The MLB lockout of 1990 is one of the seven work stoppages between 1972 and 1994 that has been mostly forgotten about. It lasted about a month at the start of spring training, no games were lost, and at the end, MLBPA Executive Director Donald Fehr and Commissioner Fay Vincent expressed feelings of mutual respect – not something that Fehr had with Peter Ueberroth.

Owners were displeased that Vincent didn’t “win” them what they were looking for in a salary cap and arbitration changes, and eventually returned the infamous no confidence vote in 1992 which resulted in his resignation. Bud Selig came in as acting commissioner and took a hard line in CBA negotiations in 1994, which helped lead to the most infamous work stoppage in professional sports history.

Selig also brought in labor lawyer Robert Manfred as outside counsel to the owners during the strike in 1994. Twice the MLBPA filed grievances with the National Labor Relations Board for bad faith negotiations and won both times. There has been relative labor peace in baseball since ’94, but now with Manfred serving as commissioner MLB has returned to its negotiating practices of more turbulent times.

Figuring out the money should have been the easy part of having a Major League Baseball season in 2020. Player safety measures, where to play the games, and the question of allowing fans should have been the hard part. In March players agreed to have their salaries prorated to the length of the season, and in recent weeks owners have tried to scrap that agreement and ask the players to take a pay cut. This is already a concession that costs the players billions of dollars, and the MLBPA is drawing its own line in the sand – honor the agreement we already signed.

They have revised their offer to the players several times, but it all amounts to the same thing – paying the players approximately the same amount of their full salaries for the season. If you look at the details of MLB’s countless proposals, you see a pattern – more games, less pro rata; fewer games, more pro rata.

The baseline that seems to be being used is 50 games at 100% prorated salaries, or around $1.27 billion. The MLBPA’s latest proposal of an 89-game schedule at 100% pro rata with expanded playoffs would cost $2.25 billion in player payroll expenses. Maybe MLB’s tactics in a strictly legal sense this isn’t “bad faith” negotiating, but it sure looks like it, and if the season is not played because of monetary concerns, the MLBPA may have a legitimate grievance.

“It’s a mess right now,” said a retired 9-year MLB veteran who was active during the 1994 strike in a Zoom interview last week on the overall state of major league baseball. His statement echoes the sentiment of two other former players and coaches who I have spoken with in the last week. People who have given their life to the game are shaking their heads at what is happening.

Arizona Diamondbacks owner Ken Kendrick even went as far last week as to suggest that baseball needs a salary cap and a revenue sharing system in line with other sports. The Major League Baseball Players Association has made it clear for 40 years that any kind of salary cap is a complete and total non-starter, and the one time that MLB owners actually imposed a salary cap it was an unmitigated disaster.

On December 15, 1994 owners voted 25-3 to impose a salary cap in baseball beginning immediately. Notably and to their credit, the Mets were one of the three teams who voted against the measure.

In the aftermath chaos ensued. Teams frantically cut dozens of players and swung trades to dump salaries – notably the Houston Astros and San Diego Padres swung a massive 12-player trade which sent Steve Finley and Ken Caminiti to San Diego. However, two months later the salary cap idea was dead, having been nixed by players as a condition of even returning to the negotiating table.

What MLB needs right now is not a salary cap, but it is for ownership to honor their promise to pay players their full prorated salaries and get on with planning for a season. Instead they’ve decided to backtrack on their commitment and exploit the COVID-19 crisis to push an agenda that owners have been pushing since the advent of free agency.

Maybe ownership can temporarily win the public relations battle, it is a terrible look for the game that things have devolved into this. Also for a league that has immense problems marketing its superstar players in a way that neither the NFL or NBA do, it is a profoundly bad idea to try to make out the players to be the bad guys. If MLB could have gotten its act together, it could have a captive audience of sports fans and be getting massive ratings on games played in empty stadiums in remote locations.

A lot of the disconnect in the PR battle between owners and players is that we know how much players are making. Their contract information is out there and public for everyone to see. Meanwhile since teams are privately-held businesses they are not required to publicly publish their books, so we have to take ownership statements for what they are – even when they are pretty obviously false and/or misleading.

On Saturday reports surfaced that Turner Sports and MLB had come to an agreement to extend their TV contract for the LCS and playoffs for a sum of over $1 billion. Of course there are expenses in running a team that go beyond player payroll but it is hard to reconcile a supposed lack of profitability with numbers that large. That is why teams opening their books publicly would be a boon for interpreting their statements in a truthful way.

As the ugly and public battle rages on for yet another week, it feels like we are further and further from labor peace in baseball. On Saturday night MLBPA Executive Director Tony Clark issued a statement that was loud and clear: “It’s time to get back to work. Tell us when and where.” That seemingly sends the message that the MLBPA is no longer willing to negotiate with MLB. Commissioner Rob Manfred has the unilateral power to start the season based on the terms of the March agreement, and this seems to be Tony Clark challenging him to use it.

Shortly after, MLB issued a counter-statement accusing the union of negotiating in bad faith and having saying “thousands of jobs” being at risk is because players are unwilling to take a further pay cut. That MLB has the audacity to claim that after they have spent all season trying to eliminate jobs in baseball by contracting minor league teams is stunning, even by their standards.

Maybe this mess is resolved with Manfred using his power to just start a season, but it seems at this point that there is little to no chance that the 2021 CBA negotiations will be resolved without a work stoppage. Baseball is cannibalizing itself for no reason, and the biggest losers in this will be the fans.

15 comments on “The cursed 2020 is turning into 1994

  • Name

    “Their contract information is out there and public for everyone to see. Meanwhile since teams are privately-held businesses they are not required to publicly publish their books, so we have to take ownership statements for what they are – even when they are pretty obviously false and/or misleading.”

    This is the key for me. I certainly don’t believe that the teams are going to lose money without fans in stadiums as we do know some of the ridiculous amounts of money they get from their tv contracts. And unless they want to release their financials that proves otherwise, i will continue under that assumption.

    Also, i’m all for owners making money, but it’s unfair if you operate under a model of expenses not based on revenue when times are good, and then claim when times are bad that you need a model where expenses are tied to revenue.
    You reaped the rewards and banked millions when times were good, and during a downturn you need to accept your risk and take the losses.

    As for number of games i don’t really care that much as any season records this year will be taken with an asterisk anyways but it doesn’t really make sense to be playing baseball past the first week of November.

    • Metsense

      I agree,”You reaped the rewards and banked millions when times were good, and during a downturn you need to accept your risk and take the losses.” Well said.
      If MLB can safely started the season with no fans in the stands they should. It would be beneficial and uplifting for the country’s spirit. It would provide an outlet for escape from these trying times. MLB is wasting an opportunity to give back something to the fans.

    • Joe Vasile

      Exactly… it’s crazy to cry poverty the same week that details of a $1 billion TV deal get leaked.

  • Brian Joura

    I’m not sure why the owners are still banging the “salary cap” drum. The luxury tax is a de facto cap. And if you compare the percentage of salaries (including benefits) to revenues you’ll see it’s in a tight window the last 8-10 years or so and down significantly from the percentage at the turn of the century.

    I’m with Name in that it seems the owners want guaranteed profits regardless of the situation.

    And if the owners are in such sad shape financially – they should just sell. Last year’s Forbes list had the least profitable team (Marlins) worth $980 million.

    • Mike W

      You are right. I am really tired of this squabble. I am getting to the point, where I dont care if they play this year or not. This year stinks anyhow, so lets just skip it.

    • Joe Vasile

      Yeah, they’re not pushing for a cap per se, and that one line from the Diamondbacks owner is probably not the stance of things. But that said, anything that is a “revenue sharing plan” is a salary cap, plain and simple. That has come up a few times but has not gotten any legs in the past few months.

      But I’d be willing to bet that there’s going to be a push for a hard cap in 2021 with the way things are going.

  • TJ

    This “negotiation” has become extremely distastful. At the risk of being boring, I must agree with all above that the owners want it both ways. It’s pretty historically typical, and part of the reason why unions exist. As much as I’ve been attached to baseball since childhood, at this stage I am as indifferent as I’ve ever been to the sport, and to whether or not there is a season. Maybe that will change, only time will tell. Even with a pending change in ownership, it’s very hard to be bullish on MLB right now.

  • Bob P

    As a fan I would love to see a salary cap from a baseball perspective. Competitive balance would be essentially equal rather than having the Yankees, Dodgers and Red Sox in the mix for a championship every year. Teams would go through up and down periods and not be able to buy themselves into contention perpetually. There are those who will point out that big market teams don’t win every year, and that the Marlins and Royals have won, but the reality is that for most of those teams true contention is rare and they need everything to go right in a given year to have a chance.

    The NFL and NBA both have more strict versions of a cap and teams don’t stay on top as long (except maybe the Patriots and Spurs but that’s system rather than money). There will always be an advantage to large market teams because those tend to be places that people want to live and players will be more incline during to want to sign there but the cap mitigates that to a great extent.

