The sense of urgency must be coming soon, right? The lock-the-door, scream-and-shout-at-each-other-until-you-make-some-real-progress scenario? And then caucus until you get a deal done, even if it’s into the wee hours of morning?
Instead, we had a 15-minute negotiating session Thursday that didn’t appear to make any headway toward ending the 78-day (and counting) lockout that MLB owners imposed Dec. 2. This was the latest in a series of intermittent sessions — a grand total of six since the lockout began — that seem to have done little but make MLB and the union more entrenched in their respective positions, and both filled with more righteous indignation at the intransigence of the other side.
The stated goal of the lockout by commissioner Rob Manfred was twofold — to take away the option of an in-season strike by the players, and to give two sides enough time, and impetus, to hammer out an agreement that would save spring training and the season.
So how’s that working out? Spring training was supposed to start this week with pitchers and catchers reporting — a phrase that’s often characterized as the most magical in baseball, but which instead only serves to taunt in 2022. This is the time to whip up hope for the upcoming season; instead, all fans get is a daily barrage of negativity, the distasteful kind.
Opening day is in grave danger. USA Today’s Bob Nightengale cited a person with direct knowledge of the negotiation who predicted Thursday that the lockout could extend until at least mid-March. That almost certainly would mean a reduced season, while the place of baseball in the collective consciousness continues to slip-slide away.
The Super Bowl on Sunday concluded a thrill-a-minute NFL postseason and achieved near-record ratings. The NBA and NHL are steaming toward the playoffs. The upcoming NFL combine in March and draft in April will comfortably fill the void left by the absence of spring camps opening.
Meanwhile, the baseball news that is making headlines, beyond the lockout, includes MLB’s attempts to not pay minor-leaguers in spring training and the conviction of former Angels public-relations director Eric Kay for his role in pitcher Tyler Skaggs’ drug-related death. That’s called losing the PR battle. Or more to the point, MLB isn’t even part of the game. It is on the sideline after not being picked to play.
Here’s another sobering thought: Yes, a deal will eventually be reached on these economic issues that will get players back on the field. And whenever that happens, baseball will still be faced with a product that almost everyone agrees has been diminished by a variety of factors. The upshot: There’s too little action that takes too long to happen and entails too much reliance on homers, strikeouts and walks — the three true outcomes.
Just as important as forging a collective-bargaining agreement (CBA) that everyone can live with will be figuring out how to fix the game on the field so players can best showcase their immense talents. That will take cooperation between the union and management that doesn’t seem to be anywhere in sight.
Maybe the only moderately encouraging thing to come out of Thursday was contained in this paragraph near the end of a story in The Athletic on the negotiations:
After the main meeting ended, MLB head negotiator Dan Halem and MLBPA head negotiator Bruce Meyer had a side meeting lasting about 20 minutes. The meeting was said to be candid, but not contentious.
More of that, please. At some point, there is going to have to be a meeting of the minds where the goal is serious, meaningful progress, and the more candid interplay that gets them there, the better.
If the management side has a goal of breaking the union, as some are theorizing and as they’ve attempted before, it should remember that it’s only led them to trouble in the past.
Yes, the balance of power has shifted toward the owners in a way that would have been unfathomable to union founder Marvin Miller, who scored victory after victory, as did his successor, Donald Fehr. Then MLB got the upper hand in the past couple of CBAs. And yes, this generation of players has never experienced a work stoppage and thus doesn’t have the fresh memory of past successes to feed its resolve.
But by all accounts, the players remain united in their desire to win back some of those economic losses, particularly as it pertains to younger players, and to put models in place that keep teams from employing a “tanking” strategy to rebuild. Let’s hope we’re not facing a showdown test of players’ will to stick together, because then we could be here a while.
My final, perhaps naive, hope is that the calendar itself will be the ultimate motivator to reaching a deal. Feb. 28 has been thrown out as the drop-dead date for a settlement to be reached that will allow for a long-enough spring training (four weeks) to save opening day, scheduled for March 31.
That is 11 days away as I write this. If the unavoidable nature of negotiating is that you don’t play your best hand until you absolutely have to, I’m hoping we finally get to see that sense of urgency I pined for earlier. Because the “absolutely have to” stage of negotiations has arrived.
I remain convinced that a path for compromise is right there to be had, hiding in plain sight; frankly, these sides have dealt with far more divisive and intractable issues than these in previous battles.
In doing some research for this column, I came across the letter Fay Vincent wrote in 1992 when he was forced by owners to resign as commissioner after just three years. Among many other things, they were upset that Vincent was soft on labor issues; specifically, that during the last MLB-imposed lockout in 1990, Vincent allowed for the camps to be reopened and led the negotiation of a deal that owners felt favored the players and they viewed as a capitulation.
Vincent concluded his letter of resignation with a warning:
“I remind all that ownership of a baseball team is more than ownership of an ordinary business. Owners have a duty to take into consideration that they own a part of America’s national pastime — in trust. This trust sometimes requires putting self-interest second.”
Let’s hope that trust, teetering though it is, can still be saved. And once the players take the field, we’ll remember why we loved the game in the first place.