Welcome Back, MLB Work Stoppage Talk!

Mark Shapiro and Rob Manfred
Photo Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Oh, hello. I’m back in Canada and getting myself sorted and ready to get back to the business of trying to figure out things to write about the Toronto Blue Jays while their off-season remains in a holding pattern post-Kendrys Morales (and Brett Cecil getting four years (!!?!) from the Cardinals). And… uh… it turns out that there’s a chance that the club, and in fact the entire league, may remain quiet on the transaction front for whole lot longer than you might think. That is, if Ken Rosenthal’s potentially explosive piece for Fox Sports here on Tuesday evening has legs.

In it, as you will have gleaned from my title, he says that baseball’s long labour peace is under threat with the expiration of the current collective bargaining agreement between the league and its players. Specifically, he says that “owners will consider voting to lock out the players if the two sides cannot reach a new collective-bargaining agreement by the time the current deal expires on Dec. 1, according to sources with knowledge of the discussions.”

These are stunning words. In the last two rounds of CBA negotiations, the league and the players’ union have seemed especially determined to come to an agreement without anyone having to even think about uttering such things. The damage to the reputation to the sport from the 1994 strike had been so great that they wouldn’t dare.

Or so the story goes.

Er… went.

That era is, evidently, now over. And it isn’t necessarily difficult to see why. The league and the players have been able to keep their labour peace in recent years in a lot of ways by throwing non-union players — future draft picks and international signings — under the bus. To generalize, because I am no expert in the ins and outs of this stuff (nor do I want to become one over the course of a prolonged labour dispute *COUGH*), the owners have been spared expenses through “bonus pool” limitations, rather than gaining an equivalent in concessions from the players. 

Could it be that the owners have squeezed enough blood from that stone? That enough players have come into the union through that system that there is beginning to be more resistance to it?

That seems to be the case, as Rosenthal tells us that the players are strongly opposed to an international draft, which would suppress international players’ earnings even further. The league has reportedly offered to get rid of draft pick compensation for free agents, which depresses the markets for players who reject the qualifying offer, in exchange for allowing for the draft, but a union source tells Rosenthal, flatly, that “we aren’t giving them something that affects 30 percent of big leaguers and probably 50 percent of minor leaguers in exchange for something that affects less than 20 players every year.”

On the other hand, could much of this also down to the fact that, for all the hand-wringing about 1994, and how baseball needed to be saved from itself (with PEDs, it turns out!), it has become clear by now that the strike’s damage was mostly just superficial?

Fans, especially in Montreal, would disagree. But would the owners?

The Toronto Blue Jays were bought by Rogers in 2000 for $137 million, and are now worth something more like ten times as much. And they’re hardly the only example. The Red Sox cost John Henry and his group $380 million in 2002, and were valued by Forbes at $2.3 billion last March.

The farther away we get from the 1994 strike, the more fans that come to the game that don’t remember it or didn’t understand it enough at the time to get jaded, the more it looks like a small blip on the path to exponential growth. And the labour disputes before that? The loss of spring training 1990, the two day strike in 1985, the big 1981 strike and the two week strike in 1972? For a generation or two of baseball fans, they basically don’t exist.

And so here we are, once again hearing the language of work stoppage.

I genuinely don’t expect the tough talk will come to anything. I strongly suspect whoever Rosenthal’s source was wanted to create a little bit of negotiating leverage through the media — and indeed Rosenthal reports that “the possibility of a lockout stems from the owners’ frustration with the players’ union over the slow pace of the discussions,” suggesting that this could be some owner’s way of trying to speed up the process. Keith Law tweets that said owner’s statement amounts to threatening to cut off his nose to spite his face, and later flat out called it “bogus propaganda from MLB.” Ben Nicholson-Smith adds that his sources say they don’t think a labour stoppage is coming, adding that both sides make far too much money to have any kind of incentive to do such a thing.

So the story here is maybe not so much that they might do it, but that they even actually said it.