Inside the offices at Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association, they are watching the NFL's labor implosion with the same sort of morbid fascination they evoked 16 years ago. Although no baseball official cares to say it and rub a rival sport's face in the dirt, they're all thinking it: How can you be so very stupid and do what we did?
NFL labor Armageddon is fast approaching, the NBA is poised to lock out its players later this year, the NHL may do the same come 2012, and amid all the unrest, MLB is preparing for a quiet, peaceful negotiation that both sides believe will lead to a third consecutive collective-bargaining agreement without a work stoppage.
Imagine: Major League Baseball, the paragon of labor relations in American professional sports. Somehow, hell remains sufficiently hot and pigs haven't sprouted wings.
Of the myriad reasons baseball stands on such solid footing as its sporting brethren waterboard themselves, chief is understanding the principle so often lost in labor squabbles: If everyone is getting rich, it's senseless to screw the damn thing up.
Baseball business has been great for more than a decade now, and to throw aside all of the goodwill built with fans for 1 percent here or 5 percent there is terribly self-defeating. Both sides learned that following the 1994 strike, which canceled the World Series and cemented Bud Selig and Don Fehr as villain Nos. 1 and 1a. in sports.
As baseball rebuilt its fan base – there remain holdouts, even as Fehr has moved on to run the NHL players union – keeping labor peace was imperative. Another stoppage could've crippled the sport. And yet decades of distrust nearly torpedoed the relationship again in 2002.
It's important to look back at that basic agreement as the synthesis for today's triumphs. MLB approached the union more than a year early to negotiate. Talks stopped. MLB went public with contraction threats. The union felt déjà vu: from the bad-faith bargaining before the strike in '94 to the two rounds of collusion to all of the other union-breaking tactics during Marvin Miller's tenure as MLBPA boss, the players always waited to see what the owners would unleash during a negotiation.
The MLBPA, after all, had won most of those early battles: free agency, arbitration and, most important, higher wages. Buck Martinez likes to tell the joke that early in his major league career, his wife, a flight attendant, made more money than him. The punch line: It's true.
So of course the relationship was adversarial – which stood in great contrast to its symbiosis. The owners need the players, their skill unmatched by Triple-A peers. The players need the owners, their ability to pay exorbitant salaries the same. Still, all they did was fight until 2002, when the millionaires and billionaires agreed to stop the collateral damage on the sport, an innocent bystander.
Fehr learned to trust Rob Manfred, who has proven a rock at MLB after the owners passed negotiating from John Gaherin to Ray Grebey to Lee MacPhail to Barry Rona to Chuck O'Connor to Dick Ravitch to Randy Levine to Paul Beeston – eight men in 30 years. And Manfred grew to trust Fehr and his successor, Michael Weiner, both of whom realize that MLB is smart enough not to derail their gravy train.
They have their disagreements, yes. There will be tussles as the parties begin formal negotiations in the coming weeks as their paths cross during spring training. So many of the sport's big issues were taken care of during the '02 negotiations, however, that both sides will walk into the room with the belief there are no dealbreakers. If, in one CBA, they could hammer out the first steroid-testing program, overhaul revenue sharing and the luxury tax and install the debt-service rule, surely they can succeed when the landscape is relatively stable.
Issues do remain on both sides. Multiple sources said MLB will push for an international draft, something the union doesn't fundamentally oppose but will require tremendous concessions to install. Though the international draft seems a logistical nightmare, MLB has long considered it the ideal plan for amateur talent distribution. Part of its impetus in sending Sandy Alderson to clean up the Dominican Republic before the New York Mets hired him as GM was to ready the country for being part of a draft.
In addition, MLB will try to institute fixed dollar amounts – hard slotting, in industry parlance – for each pick in the amateur draft. The union historically hasn't opposed changes to amateur players – members of the MLBPA are on teams' 40-man rosters – but is paying more attention because of MLB's focus on the issues.
The union wants what it always wants: a system in place that stimulates owners to spend. Whether that means a reduction in the luxury-tax rate or changing the distribution of shared money to enrich the teams that historically have spent more is what actuaries and economists currently are figuring out in advance of the negotiations. One of Selig's great successes as commissioner is keeping high- and low-revenue owners happy in a sport where one team will have a $200 million payroll and pay tens of millions more in taxes while another will carry a $30 million payroll while receiving $80 million in shared money.
Though bargaining sessions always challenge Selig's ability as a consensus builder, 2006 was a relative breeze. The sides worked out an agreement well before the expiration date of the previous one, and they hope to do the same before Dec. 11, when this one concludes. With 2002, 2006 and the numerous updates to the steroid-testing policy, there is plenty of history to build upon.
MLB and the union know better than to flush that. Weiner and Manfred both are no-nonsense pragmatists, Harvard Law graduates whose sense of responsibility to their parties isn't in a vacuum. What's the sense in losing money if you can make it hand over fist?
The NFL players get that, though their begging – "Let us play!" they bray – is rather unbecoming. The NFLPA looks like the weak union it is, and never has Roger Goodell been afraid to unleash his fists of fury. He's banking on his sport's allure, on the NFL's unmatched dominance in sporting entertainment – and, perhaps, entertainment period. And he's probably right: Fans almost certainly will flock back, the football addiction too hard to kick.
Baseball has been there, though, and the fallout was far uglier than MLB or the union figured. Maybe it was the national pastime, but nobody likes millionaires and billionaires fighting over millions and billions, not ever, and especially not in this economy.
There is an easy solution to all this, something that could solve the NFL labor troubles, a plan that still sounds funny, even if it's true: Be a little more like Major League Baseball.