MLB faces up to season threat, enters first work stoppage since 1995

Major League Baseball (MLB) has entered its first lockout in over quarter of a century as commissioner Rob Manfred criticised the Players Association’s (MLBPA’s) “strategy of confrontation over compromise” amid a potential threat to Opening Day of the 2022 season.

The sport’s collective bargaining agreement expired at the stroke of midnight on Wednesday evening, with the League’s owners immediately deciding to lock out the players after failed talks over a new deal.

MLB’s last lockout ran from August 12, 1994 to April 2, 1995, resulting in the cancellation of the 1994 World Series. MLB in August announced the master schedule for the 2022 regular season, which is currently due to open on March 31, with all 30 teams in action.

The Associated Press news agency said that negotiations that commenced last spring ended Wednesday after a brief session of a few minutes with the sides far apart on dozens of key economic issues. Management’s negotiators are said to have left the MLBPA’s hotel about nine hours before the deal lapsed at 11:59pm EST.

The union is said to have demanded change following anger over a declining average salary, middle-class players forced out by teams concentrating payroll on the wealthy and veterans cut in favour of lower-paid youth, especially among clubs looking to rebuild their squads.

One of the immediate impacts of the lockout for clubs could be on ticket sales for the forthcoming season. In a letter to fans, Manfred wrote: “Simply put, we believe that an offseason lockout is the best mechanism to protect the 2022 season. We hope that the lockout will jumpstart the negotiations and get us to an agreement that will allow the season to start on time.

“This defensive lockout was necessary because the Players Association’s vision for Major League Baseball would threaten the ability of most teams to be competitive. It’s simply not a viable option. From the beginning, the MLBPA has been unwilling to move from their starting position, compromise, or collaborate on solutions.

“When we began negotiations over a new agreement, the Players Association already had a contract that they wouldn’t trade for any other in sports. Baseball’s players have no salary cap and are not subjected to a maximum length or dollar amount on contracts. In fact, only MLB has guaranteed contracts that run 10 or more years, and in excess of $300m (£225.3m/€264.6m). We have not proposed anything that would change these fundamentals.

“While we have heard repeatedly that free agency is ‘broken’ – in the month of November $1.7bn was committed to free agents, smashing the prior record by nearly 4x. By the end of the offseason, clubs will have committed more money to players than in any offseason in MLB history.”

Manfred continued: “We have had challenges before with respect to making labour agreements and have overcome those challenges every single time during my tenure. Regrettably, it appears the Players Association came to the bargaining table with a strategy of confrontation over compromise.

“They never wavered from collectively the most extreme set of proposals in their history, including significant cuts to the revenue-sharing system, a weakening of the competitive balance tax, and shortening the period of time that players play for their teams. All of these changes would make our game less competitive, not more.

“To be clear: this hard but important step does not necessarily mean games will be cancelled. In fact, we are taking this step now because it accelerates the urgency for an agreement with as much runway as possible to avoid doing damage to the 2022 season. Delaying this process further would only put Spring Training, Opening Day, and the rest of the season further at risk – and we cannot allow an expired agreement to again cause an in-season strike and a missed World Series, like we experienced in 1994. We all owe you, our fans, better than that.”

The MLBPA issued a statement of its own early today (Thursday), describing the lockout as “a dramatic measure, regardless of the timing.” The union added: “It was the owners’ choice, plain and simple, specifically calculated to pressure players into relinquishing rights and benefits, and abandoning good faith bargaining proposals that will benefit not just players, but the game and industry as a whole.

“These tactics are not new. We have been here before, and players have risen to the occasion time and again — guided by a solidarity that has been forged over generations. We will do so again here. We remain determined to return to the field under the terms of a negotiated collective bargaining agreement that is fair to all parties, and provides fans with the best version of the game we all love.”

Image: Ty Welch on Unsplash