The 1981 midseason players’ strike cost Major League Baseball 50 days and 713 games. The 1994 strike squandered the end of that season, including the playoffs and World Series, and stretched into the start of the next.
But nothing prepared players and the union that represents them for 2020’s abbreviated 60-game season, plagued by positive coronavirus tests, civil unrest, a hurricane, and fires spreading across the west.
It’s not as if this “unique season,” as Clark repeatedly called it in an exclusive hour-long telephone interview, is at an end. When the regular season concludes Sunday, the players will head into a month of playoffs in various bubbles leading up to the Oct. 20 start of the World Series, scheduled to be played in a neutral ballpark for the first time in baseball history at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Tex.
The offseason will presage collective bargaining negotiations, which will take place all next season, for a new basic agreement. The current one expires on Dec. 1, 2021. Another strike or lockout for 2022, which would be the first in 28 years, would only compound the challenges facing baseball.
Clark said the unity of the players was evident during this year’s six weeks of sometimes rancorous negotiations for baseball’s return, and their resolve remains firm.
“Undoubtedly, throughout the process, the engagement of interest and input and leadership among the players has been tremendous from start to finish,” he said. “And that level of engagement, solidarity and unity – not just within a particular clubhouse, but across all 30 – was absolutely imperative in order to navigate what we navigated this year and will remain important in what lies ahead.”
Next season, the sport will be operated under the auspices of the current basic agreement, unless commissioner Rob Manfred again seeks to reopen it if the country is still in a state of emergency because of the pandemic and games are canceled. That means all of the new rules put in place for this shortened season – the expanded playoffs, regional play, seven-inning doubleheaders, extra innings starting with a runner on second base, and the universal designated hitter – would have to be reviewed again this offseason.
“We’ll engage the guys once the dust settles from the season and get more definitive feedback from their experiences,” Clark said. “This offseason we will sit down and assess [everything] before deciding what makes sense moving forward. The one thing I will tell you is the players have always been and remain of the mind of the integrity of the game itself being maintained. That has always been their position, even in acknowledging that 2020 has been a unique year.”
The only rule not up for automatic revisit is the stipulation that a relief pitcher must pitch to at least three batters in most circumstances – that one was implemented by the owners without the union’s agreement.
“That was the only one that was in place before the season started,” Clark said. “That doesn’t mean it can’t be removed. But it was part of the equation before the adjustments were made.”
When baseball was suspended this past March 12 and the opening of the regular season delayed because of the coronavirus, it became obvious that less than 162 games would be played. No one anticipated at the time the season would be delayed almost four months.
While the basic agreement has no language stipulating what happens if games are lost because of a pandemic, paragraph 11 of the Uniformed Player’s Contract allows the commissioner “to suspend the operation of this contract during any national emergency during which Major League Baseball is not played.” When a national emergency was declared March 13, Manfred subsequently opened the agreement.
The ultimate negotiations about having a 2020 season swung on an initial agreement that players had to be paid a prorated amount of their salaries based on how many games were played. After Manfred implemented a 60-game season, the health and safety protocols were finalized.
That contention between players and ownership resulted in a missed opportunity to be the first major U.S. sport back at play.
“Our focus was on health and safety and we were looking forward to having that conversation,” Clark said. “It just took a little bit longer to get there based on what the league’s interests were at that time. The league’s interests were focused on economics.”
Manfred publicly claimed in May that the owners faced $4 billion in losses if no games were played. That figure will turn out to be a lot less – although still substantial – because of television and radio revenue amassed since the season began July 23. Subsequently, the Los Angeles Dodgers signed Mookie Betts and bought out his free agency with a contract worth $365 million for 12 years, and Steve Cohen is in the process of purchasing the New York Mets for $2.42 billion.
On the surface, baseball appears to be healthy, but Clark declined to comment on such top-dollar transactions, simply saying the players are watching with interest.
“When the season is over, we’ll assess our experiences from this year,” he said, acknowledging that the players are also wondering how the coming free-agent market will be affected. “No one has a crystal ball to know what 2021 is going to look like. But you would assume that as a result of where the teams are now, the progress they still may be looking to make and the success they still may be looking to have, there would still be interest there because of the forward-looking commitment.”
Of one thing, though, he’s certain: The coming collective bargaining negotiations are going to be a long, hard slog.
“There are still some matters of real concern – and I won’t get into them here – that have revealed themselves that even this unique season did not change or alter,” Clark said. “We will look to address these at the bargaining table. There’s a lot there, no doubt. And there’s not much in the way of reference points.
“But what I will highlight is what the players have done here against the background of where we find ourselves. That they have performed at the level they have says quite a lot about not just their commitment to the game, to the industry, to our fans, but also for their ability to adjust to unforeseen circumstances. No matter what, how a team got to the end of the season has been anything but a straight line. “