'A sad day': Failed MLB lockout negotiations leave sport reeling and future uncertain | Opinion

·8 min read

JUPITER, Florida — They spent three days negotiating three months ago in Dallas.

They had six meetings spanning six weeks in New York.

They labored through eight consecutive days in Jupiter, Florida, including one 16½-hour marathon session.

And after all of that, 90 days after the start of the lockout, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred spelled out the inevitable at 5 p.m. ET Tuesday at Roger Dean Stadium.

Manfred officially cancelled the first week of regular-season games through April 7, marking the first games wiped out by a work stoppage since 1995, and indefinitely suspending the start of spring training. Spring training games, even if an agreement is miraculously reached within a week, won’t start until mid-March.

But who’s kidding who? There’s no immediate end in sight.

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MLB and the players union can’t stand one another, can’t trust one another, and certainly have proven so far they can’t successfully bargain with one another.

"Today is a sad day," MLB Players Association executive director Tony Clark said. "We came to Florida to navigate and negotiate for a fair collective bargaining agreement. ... The reason we are not playing is simple: a lockout is the ultimate economic weapon.

"In a $10 billion industry, the owners have decided to use this weapon against the greatest asset they have, the players. What is the ultimate economic weapon? Let me repeat that. A lockout is the ultimate economic weapon. In a $10 billion industry, the owners have made a conscious decision to use this weapon against the greatest asset they have: the players."

The announcement left the sport reeling, leaving uncertainty whether it will ever recover, with managers, players, executives, scouts and particularly fans seething with rage.

"I had hoped against hope I would not have to have this particular press conference," Manfred said. "We worked hard to avoid an outcome that’s bad for our fans, bad for our players and bad for our clubs."

This is a thriving industry with a lockout that’s going to leave permanent scars, and while baseball loves to call itself America’s national pastime, remember when Blockbuster was the only source to rent movies and Kodak was the only way to shoot pictures?

"The game has suffered damage for a while now," Clark said. "The game has changed. The game has been manipulated. Players have been commoditized in a way that’s really hard to explain in the grand scheme of the things."

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Players and teams have no idea what’s next, or whether they’ll even be taking the field before May.

Players were paid $5,000 stipends on Tuesday, with another $15,000 due on April 1 if MLB’s lockout continues, with no paychecks coming until games are played.

"We’re prepared," said pitcher Andrew Miller, one of the eight players on baseball’s executive subcommittee. "We’ve seen this coming in a sense. It’s unfortunate this isn’t new. This is not shocking."

The negotiations could pick up again as early as Thursday in New York, with Clark saying the union would gladly have stayed in Jupiter to continue negotiations. Yet, as much momentum as the talks gathered Monday night that bled into the morning, they went backwards Tuesday afternoon, and never came close to reaching an agreement before MLB’s imposed 5 p.m. ET deadline.

MLB, frustrated and exasperated with the way negotiations proceeded Tuesday, delivered a take-it-or-leave it offer about an hour before its deadline.

The players union, even more infuriated by MLB, got their 30 team representatives quickly on a Zoom call and unanimously voted to reject the offer quicker than a mid-season pitching change.

MLB canceled games due to a labor dispute for the first time since 1995.
MLB canceled games due to a labor dispute for the first time since 1995.

Now, 90 days into the lockout, the two sides will regroup, reassess and try to determine each one’s breaking point. They say they’ll pick up where they left off, but with no deadline — real or artificial — all of the momentum has evaporated.

The two sides managed to agree on a 12-team postseason, along with a universal DH, and were just $25,000 apart on a minimum salary ($725,000 to $700,000) in 2022.

Yet, they never came particularly close to solving the other major economic issues. There’s still a $55 million gap on a pre-arbitration bonus pool ($85 million to $30 million), and a massive difference with the luxury tax thresholds. The players were seeking a luxury threshold of $238 million this year, $244 million in 2023, $250 million in 2024, $250 million in 2025, $256 million in 2026 and $263 million in 2027. MLB offered a $220 million luxury tax threshold that rose to $230 million.

"The clubs and our owners fully understand just how important it is to our millions of fans that we get the game on the field as soon as possible," Manfred said. "To that end, we want to bargain and we want a deal with the Players Association as quickly as possible."

The negotiations will now be only further complicated, with MLB announcing that the cancelled games will not be rescheduled, and the players won’t be paid for games missed. Players will lose a combined $20.5 million for every missed day of the season, according to an Associated Press study.

"To say they won’t reschedule games if games are canceled, or they won’t pay players for those games that are canceled," union chief negotiator Bruce Meyer said, "is solely their position. They’re not legally required to take those positions."

The union will remind MLB that a year ago it was offered full pay for a 154-game schedule because of the COVID-19 surge, which was ultimately rejected, so there is at least precedence for being paid with cancelled games. Yet, MLB says it was offered only as a safety-and-health issue, and lost games means lost pay.

The breaking point in negotiations could be 15 days into the season, which could leave players a year short of free agency, affecting the likes of Los Angeles Angels MVP Shohei Ohtani and New York Mets star Pete Alonso.

No player would lose more money than New York Mets ace Max Scherzer, who’s scheduled to earn $43 million this season in the first of his three-year, $130 million contract. He would forfeit $232,000 for each regular-season day lost.

Scherzer, 37, an outspoken voice on the union’s side during negotiations, said he simply is trying to change the system, no matter how big the personal loss.

"It’s not about me," he said. "It’s about everybody else. I’m in a position to fight for those guys and sacrifice my salary to make this game better. We all want to make the game better for the next generation behind us, and we’ll do whatever it takes to make that happen.

"The former players that fought for the game and fought for the players, I realized the benefits from that. I had an unbelievable career for all of the rights that everybody fought for, going back to Curt Flood.

"Now I have the opportunity to do that for the next generation."

Scherzer and the union are fighting for pay for the young players who aren’t eligible for salary arbitration, seeking large raises in minimum salary and bonus pools. They are fighting to make sure that teams are actually trying to win and not to collect draft picks with a draft lottery. They are fighting to make sure that every team can freely sign free agents without a restrictive luxury tax, pointing out the absurdity of the San Diego Padres having a larger payroll than the New York Yankees. They are fighting to make sure the integrity of the regular season is not compromised, willing to accept a 12-team playoff system, but not 14 teams.

MLB said it addressed all of those issues, but certainly not to the satisfaction of the union, which disagreed that MLB’s proposal provided $500 million worth of new money during the course of the CBA.

"It's not just money," Miller said. "We have been screaming for years about competition issues. And those are important to us. This is not just about shifting pieces of the pie around. This is about getting the game that we love to work and operate as best as it can, and go out there and perform and let us focus on what we like to do."

Maybe one day they can actually do that again.

Maybe the pain of another work stoppage will subside.

Then again, maybe the scars from this lockout will never be forgotten, damaging the game forever and losing fans that vow never to return.

"If you love baseball the way players do," Clark said, "if you love baseball the way fans do, it’s hard not to be sad with where we are on March 1, 2022."

Indeed.

Hello heartbreak, it’s baseball again.

Follow Bob Nightengale on Twitter @BNightengale.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: MLB cancels Opening Day: Lockout leaves sport reeling, future murky