The clock ticked down Wednesday toward the expiration of Major League Baseball’s collective bargaining agreement at 11:59 p.m. EST and a likely management lockout ending the sport’s labour peace at 9,740 days over 26 1/2 years.
After successfully reaching four consecutive agreements without a stoppage, players and owners have appeared headed for a confrontation for more than two years.
“The lockout seems like a very likely scenario,” pitcher Max Scherzer, a member of the union’s executive committee, said Wednesday after finalizing his contract with the New York Mets.
Management negotiators left the union’s hotel about nine hours before the deal was set to expire, and there was no indication they planned to return.
The union demanded change following anger over a declining average salary, middle-class players forced out by teams concentrating payroll on the wealthy and veterans jettisoned in favour of lower-paid youth, especially among clubs tearing down their rosters to rebuild.
“As players we see major problems with it,” Scherzer said of the 2016 agreement. “First and foremost, we see a competition problem and how teams are behaving because of certain rules that are within that, and adjustments have to be made because of that in order to bring out the competition.”
Management, intent on preserving salary restraints gained in recent decades, rejected the union’s requests for what teams regarded as significant alterations to the sport’s economic structure, including lowering service time needed for free agency and salary arbitration.
Clubs scramble to add players
Many clubs scrambled to add players ahead of a lockout and an expected signing freeze, committing more than $1.9 billion in new contracts. Among them were big deals for two of the eight members of the union’s executive subcommittee: Texas infielder Marcus Semien (US$175 million) and Scherzer (US$130 million).
“This is actually kind of fun,” Scherzer said. “I’m a fan of the game, and to watch everybody sign right now, to actually see teams competing in this kind of timely fashion, it’s been refreshing because we’ve seen freezes for the past several offseasons.”
Much has changed since the 232-day strike that cut short the 1994 season, led to the first cancellation of the World Series in 90 years and caused the 1995 season to start late. That stoppage ended only when a federal judge — future Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor — issued an injunction forcing owners to restore the work rules of the expired labour contract.
The average salary dropped from $1.17 million before the strike to $1.11 million but then resumed its seemingly inexorable rise. It peaked at just under $4.1 million in 2017, the first season of the latest CBA, but likely will fall to about $3.7 million when this year’s final figures are calculated.
Money concentrated at the top
That money is concentrated heavily at the top of the salary structure. Among approximately 1,955 players who signed major league contracts at any point going into the regular season’s final month, 112 had earned $10 million or more this year as of Aug. 31, of which 40 made at least $20 million, including prorated shares of signing bonuses.
There were 1,397 earning under $1 million, of which 1,271 were at $600,000 or less and 332 under $100,000, a group of younger players who shuttle back and forth to the minors.
Union head Tony Clark, a former All-Star first baseman who became executive director following Michael Weiner’s death in 2013, said players are united and understand the need to stick together to achieve common goals. The sides are still litigating over the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, sniping over how to long the season could have been and taking their positions before a neutral arbitrator.
The union has withheld licensing money, as it usually does going into bargaining; cash, U.S. Treasury securities and investments totalled $178.5 million last Dec. 31, according to a financial disclosure form filed with the U.S. Department of Labor.
“We have a pretty war chest behind us of money that we can allocate to players,” Scherzer said.
Some player agents have speculated that management’s credit lines already may be pressured following income deprivation caused by the coronavirus pandemic, but the clubs’ finances are more opaque publicly than that of the union, making it difficult to ascertain comparative financial strength to withstand a lengthy work stoppage.
‘We’ve been down this path,’ says commissioner
Rob Manfred, who succeeded Bud Selig as commissioner in 2015 following a quarter-century as an MLB labour negotiator, made clear last month that management preferred an off-season lockout to a midseason strike.
“We’ve been down this path. We locked out in `89-’90,” he said. “I don’t think ’94 worked out too great for anybody. I think when you look at other sports, the pattern has become to control the timing of the labour dispute and try to minimize the prospect of actual disruption of the season. That’s what it’s about. It’s avoiding doing damage to the season.”
Scott Boras, who negotiated Scherzer’s deal and shortstop Corey Seager’s $325 million contract with Texas, has pushed for the union to insist on change to decrease the incentive for lowering payrolls during rebuilding.
“Sometimes the rules of the game require them to do things that are not in the best interest of the game,” Boras said, “for them to be a better competitor for next year, they have to do things that the rules direct them to do.”