Manfred Downplays MLB Lockout Talk as Baseball Seeks Growth

Barry M. Bloom
·4 min read

Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred moved to assure fans that the coming summer of collective bargaining with the players’ union will not lead to a work stoppage when the current Basic Agreement expires Dec. 1, saying the owners are “committed to the process.”

Manfred addressed the labor issue along with a number of other topics, including the vaccination rate of big league clubs, during an appearance Tuesday for SporticoLive’s MLB Valuations 2021.

“I’ve spent the vast majority of my career involved in labor relations,” said Manfred, who began handling collective bargaining as the lead negotiator under then-commissioner Bud Selig during the highly contentious negotiations of 2002. “The varying nature of labor relations is kind of ups and downs. You’re going to have various times of conflict when you don’t see eye to eye. The trick is getting past those areas of conflict and finding a way to make an agreement and find common ground.”

The last work stoppage in baseball was the player strike that ended the 1994 season, playoffs and World Series, and pushed back the start of the 1995 season when the owners went to spring training with replacement players. That strike stopped when the National Labor Relations Board ruled that MLB had tried to post work conditions illegally.

The impasse concluded a stretch of eight consecutive labor negotiations plagued by either a strike or lockout, beginning in 1972. There hasn’t been one since.

Tony Clark, the executive director of the MLB Players Association confirmed during a SporticoLive interview that the first bargaining session between the sides had taken place last week, and he gave a perfunctory accounting of the varying positions.

Clark said some options exist if the upcoming negotiations for a new agreement aren’t settled by the expiration of the current five-year labor pact.

“Both sides can potentially agree to extend the deadline as a result of the progress that has been made,” he said. “There’s also a possibility of a work stoppage.”

If progress isn’t made, it’s possible that “the league decides to shut the door and lock us out,” he said. “But that’s way down the road. Those are always possibilities.”

Manfred tried to play down the potential of a lockout.

“Since I’ve been at MLB, we’ve had a pretty good track record at that,” he said. “We’ve never had a dispute and I believe, I really am optimistic, that the process will work here. We’re committed to process. We’re open minded. We’re optimistic we want to make an agreement. Those should be good sentiments for all baseball fans to hear.”

Compensation, service time and revenue distribution are hot topics on the table, and how the owners distinguish that revenue is likely to be a major point of contention for the players, super-agent Scott Boras told the audience.

Franchises such as Atlanta, St. Louis and Texas already control ballpark villages adjacent to their stadiums, with others in Denver, San Francisco and possibly Oakland eventually coming online. Many clubs like the New York Yankees and New York Mets own their own regional sports networks. Is that considered baseball revenue to be split with the players?

“You have to have revenue definition so that you understand the pie,” Boras said. “The actual distribution of the pie in my mind is something that’s resolved once you have clarity as to revenue definition, and transparency as to revenue definition.”

Boras dismissed out of hand a salary cap and floor—which exist in the NFL, NBA and NHL–as a way of slicing up that “pie.” Some baseball owners have long pined to have such a economic mechanism in place.

“It’s been demonstrated that salary caps don’t in any way increase competition,” Boras said. “What fans most want is the viability of any particular owner in any particular time to do what he wants to do. We should let intellect and the freedom of a relationship in sports to be about creativeness, allowing [those owners] a path to succeed.”

On the topic of vaccinations among the players, Manfred said, “I think we’re about 70%.”

Herd immunity in baseball clubhouse where restrictions on players can be universally lifted is about 85%.

For example, the Yankees reported earlier this month they had reached 85% among on-field staff and players. Stan Kasten, president of the Los Angeles Dodgers and a panelist Tuesday, said the other day his players were at 70% and he expected to reach the 85% plateau shortly.

“The clubs have worked really hard with their players,” Manfred said. “The incentives [are] built in, in terms of softening our protocols. Our protocols are stiff. I mean, they are really, really tough, and they need to be tough absent of vaccination. But I think those incentives have served us well. And we continue to press to get above that 85 number we think is so important.”

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