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Day 1 of MLB's lockout: Players show solidarity after league failed to 'seriously engage' in negotiations

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IRVING, Texas — The first day of baseball’s labor war produced hostility, resentment, anxiety, and apprehension as Major League Baseball and the players union departed town Thursday with a lockout officially on.

The two sides arrived into town Sunday with hopes of reaching an agreement – or at least making progress by Wednesday night’s deadline – but instead couldn’t even agree on the legitimacy of the proposals from each side.

The players, with about 65 in town for the union executive board meetings, were visibly angry at the official lockout announcement at 12:01 a.m. ET Thursday, and agitated by the league’s decision to scrub all of their images from the league’s website, MLB.com., replacing them with generic silhouettes.

Several players, starting with pitchers Joe Musgrove, James Taillon, Trevor Williams, Lucas Giolito and Taijuan Walker changed their profile Twitter pictures to those blank avatars, showing solidarity among the players.

Commissioner Rob Manfred said the decision by its website was for legal reasons, with several teams such as the Philadelphia Phillies informing its local media that all employees were prohibited from speaking to reporters with the exception of its ownership group.

There will be no restrictions on the players speaking to the media during the lockout, executive director Tony Clark said, during his press conference hours after Manfred’s .

Really, Clark says, there’s no reason for a lockout in the first place, denying Manfred’s assertion that a lockout was necessary to accelerate bargaining negotiations to avoid a disruption of the 2022 season.

“People need pressure sometimes to get an agreement,’’ Manfred said in a sparsely attended press conference at Globe Life Field in Arlington, “but candidly we didn't feel that sense of pressure from the other side during the course of this week. The tool available to you under the [National Labor Relations] Act is to apply economic leverage.’’

Manfred said it was too big of a risk to continue negotiations without enforcing a lockout after the damages caused after the 1994-95 strike that canceled the World Series.

“If you play without an agreement, you are vulnerable to a strike at any point in time," Manfred said. "What happened in 1994 is the MLBPA picked August, when we were most vulnerable because of the proximity of the large revenue dollars associated with the postseason. We wanted to take that option away, and try to force the parties to deal with the issues and get an agreement now.’’

Clark and Bruce Meyer, the union’s lead negotiator, strongly disagreed there was a need for a lockout, saying they wanted to continue negotiating.

“From the outset,’’ Clark said, “the league has been more interested in the appearance of bargaining than bargaining itself. ... The league was not required to declare a lockout that decision. The decision to impose a lockout was a conscious decision made by the league. And contrary to the statement that imposing a lockout would be helpful in bringing negotiations to a conclusion, players considered unnecessary and provocative.

“This lockout won't pressure or intimidate players into a deal that they don't believe is fair.’’

MLB commissioner Rob Manfred speaks during a news conference on Thursday.
MLB commissioner Rob Manfred speaks during a news conference on Thursday.

Manfred and MLB negotiators said the union was asking for radical proposals, including the reduction of free agency from six years to five years, and salary arbitration eligibility lowered from three years to two years, along with a $100 million reduction in revenue sharing.

Yet, the union said MLB negotiators were being unrealistic seeking to replace salary arbitration with a statistical-based system along with other measures to hurt the game’s competitive integrity.

They wound up spending only about 3 ½ hours in negotiations during their three-day stay. Their final round of talks lasted just seven minutes when the union refused to concede to MLB’s request to drop their proposals for free agency, revenue sharing, and service time manipulation to hear their counter-offer.

“We had hoped that the league would seriously engage here in Dallas,’’ Clark said, “unfortunately that wasn't necessarily the case. We made proposals that move significantly toward MLB on a number of key economic issues. The league refused repeatedly to make counter offers on any of those core issues.’’

Clark even cracked that MLB spent more time crafting Manfred’s open letter to the fans after the imposed lockout than negotiating a deal in Texas with no proposals addressing core economic issues.

“It would have been beneficial to the process to have spent as much time negotiating in the room,’’ Clark said, “as it appeared was spent on the letter.’’

Said Meyer: “It's a whole list of topics that they've told us they will not negotiate. They will not agree, for example, to expand salary arbitration eligibility. They will not agree to any path for any player to achieve free agency earlier. They will not agree to anything that would allow players to have additional ways to get service time to combat service-time manipulation. They told us on all of those things they will not agree.

“We, on the other hand, indicated that we're prepared to continue talking about anything and everything and we haven't drawn any lines in the sand on anything.’’

Really, the only issues the two sides appeared to make movement on during their talks was MLB’s willingness to eliminate the qualifying offer and draft-pick compensation for free agency while the union agreed to expand the playoffs from 10 teams to 12 teams with realignment. MLB originally proposed a 14-team playoff field.

Manfred argued that the union’s proposals for players reaching free agency earlier and expanding salary arbitration to players with two years of service instead of three years would damage small-market teams.

“We already have teams in smaller markets that struggle to compete,’’ Manfred said. “Shortening the period of time that they can control players makes it even harder for them to compete. It's also bad for fans in those markets.

“The most negative reaction we have is when a player leaves via free agency. We don't see that making it earlier, available easier, we don't see that as a positive. ...

“Things like a shortened reserve period, a $100 million reduction in revenue sharing and salary arbitration for the whole two-year class are bad for the sport, bad for the fans and bad for competitive balance.’’

Countered Meyer: “We feel our proposals would positively affect competitive balance, competitive integrity. We've all seen in recent years the problem with teams that don't seem to be trying their hardest to win games or put the best teams on the field.’’

Manfred and MLB argued that the $1.7 billion spent in free agent contracts this wintershows that the current CBA has worked well for the players. Meyer said the rash of signings, including six players who received contracts in excess of $100 million, only drew suspicion about clubs’ past spending behavior.

“The fact that this year there seems to be more activity sooner by clubs in free agency than a normal year,’’ Meyer said, “raises more questions than it answers about all the other years. One good week of free agency doesn't address all the negative trends that we've seen.’’

While the two sides agreed to soon resume negotiations, no timetable has been set. The soft deadline for reaching an agreement is Feb. 1, two weeks before the start of spring training. They likely would need an agreement by March 1 to avoid the disruption of the regular season that begins March 31.

“Speculating about drop-dead deadlines at this point is not productive," Manfred said. “So, I'm not going to do it.’’

It leaves baseball in a deep freeze for the winter, halting all major-league signings, trades, transactions, and even prevents players from working out at team facilities or using the team’s health care staff.

“Look, it's not a good thing for the sport,’’ Manfred said. “It's not something that we undertake lightly. We understand it's bad for our business. We took it out of a desire to drive the process forward to an agreement now.

“It is my hope and expectation that the parties will get back to the table and get an agreement done.’’

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: What is the MLB lockout? On Day 1, players take stand vs. league