MLB Owners Lock Out Players, 1st Work Stoppage Since 1995

MLB had its first labor stoppage in a quarter-century Wednesday night, when the sport’s collective bargaining agreement expired, and owners immediately locked out players, threatening spring training and opening day.

The plan, which amounted to management’s equivalent of a strike under federal labor law, brought the sport’s labor peace to an end after 9,740 days and 26 1/2 years.

Teams chose to force the long-awaited showdown during the offseason rather than risk players walking out during the summer, as they did in 1994. Players and owners had successfully achieved four successive agreements without a work stoppage, but they have been edging closer to a confrontation for more than two years.

In a letter to fans, baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred stated, “We think that an offseason lockout is the best mechanism to protect the 2022 season.” “We are hoping that the lockout will kickstart the negotiations and lead to an agreement that would allow the season to begin on time.” This defensive lockout was required because the players’ association’s vision for Major League Baseball would jeopardize most teams’ ability to compete.

Talks that began last spring came to an end Wednesday after a brief session of only a few minutes, with the parties far apart on scores of major economic concerns. The union’s negotiators left the union’s hotel around nine hours before the agreement expired at 11:59 p.m. EST.

MLB’s 30 controlling owners met briefly online to reinforce their lockout decision, and MLB announced its fourth-ever lockout — along with five strikes — in an emailed message to the Major League Baseball Players Association.

FILE - Seattle Mariners gather as the MLB logo is shown during a review of an attempted catch by right fielder Mitch Haniger of a ball hit by Tampa Bay Rays' Ji-Man Choi that was originally called an out during the ninth inning of a baseball game Friday, June 18, 2021, in Seattle. The call was overturned. The Mariners won 5-1. The clock ticked down toward the expiration of Major League Baseball’s collective bargaining agreement at 11:59 p.m. EST Wednesday night, Dec. 1, 2021, and what was likely to be a management lockout ending the sport’s labor peace at over 26 1/2 years. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

“This harsh and unneeded action will not deter the players’ determination to secure a fair contract,” said union president Tony Clark in a statement. “We remain dedicated to negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement that promotes competitiveness, improves the product for our fans, and advances our membership’s rights and benefits.”

This strike began 30 days after Atlanta’s World Series victory capped a full season after a pandemic-shortened 2020 was played in empty ballparks.

The immediate effects of the lockout included a message from MLB to clubs suspending signings, canceling next week’s traditional winter meetings in Orlando, Florida, and barring players from team workout facilities and weight rooms, possibly chilling ticket sales for 2022.

Following outrage about a dropping average income, middle-class players being forced out by teams concentrating payroll on the wealthy, and veterans being abandoned in favor of lower-paid kids, especially among clubs pulling down their rosters to rebuild, the union urged change.

“As players, we see huge issues with it,” said New York Mets pitcher Max Scherzer of the 2016 pact. “First and foremost, we see a competition problem and how teams are behaving as a result of certain rules within that, and modifications must be done as a result of that in order to bring out the competition.”

There are 11 weeks until pitchers and catchers report to spring training on Feb. 16, giving about 70 days to negotiate an agreement that allows for an on-time start. Opening day is slated for March 31, and in the past, a minimum of three weeks of organized training have been necessary.

Management, intent on retaining recent salary limitations, rejected the union’s calls for what teams saw as significant changes to the sport’s economic structure, such as lowering the service time required for free agency and wage arbitration.

FILE - Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred, left, and Major League Baseball Players Association executive director Tony Clark speak before Game 1 in baseball's World Series between the Houston Astros and the Atlanta Braves, Oct. 26, 2021, in Houston. A five-year contract between MLB and the Major League Baseball Players Association expires at 11:59 p.m. EST on Dec. 1, 2021. (AP Photo/Ron Blum, File)

“For the first time in baseball history, we offered to establish a minimum payroll for all clubs to meet; to allow the majority of players to reach free agency earlier through an age-based system that would eliminate any claims of service time manipulation; and to increase compensation for all young players,” Manfred wrote. “When negotiations stalled, we attempted to generate some by agreeing to adopt the universal designated hitter and to construct a new draft system based on a lottery method similar to that used by other leagues.”

Many teams hurried to recruit players before the lockout, committing to more than $1.9 billion in new contracts — including a one-day record of more than $1.4 billion on Wednesday.

Two of the union’s eight executive subcommittee members earned large contracts: Texas infielder Marcus Semien ($175 million) and Scherzer ($130 million).

“It’s actually kind of enjoyable,” Scherzer admitted. “I’m a fan of the game, and to see everyone signing right now, to see teams compete in such a timely manner, it’s been nice since we’ve seen freezes over the past many offseasons.”

No players are still playing from the 232-day strike that ended the 1994 season, caused the World Series to be canceled for the first time in 90 years, and delayed the start of the following season.

The average wage fell from $1.17 million before the strike to $1.11 million after the strike, but then continued its seemingly unstoppable ascent. It peaked at just under $4.1 million in 2017, the first season of the most recent CBA, but is expected to decline to around $3.7 million when the final figures for this year are determined.

New York Mets first baseman Pete Alonso walks to his position between innings of the team's baseball game against the Chicago Cubs on June 17, 2021, in New York. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

That money is largely concentrated at the top of the pay scale. As of Aug. 31, 112 of the approximately 1,955 players who signed major league contracts at any point leading up to the last month of the regular season had earned $10 million or more this year, with 40 earning at least $20 million, including prorated shares of signing bonuses.

There were 1,397 players earning less than $1 million, with 1,271 earning $600,000 or less and 332 earning less than $100,000, a group of younger players that travel back and forth to the minors.

According to a union statement, the lockout was “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.” “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,”

According to a financial disclosure form submitted with the U.S. Department of Labor, the union withheld licensing money, as it generally does before going into negotiations; cash, U.S. Treasury securities, and investments totaled $178.5 million last December 31.

Some player agents have speculated that management’s credit lines may already be under strain as a result of income deprivation caused by the coronavirus pandemic, but the clubs’ finances are more opaque publicly than the union’s, making it difficult to assess comparative financial strength to withstand a lengthy work stoppage.

Following a quarter-century as an MLB labor negotiator, Manfred succeeded Bud Selig as commissioner in 2015. He was extremely vocal in his criticism of the union’s attitude.

“They never wavered from collectively the most radical set of ideas in their history,” he said, referring to large changes to the revenue-sharing structure, a weakening of the competitive balance tax, and a reduction in the amount of time players play for their teams. All of these modifications would reduce the competitiveness of our game.”

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