- ESPN MLB insider
Author of “The Arm: Inside the Billion-Dollar Mystery of the Most Valuable Commodity in Sports”
IRVING, Texas — Major League Baseball locked out its players early Thursday morning, certifying the game’s first work stoppage in more than a quarter-century after months of talks yielded little progress toward a new labor contract, sources familiar with the situation told ESPN.
The long-anticipated lockout, which the league told the players’ union it would initiate once the previous collective bargaining agreement expired after 11:59 p.m. ET Wednesday, ends the transaction frenzy that led up to its imposition and sends the industry into a dark period with scant light in sight.
During a lockout, which is a labor-relations tool used by management to keep employees from working until a deal is agreed upon, team officials and players cannot communicate in any way. Major league free agency and trades of players on 40-man rosters end immediately.
In three days of bargaining this week, the union and league exchanged proposals that, like previous ones, left the other side nonplussed and illustrated the chasm between the parties. The final discussions between leaders from both sides Wednesday afternoon lasted seven minutes.
Labor peace had corresponded with immense growth in the game’s revenues since a players strike wiped out the 1994 World Series and lasted into 1995. Over the next 26 years, the union and league successfully negotiated five CBAs without a work stoppage after having eight in the previous 23 years.
Now, baseball faces its ninth work stoppage and fourth lockout (and first since 1990) without an obvious path toward a deal. Across the game, players, owners and executives were heartened by the days leading up to the lockout, in which teams lavished more than $1.4 billion in free-agent contracts on players. The deal-making did not replicate itself in the bargaining room at the Four Seasons Dallas at Las Colinas, where the league and union, continuing a trend from 2020, made little headway in talks.
Panic did not immediately accompany the decision to lock out. The next 90 or so days, sources said, will serve as a more realistic runway for a deal than the lead-up to the expiration of the agreement that covered the 2017-21 seasons. The three previous lockouts did not result in any regular-season games missed, and if the league and union want the same to be the case in 2022, the latest they can strike a deal is early March.
The hope for an 11th-hour agreement faded quickly, according to sources. In a proposal Tuesday, the union held to its desire for players to reach free agency more quickly and for salary arbitration to come following a player’s second season rather than his third. It was part of a proposal that mirrored the union’s previous offers, which the league did not respond to in any of its proposals.
MLB’s previous proposal had done little to allay the union’s stated concerns over artificial restraints on free agency, tanking, paying players more earlier in their careers and service-time manipulation. The league did offer to remove direct draft-pick compensation — teams currently are penalized for signing top free agents — and suggested a draft lottery to disincentivize teams from tanking to get a higher draft position. The proposed lottery would cover only the top three picks. It also raised the competitive-balance-tax threshold past the current $210 million mark to $214 million, far shy of the $245 million the union most recently proposed.
The players did move toward MLB’s desire for an expanded postseason with a proposal to move from 10 teams to 12, though it fell short of the 14-team plan the league had proffered. While MLB is not fundamentally opposed to paying players earlier in their careers, its desire to do so while keeping salaries flat remains a problematic sticking point amid discussions that follow years of industry revenue growing and an average salary that stayed steady.
More than 60 players gathered for the discussions helmed by Bruce Meyer, who the union hired as its chief negotiator following the fallout of the last agreement, and MLB deputy commissioner Dan Halem. Other principals in the bargaining included the league’s labor-policy group, led by Colorado Rockies owner Dick Monfort, and the union’s executive sub-committee, with longtime reliever Andrew Miller participating alongside Meyer in smaller negotiating settings.
The tenor of the conversations mimicked that of contentious talks last year when the league and union tried to negotiate the shape of a season during the heart of the pandemic. Proposals from each side were wildly different and rarely moved, and instead of a negotiated settlement, commissioner Rob Manfred imposed a 60-game season.
While the parties have managed to work well together on ancillary issues, divergent philosophies on the game’s core economics drove a wedge into negotiations that has barely moved. The parties have yet to find common ground, and the coming months, with spring training looming, are likelier to better illustrate where they can find it.
In the meantime, this is the closest recent lapse back into the ways of old baseball labor relations, in which the parties fought consistently, with work stoppages in 1972 (strike), 1973 (lockout), 1976 (lockout), 1980 (strike) and 1981 (strike). Time will tell if his era of labor portends something different.
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