires.
The Issues At Stake
The changes that the MLB and MLBPA will need to agree upon are numerous, but they can be divided into on-field and off-field issues.
On-field issues include foreign substances on baseballs, the universal DH, competitive balance (i.e. tanking), the state of the Minor Leagues, the format for doubleheaders, extra-inning games, and the postseason. Of these, tanking has been a particularly contentious issue, with players such as Cardinals pitcher Andrew Miller stating publicly that players want all teams to be trying to win all the time and that anti-tanking measures may be needed.
The major problems between the two sides of the dispute, however, stem from disagreements about the off-field aspects of the game—in other words, financial elements. The meat of the debates over the new CBA will likely revolve around issues such as player arbitration, service time manipulation and the aforementioned tax threshold/potential salary minimum.
Service time manipulation in particular will likely be a hot-button topic in CBA debates. Players have grown sick of teams leaving MLB-ready prospects in the minors for part of their rookie seasons just to delay their eventual free agency by an extra year. The Players Association will likely insist on ending this money-saving, unethical practice, but convincing owners to stop manipulating service time will be difficult given the financial losses teams supposedly suffered in 2020.
What Happens Now?
Hopefully, the two sides will agree on a new CBA by the December 1st deadline. If they don’t, there is the possibility of a lockout, in which owners would prevent players from reporting to spring training, or the owners might unilaterally extend the old CBA, in which case players might not report to spring training and go on strike. Either event would delay the start of spring training and potentially the regular season itself; there would be no games played until the owners and players reached an agreement.
While an impacted 2022 is looking all too possible, there is still hope. The sides have finally submitted letters of intent to seek new labor terms, a legal necessity before negotiating a new CBA, and ESPN’s Jeff Passan reported in June that nearly everyone around baseball with whom he spoke was optimistic that no 2022 games will be missed. One MLB official, who chose to remain anonymous, told Passan that, “[the situation] isn’t as dire as I think the public perception is.”
Regardless, it remains true that negotiations began far later than they should have and the relationship between the MLB and MLBPA is as bad as it’s been since the 1994-95 lockout. If baseball is to continue as normal in 2022, both sides will need to make concessions that they don’t seem inclined to make.