Toward the end of baseball's labor negotiations in 2002, the players who had survived the previous one – the dispute that cost the sport a World Series – started to tell their brethren new to collective bargaining that 1994 had been "the strike to end all strikes." They kept saying it, again and again: Major League Baseball, the sport of ceaseless strikes and lockouts, was done with the infighting and impasses.
Sometime next week – probably not as early as Monday, as has been reported, but soon thereafter – MLB and the MLB Players Association will announce a five-year labor agreement that will keep the sport free of a work stoppage until 2016, which would make 21 years of uninterrupted baseball. Peace in the Middle East was more likely.
And all of this – the quiet negotiations, the diplomatic relations, the respect engendered between veritable Hatfields and McCoys – stems from 1994, the strike to end all strikes. So much of baseball's current labor détente, in fact, came from the '94 strike that the game is beginning to approach the point where the unthinkable becomes a legitimate question: Was losing the '94 World Series worth everything that came after?
That depends, of course, on whom you ask. Because the most infuriating event in modern baseball happened on their watch, commissioner Bud Selig and then-union chief Don Fehr have particularly unique perspectives on the strike and what it wrought. Selig, whose legacy will include the strike far more than it will labor peace because the latter is expected by the public, still regrets losing the World Series with great animus. While he is not speaking publicly about labor issues until the announcement of a new pact, his feelings are no secret among friends and confidants. He looks at '94 as among his lowest moments as commissioner, lower perhaps than steroids.
Fehr, on the other hand, remains ever pragmatic and emotionless. He no longer heads the MLBPA, nor is he beholden to maintaining a sunny disposition for the sport's sake and thus speaks with candor. And his perspective on the strike-vs.-alternative dichotomy is reasoned and well-informed.
"I don't know how to put a value on it," Fehr said Friday from his office at the NHL Players Association, which he runs these days. "If you ask it the other way, is it more or less likely that you would've had that kind of relationship if we hadn't gone through that, I would like to say less. It was a cathartic event.
"Do I regret that we didn't reach a settlement? Of course. The object is to reach settlements. In the context, I don't think there was anything we could have done."
Between eight labor stoppages and the ill feelings the previous ones imbued, the '94 negotiations were almost doomed from the start. When Selig insisted on a salary cap, something everyone in baseball understood would be a non-starter with the MLBPA, any hope of a deal was gone, as well as the World Series.
Ultimately, the embarrassment of '94 forced the sides back to negotiating and finding a palatable system that did not include a cap. The discussion of revenue sharing and what became a taxation system on big spenders was painful for both sides. It was also necessary. If the MLBPA wasn't going to budge on a salary cap – to do what its brethren in the NFL, NBA and NHL all did – it at least gave something around which both parties could negotiate instead of sitting and arguing.
And that's what it turned into. Stories from those labor negotiations seem almost comical today. Owners, union leaders, staff from both sides, players, lawyers all crammed into a room, bickering, bellyaching, achieving nothing. Media frothing outside for the latest between two parties that would immediately air their grievances. An absolute, abject clown show.
People inside baseball shake their heads at the NBA these days – at its divisiveness and impending disintegration over issues that, fundamentally, are cherry bombs compared to the nuclear warhead of a salary cap. The NBA's labor issues aren't the result of long-strained relations as much as of mismanagement and discord, two issues that nobody ever saw with the MLBPA.
When MLB and the union headed to the White House in 1995 for mediation, President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore pulled Fehr aside and praised the union for staying united. Had it splintered like the NBA's, with some players urging a deal and others decertification and leadership unable to hold it together until ownership went for one final kick to the groin, baseball would have a salary cap and players would find their salaries artificially depressed like they are in the other major sports.
MLB saw the union's resolve, too, and started to understand what the stubbornness connoted. The agreement finally reached in 1996 came begrudgingly. The one in 2002 was painful, too. But the last one, in 2006, was announced well before the previous one ended, and with no strife. And the latest came with the union's new head, Michael Weiner, and MLB's lead negotiator, Rob Manfred, continuing a partnership more hakuna matata than go $#&& yourself.
"The relationship – I don't want to call it mature – is adult," Fehr said. "People have learned how to live with one another. There's a tendency to recognize that whatever disagreements you have ought to be amenable to reasonable accommodations that both sides can find acceptable."
Take, for example, MLB's insistence upon capping spending on draft picks. The union's fundamental opposition to any sort of a ceiling rendered it a point of contention. Selig insisted. The union opposed. Back and forth they went until they took a hint from their past on a compromise: taxing teams that go over a certain threshold on their draft bonuses. The system, sources said, will set a cap based on the previous year's money spent, and if teams exceed it, they will be penalized.
Never mind that some of Selig's constituents already dislike the rule and argue it will hurt the Pittsburghs and Kansas Citys, low-revenue teams that have used the draft to their advantage in recent years. More important was that this didn't become too big of an issue and that compromise now is baseball's M.O.
Both sides understand there is too much at stake – too many fans, too much good will, too much money. Baseball is a $7 billion industry, more than three times as much as it was during the '94 strike. Only a fool would slay this golden goose.
So now Weiner heads to the MLB offices for meetings, and Manfred goes to the union's shop, and trust pervades the relationship. Despite the New York Yankees' opening day payrolls cracking $1.86 billion over the last decade and the next-highest team, the Boston Red Sox, at just over $1.3 billion, MLB is no longer as concerned with equating money and competitive balance. Yes, the Yankees' revenue streams put them at a distinct advantage. They also have one championship over that stretch.
No longer is the salary-cap nuke a palpable threat, not to a union led by Curtis Granderson(notes), Craig Counsell(notes), Aaron Heilman(notes), Dave Bush(notes), Jeremy Gurthrie, Carlos Villanueva(notes), Brad Ziegler(notes), C.J. Wilson(notes), Jed Lowrie(notes), David Aardsma(notes), Craig Breslow(notes) and others – none of whom, by the way, were in the major leagues in '94. How far removed is baseball from that year? Some of the kids from Latin America who signed with major league organizations in July weren't even alive.
By the time they arrive, baseball likely will have passed its 20th straight season of concord. Barring a drastic event, that won't change anytime soon. Baseball, amazing enough, is the bastion of labor peace in sports. And hopefully the strike to end all strikes really, truly was.