There’s no crying in baseball, but there is wailing coming from the negotiating table.
Talks broke down Tuesday between Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association, who failed to come to terms on a new basic agreement, leading commissioner Rob Manfred to announce that games will be canceled for the upcoming season.
“The calendar dictates that we are not going to be able to play the first two series of the regular season and those games are officially canceled,” Manfred said in a press conference Tuesday evening. Canceled games would not be rescheduled, Manfred said, adding that, “Our position is that for games that are not played, players will not get paid.”
Long-stalled negotiations began picking up in earnest this week, including a late-night marathon session on Monday, but they proved to be not enough.
The owners wanted some tweaks in the just expired agreement, and seemed to get some of what they wanted: the same six years until players qualify for free agency, and an expanded playoff format from 10 to 12 teams.
The players, though, are seeking wholesale economic changes in the system. They seemed to agree among other things to an amateur draft lottery, the universal DH and a raise in the first-year player salary. But they were far apart on a prize pool for young players, arbitration eligibility, and a raise in the luxury tax threshold, including decreased penalties.
Multiple outlets reported that the players’ representatives rejected the owners proposal unanimously, while Manfred denied reports that the owners’ position was a “last, best and final offer.” Manfred said that term was used in regard to the potential for a full 162 game season, which will now be curtailed.
Since 2017, average player salaries have declined 5.2%. This even while franchise value has continued to escalate through the pandemic. Manfred told Sportico during the 2020 World Series that the owners had amassed $3 million in operating losses and $8.3 million in debt while playing the 60-game regular season without fans in the stands.
Though the current dispute has been framed as millionaire players against billionaire owners squabbling over a pre-COVID $10 billion revenue pie, the dynamics have changed since baseball’s last stoppage.
Almost all 30 MLB owners are worth in excess of $1 billion, with the Mets’ Steve Cohen topping the list at $12 billion in personal wealth.
Meanwhile, 71% of big leaguers under contract last year earned under $1 million. Only 112 earned more than $10 million.
Five of those top earning players of the eight who make up the union’s executive board are clients of super-agent Scott Boras: Max Scherzer, Marcus Semien, Gerrit Cole, Zack Britton and James Paxton. Many of them were in attendance at the bargaining sessions in the last week.
At least 601 of 1,200 players in the union must demand the executive board and union leadership agree with the owners. Since the players don’t begin to get paid until the season begins on March 31, that’s their actual deadline.
On the owner’s side, there are 30 control people assigned to represent ownership of each of the clubs. In baseball, 75% of those clubs most approve anything. In the end, at least 23 of those owners must be in favor of the new deal.
At this point there’s no telling which side will blink first, or when.
The delay in an agreement has put on the back burner a free agent signing frenzy.
Despite $2 billion of signings prior to the lockout, there remain about 200 free agents in the open market, including such big names as shortstops Carlos Correa and Trevor Story, plus left-handed starter Clayton Kershaw.