ORLANDO, Fla. – With pitchers and catchers scheduled to report next week, commissioner Rob Manfred refused to concede that the ongoing MLB lockout owners initiated in December will delay spring training.
"The status of spring training is no change right now," Manfred told reporters in a news conference Thursday, saying the league planned to discuss the tightening calendar with the union in a bargaining session scheduled for this Saturday.
Of course, the current status is that major-league spring training cannot happen until a deal is reached or the league decides to lift the lockout and continue bargaining under the terms of the previous CBA (which it won’t do as it would give the players leverage to initiate a work stoppage on their schedule).
He called himself an "optimist" and said he still believes the sides will reach an agreement in time for opening day to go off as scheduled on March 31.
Still, it’s becoming virtually impossible for the league and the union to reach an agreement before the traditional ramp up toward the season is supposed to start, all but ensuring the lockout instituted by the owners in December will cause the first major labor disruption of the baseball calendar since the 1994 strike.
Manfred estimated that they would only need a few days after reaching a deal for both sides to ratify an agreement and players to report to camps. But after the three-week “summer camp” ahead of the 2020 pandemic-disrupted season resulted in a rash of injuries, he said they’d prefer a four-week spring training at minimum.
That puts the drop-dead date for a deal somewhere around the end of February in order to start the regular season on time. Which means, despite his professed stalwart commitment to getting the game on the field as soon as possible, he understands the season will soon be on the line.
“If I hadn't given consideration to what it would mean to miss games, I wouldn't be doing my job,” Manfred said. “I see missing games as a disastrous outcome for this industry.”
Upon initiating the lockout, Manfred wrote in an open letter to fans that, “We hope that the lockout will jumpstart the negotiations and get us to an agreement that will allow the season to start on time.”
That has long seemed in jeopardy — the MLB Players Association is looking to wrest a bigger piece of the economic pie for the players and the league is committed to limiting them to merely moving money around. That’s without getting into the legitimate concerns around issues like tanking and service time manipulation — and the pace, substance and tenor of negotiations since then has certainly not brightened that outlook.
The lockout is now in its third month and there have been only four known bargaining sessions on major economic issues — and that was after the league waited over a month to make its first in-lockout proposal. The most recent was last Tuesday, a “heated” meeting in which the union presented modest adjustments to several of its proposals. The union expected the league to counter but instead, on Thursday, MLB asked the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service for assistance in the form of a third-party mediator. Mediation is voluntary and non-binding. It’s proven useful in some sports labor disputes, but notably not in the 1994 baseball strike when the process failed and the players felt it had been “a joke.”
The union rejected MLB’s mediation request the next day, saying in a statement, “The clearest path to a fair and timely agreement is to get back to the table. Players stand ready to negotiate.”
Since then, they have not met. Instead, the owners gathered in Orlando for their quarterly meetings this week and the union leadership is meeting with players in Arizona and Florida.
They have made some progress that will play out whenever the season is able to get underway. Manfred said Tuesday that they had agreed to a universal designated hitter and the elimination of direct draft pick compensation, which can depress the market for free agents.
From here, the deadlines to get back on track will come and go quickly if something doesn’t change. The regular season is scheduled to start on March 31 and even if they could ramp up with a shortened spring training, that date will quickly be imperiled by the unrelenting strife.
The next bargaining session is scheduled for Saturday afternoon when both parties are back in New York City. The league will present what Manfred called a “good-faith, positive proposal in an effort to move the process forward.”
“One correct move sometimes opens the way to an agreement,” he said.