What MLB bid to delay season says about game's labor future


If baseball’s owners and commissioner wanted to get negotiations on a new labor agreement off on a sincere, fresh footing this year, Friday’s take-it-or-leave-it proposal for a delay to spring training and a 154-game season might not have been the best way to do it.

After weeks of telling teams and asserting publicly that the league’s intent is to open spring training camps on time in two weeks and to start the 2021 season on time on April 1, Major League Baseball delivered its first proposal for a delay on Friday — and told the players union it needed an answer by Monday.

So much for what looked like an olive branch from the league with those same-page-as-the-union proclamations of on-time starts to spring and a full season.

Friday’s proposal was made just a few days after a letter surfaced from civic leaders in the Phoenix area advocating a monthlong delay to spring training because of COVID-19 concerns in one of the nation’s hottest hot zones — a letter that MLB encouraged those leaders to write, according to a report by The Athletic.

At first glance, Friday’s proposal has the look of a reasonable and fair deal, with MLB offering full season’s pay to players for a season that would begin April 28, end on Oct. 10 and be reduced from 162 to 154 games. (Spring reporting dates would be pushed back more than a month to March 22, with full squads reporting then, shortening spring training by about a week.)

By comparison, last year’s agreement to play a pandemic-shortened season of 60 games included players being paid pro-rated salaries for games played — and that only after an ugly, protracted fight in which MLB sought deeper salary cuts and players sought a longer season.

Combine that fight with previous years of service-time manipulation, tanking and luxury-tax rationale that have squeezed “middle-class” free agents, slowed markets in general and cost players income relative to revenues they help create, and it’s easy to see why increasingly outspoken players have run out of trust when it comes to owners — and why the union might look at Friday’s proposal with a skeptical eye.

Especially when looking under the hood at the details of it.

Union officials have spent the weekend reviewing the proposal, including input from player reps such as the Cubs’ Ian Happ, without much apparent progress toward any likelihood of it being approved.

With no time allowed negotiate the details, it’s expected to be rejected Monday and put camps back on schedule to open the week of Feb. 17.

Among the sticking points is the inclusion of a proposal that was rejected earlier in January: a universal designated hitter in exchange for expanded playoffs. Both sides have reasons to desire the DH, but the expanded postseason offers a lucrative, additional revenue source for the owners — while leaving open questions about benefits to players, whose playoff shares are derived from postseason attendance and who have been generally opposed to playing deep into November.

A bigger issue for players is the expanded authority Friday’s proposal gives Commissioner Rob Manfred to cancel games, shorten the season or even cancel the season — which, in turn, suggests an opening to alter the full-pay stipulation if the season becomes shorter than 154 games without as strong a position for players to challenge a reduction of games.

And that doesn’t even consider the injury/health concerns of a more densely packed schedule of games (154 games in 166 days vs. 162 in 186) in an environment that might result in virus-related postponements and an increased need for doubleheaders (see 2020).

Any of these issues might be worth addressing in good-faith negotiations to reach a compromise and agreement. But by proposing the delay on a Friday and requiring a response by Monday, good-faith negotiations were made impossible.

And given the recent history of communication between the sides on this and other issues, trust — if not good faith — already is in short supply.

Anybody who has paid attention to the owners in the last nine months, along with the national COVID rates and vaccine projections, knows it was always in the financial interest of owners to push back the start of the season to mitigate losses until closer to the summer when fans might be allowed back in most (all?) ballparks — especially teams such as the Cubs, who make large percentages of their annual revenues from attendance.

If the report in The Athletic is even generally true, then Friday’s move has been in play at least long enough that MLB had a chance to negotiate with the union ahead of a take-it-or-leave-it proposition.

Whatever this latest chapter in the relationship might ultimately mean for the 2021 season, it doesn’t say much for optimism on avoiding a labor war as they negotiate to replace a collective bargaining agreement that expires after this season.

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