Baseball’s current collective bargaining agreement doesn’t expire until December 2021, but the league’s long-reigning labor peace is at risk as tensions rise over free agency stagnation and disagreements about what has caused a recent downturn in the sport’s popularity. And so, with players speaking up about their frustration more than ever and some even openly dropping the S-word, the two sides came to the table this offseason to see what changes could be agreed upon now — before a work stoppage becomes a real threat.
Now, after weeks of negotiations, Major League Baseball and the players’ association have reached a consensus Thursday on a number of rule changes as well as the creation of a joint committee to discuss ongoing modifications to the game. The result represents a vastly reduced version of what the league office proposed in January and what the union counter-proposed in early February.
What’s left is what both sides can live with. And while fans and media will want to talk about what impact these changes are going to have, the players are more focused on what impact they won’t have.
“It’s good that there’s some talks about mid-term bargaining,” Colorado Rockies catcher Chris Iannetta told Yahoo Sports. “I think having the recognition that there needs to be some changes is potentially a good thing.”
Although negotiating in the middle of a CBA term is not completely unprecedented — in 2016 both sides agreed to a series of updates to the Joint Drug Agreement — it is rare, and Iannetta’s optimism was less about what was accomplished in this particular deal and more about MLB’s promise to continue these conversations for the sake of addressing more of the players’ concerns.
“But I think the biggest thing that came out of it is that they’re gonna open up and maybe talk about some of the core economic issues, the fundamental issues of the game,” Iannetta added.
Players around baseball echoed those sentiments. This round of negotiations was a display of good faith, a demonstration that they are, pun-intended, willing to play ball and entertain the MLB’s attempts to shave a few minutes off the game in exchange for conversations about economic issues.
‘Not much substance’ behind pace of play
“The pace-of-play stuff is kind of just a way to say, hey look, we’re doing something to change the game,” Chicago Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant said. “But there’s not much substance to it. I don’t know about saving a minute on a game here or there, I don’t know much good that’s going to do.”
Bryant has been critical of the way teams use service time manipulation to retain cheap control of top talent like himself for an extra year and now serves as the team union representative. Ultimately, most of the potential rule changes that address pace of play were scuttled alongside the economic proposals in the course of bargaining, but to Bryant, “The important part is that we’re working on both sides here. I think if we can work with the league on that, then it opens up discussions for a more broader conversation.”
What the union really wants to talk about has been documented ad nauseam this offseason but to recap: There is a disappearing “middle class” of free agents in baseball who can’t get a long-term deal (Mike Moustakas) or the money they’re seeking (Dallas Keuchel) or any deal at all (Craig Kimbrel), which fails to create the kind of counterbalance to the six years of underpayment during team control that players have historically enjoyed. Even the “the top 1 percent of the top 1 percent” — as Iannetta described them, like Bryce Harper and Manny Machado — are receiving their blockbuster offers closer and closer to the start of season.
“We’re creatures of habit, and to not know where you’re going to go until the season starts gets tough to get ready,” San Francisco Giants pitcher Jeff Samardzija said. “We just like to see all the action get done so these guys know where they’re going. Everybody’s got families. We’re players, we move around a lot. But we’re humans, too.”
Add to that the service-time manipulation — even before he suffered a left oblique strain, Blue Jays prospect Vladimir Guerrero Jr. was never going to start the season in Toronto — and everyone who pays attention to baseball knows exactly why.
Add to that half the league is tanking — “Teams are trying to quote-unquote rebuild, but there’s really no blueprint for how they’re going to go about that … to say that you’re going to go full internal rebuild, that’s just a cop-out,” Iannetta said.
Add to that even as viewership is declining, baseball’s revenues are up as a result of the MLB Advanced Media sale and television rights deals — and yet players are seeing a decreasing percentage of that revenue year after year.
The result is that, even in an industry where the minimum salary is over half a million dollars and record-setting contracts are progressively one-upped, employees have started to realize that they’re being underpaid. Maybe it’s collusion, or maybe it’s just the preeminent prioritizing of efficiency above all else that seems to be coming for all industries. Baseball is a business — a multibillion dollar business — but it only works if the public believes that the people in charge are prioritizing something above profits: winning.
The players recognize that they’re fighting an uphill battle to get fans on their side in the quest for more money, and so they’ve adopted a collective message of pointing out the ways in which economic issues they’re championing are tied up with competitive balance, with teams proving that they actually want to win. They just want the owners to put their money where their mouth ought to be.
“I think there’s a lot of issues, but I think the biggest thing is incentivizing teams to win,” Iannetta said. “We put the best product out there on the field for fans. Fans spend a lot of money to come to games, ticket prices aren’t going down, parking isn’t going down, all the periphery stuff isn’t going down. Fans should go into a season expecting to win.”
Can the players win the fans over?
It’s a savvy move — the economic issues that fans care about are not the parsing of millions between ownership and players but rather the increasing cost of actually attending a baseball game. That’s part of why fans are unsympathetic to the plight of the underpaid major leaguer, and if players can’t convince them that ticket prices are completely unrelated to the team’s payroll, perhaps they can at least sell fans on wanting to get their money’s worth.
“The point is not to pit ourselves against the fans. We play the game for the fans, we play the game because of the fans, essentially,” San Francisco Giants third baseman Evan Longoria said, and then he vacillated a little between arguing that the players deserve more money and arguing that spending more is better for the game. Both are true — but one is a lot more sympathetic to a $60,000 median-income household.
“We want to find ways to improve the game to keep them interested. But in turn, this is a job, it’s a job like any other job. And I know that people get upset about the money, and rightfully so, we make a lot of money. But again, it’s a huge business and really the message for us has been: We just want every team to be competitive. We just want every team to go out and give themselves the best chance to win, or having the talent in their system to do that.”
This is what the players talk about when you ask them about the rare mid-CBA bargaining — how it’s nice that they were all able to come to the table, that it’s a good sign a consensus was reached, but that, “We’ve always found a way to come to agreements pretty cordially with respect to rules,” as Longoria says. “It’s usually been the bigger issues like free agency or pension or benefits, those have been the issues that have caused work stoppages in the past.”
The hope is that the two sides “will meet and discuss a renegotiation and extension of the Basic Agreement” and result in returning to the table soon — “the sooner the better,” Bryant said — for substantive conversations. But there’s no guarantee that the two sides will reach any sort of consensus to update the economic structure so far in advance of the CBA expiration.
And if not?
“I think players see what’s going on and they understand that it’s not sustainable,” Iannetta said.
It’s no secret that this round of negotiations didn’t accomplish what was needed to assuage players’ concerns. So for now they’ll try to balance the demands of a grueling baseball season with staying organized and unified and trying to win over the public because a bigger battle is looming.
More from Yahoo Sports: