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.