    I think there should be a salary spending floor as well so that owners are disincentivized to put a crappy product on the field just to save money.

    • Brian Joura

      This doesn’t feel right to me.

      Current active streaks of most consecutive playoff appearances:

      MLB – Dodgers – 7
      NFL – Patriots – 11
      NHL – Penguins – 14
      NBA – Spurs – 22

      Yes, fewer teams make the playoffs in MLB. Still, I think you need to define your terms better. Is “competitive balance” only judged by WS or LCS appearances? What is “true contention?” Why are you crediting the Patriots and Spurs with a “system” and not the Dodgers? Cot’s has the Dodgers spending $86 million fewer dollars in 2018 than they did in 2015 (when they didn’t make the NLCS, much less the World Series) – don’t they get credit for something there? Let’s see what the Patriots’ system does without Brady. The Spurs have lost in the first round in back to back years without Duncan and now their playoff streak is on life support.

      There are always teams that are on good runs. If we talked about this in 2014 – we would be talking about the Giants and not the Dodgers. Before that the Cardinals. Before that the Braves.

      We’ve seen teams put together impressive playoff runs and we’ve seen different teams make and advance in the playoffs. Seems like the best of both worlds to me.

      • Bob P

        I agree that teams go on good runs sometimes and they should be given credit for that. Where I think the imbalance comes in is when small market teams make a run with a group of players and then don’t have the ability to hold onto them because of payroll constraints. The big market teams don’t have to make that choice.

        I’m talking in conceptual terms more than trying to define exactly what contention means. Teams like the Yankees have a legitimate shot at the WS title every year while teams like the Marlins have made a couple of runs but couldn’t sustain it. They couldn’t sustain it because they couldn’t afford to pay their players and have to start over again. The Yankees on the other hand can throw money at someone whenever they need to. It also gives them the luxury of developing more players because rather than having to trade prospects for established players they have more ability to go after players in the free agent market. The system clearly gives the big market teams a much bigger advantage than if there was a cap.

        It doesn’t guarantee success for them since you can argue that the Yankees have failed miserably in the last 10 years or so by not winning a title with such an advantage in talent and salary dollars, but there’s no question in my mind that you’d see more teams have up periods and down periods. The Yankees might have to go through a stretch of a few years of rebuilding and maybe the Pirates and Marlins would have a several year stretch of making the playoffs. This would now be more based on how well the team is run (drafting well, shrewd trades, etc.) rather than being based in large part on payroll.

        Without a cap the small market teams have a significant hurdle to overcome that the big markets don’t and that’s a huge disadvantage.

        • Brian Joura

          I think the Marlins were an outlier and note the use of the past tense. Let’s see how new ownership does once they get competitive again. As for the Pirates – they made the playoffs three years in a row. Now, it doesn’t make up for the two decades before that – but I don’t believe any franchise should complain about only making the playoffs three years in a row.

  • TexasGusCC

    Agree with Name too, but the owners are set on getting their way or no way. They make that decision.

  • Chris F

    I think there is a hybrid in all the comments that appeals to me the most. I dont like a strict cap because of the stifling nature that imposes, because the competitive balance threshold is functional, but could be steeper in terms of tax burden. The most important thing is not a cap, but a floor. If you want to run a team then it seems a minimum of $100M is a requirement. If you cant come to the table with 100M$ for salary, then you got no business in this business. Every team is worth a billion dollars, or a lot more. The equity can be easily rolled into payroll if that was needed, or someone could sell minority shares. Owning a baseball team is like a money printing press. A team like the Marlins are so far under 100M$ in payroll, its hardly a surprise they stink. Lastly, I agree with Name on ownership: always making money hand over fist so when times are harder seems reasonable to “invest back” in the team.

    Note: some times payroll would fluctuate pretty dramatically if a team is stacked with outstanding Arb players so that a payroll could be under 100M$ for some short period of time (say 2 years) without penalty.

    • TJ

      This is an excellent point. I don’t know exactly what the figure would be, but a floor is essential to the competitiveness of the league. The Nat/Astro model of absolute tanking for multiple years hurts the game IMHO. And, if the team is “stacked” with great young pre-arb players, they can easily pay the difference between their payroll and the minimum floor as a “competitive tax’…perhaps a pool that would be allocated equally to pre-arb players across the league. Maybe it needs some alterations, but the essence would be to allow teams to retool, but avoid the pure tank.

    • Joe Vasile

      All true salary caps also have a floor as part of the revenue sharing provisions. But that said, salary caps in all forms are bad.

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