Inside the Clubhouse: A lockout catastrophe of MLB’s own making

MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred. (Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)
MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred. (Julio Aguilar/Getty Images) /

The MLB and MLBPA couldn’t reach an agreement this week and the lockout has now resulted in canceled games. This all could have been avoided.

Major League Baseball owners imposed a lockout on Dec. 2 and framed it as “jumpstarting” negotiations. They waited 43 days to start talks with the MLBPA and threatened to miss a month of regular-season games after setting an arbitrary deadline. At the 11th hour, they made their “best and final offer” which was universally rejected by the players.

Losing games was described by Manfred weeks ago as a “disastrous” outcome. Now, after a nine-day negotiation session that left players angered and disappointed, the first two series of the regular season were canceled with the possibility of more to come. And in announcing the cancellation of games, Manfred stood behind a podium in Jupiter, Fla. and laughed into a microphone.

“Are you talking about the guy who cut 42 minor-league teams and called the World Series trophy a hunk of metal?” said one player.

“They’ve been down with missing games in April for a while. Sad. They don’t care about the sport itself,” one agent said.

“Guy doesn’t even pretend to care about the health of the game,” another said.

The MLB owners don’t seem all that interested in an amicable compromise to end the lockout

This was all avoidable. After all, it’s not as if the players were asking for that much. They sought to raise the minimum salary from $575,000 in 2021 to $725,000 in 2022 and $765,000 in 2025. They want to create a bonus pool of $85 million (up to $105 million) to pay young players. They expressed a willingness to keep the competitive-balance tax, which acts as a salary cap without a salary floor, if they can raise the threshold where penalties kick in from $210 million in 2021 to $238 million in 2022 and up to $263 million in 2025. No team has blown past those thresholds in the past three seasons.

Instead, the owners sought a deal where they would once again win in a rout, and left the PA accusing the league of trying to “break our Player fraternity.” There is always the risk of a union fracturing, but all signs suggest that the players are rallying — and will continue to rally — around one another, and it all stems from their disliking of Manfred.

MLBPA executive director Tony Clark said Tuesday that the union is willing to have a conversation wherever and whenever. The players want to play. Manfred, meanwhile, said that it is not possible for the league to begin negotiating until Thursday. But both sides would be wise to get back to the table as soon as possible because the consequences to players, and others around the game, could be dire.

Think about the restaurants and bars in Florida and Arizona that thrive off two months of spring training. Think about the game-day employees with each team. Think about the players in their mid-to-upper 30s who may not get another opportunity because of a condensed spring training. How long until we hear about layoffs and furloughs for team employees after many experienced the same fate following the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic? One agent believes “this could literally wipe out some small/mid-size agencies if this thing drags on.”

“I’m not really sure what else I would do for a living,” another agent said.

A manual distributed to agents by the PA before the lockout, obtained by FanSided, indicated that locked-out players can play in other leagues, saying: “The PA would challenge any attempts by MLB to interfere with Players who choose to participate in a foreign league during a lockout. During the 2004-05 work stoppage, a large number of NHL Players chose to play internationally.”

Philadelphia Phillies superstar Bryce Harper photoshopped himself in a Yomiuri Giants jersey, writing “You up? Got some time to kill. I know you have (Scott Boras’ number). Let’s talk.” Harper, of course, was probably joking. But there are at least a couple of players are exploring the possibility of playing overseas, according to major-league sources, though multiple agents expressed skepticism about the possibility, with one saying: “Asian teams have international limits and I can’t see them changing those rules to risk pissing off MLB.”

Another agent said: “I don’t think so. Korea and Japan have already started spring training, both have signed their foreign players already (they could add more if they wanted to) but there are only 3 foreign players per team in Korea and 4 in Japan. I don’t think they would take anybody on knowing they would leave the second an agreement got done. I just can’t see it happening.”

The best option, for both the players and owners, has been to continue to sit at the negotiating table and hammer out a deal. Besides, it’s not like the last nine days didn’t result in some progress. MLB accepted the union’s proposal to give a full season of service time to Rookie of the Year finishers, even if they start the season in the minors. They agreed to implement a five-team draft lottery and agreed to a 12-team playoff proposal, with the league initially asking for a 14-team playoff.

But both sides couldn’t even agree on how close they came to a deal on Monday night and still need to negotiate the luxury tax, pre-arbitration bonus pool and minimum salaries. Tension between the two has grown since Nov. 30, 2016, and escalated over the last few months as each has accused the other of not wanting to strike a deal. Whenever talks continue, that tension figures to grow.

It was all avoidable. All it took was for the owners to negotiate in good faith and not have to win this negotiation in a landslide. They couldn’t even do that. Because of it, the regular season could start in May — or perhaps as late as June.”