By Ed Botti, May 22, 2020
Uncharted waters. A phrase we hear quite a bit these days and nights with respect to many things in our lives. Our place of employment, schools, stores, barber shops and salons, hospitals, restaurants and bars, parks, beaches, theaters, and of course sporting arenas and stadiums, the list goes on and on.
For all of those businesses and organizations it is absolutely true.
But when you break it down and look at it from a sports perspective, and then boil that down a little further and look at Baseball, there is now more to the story.
Yes, these are uncharted waters, or whatever cliché you want to use when we look at baseball from the perspective of closing the training camps, postponing the season, players getting sick, etc. But now, just when there might be a light at the end of the proverbial tunnel, and we hear that there are plans being formed for an abbreviated season, regardless of the format and if you or I agree with it or not, we enter familiar waters that we have seen navigated in the past.
As a result, now we may just have another term that we will hear in the coming days and nights. A condition we are all familiar with, and one that has nothing to do with all the other unconventional terms we have been hearing lately, such as; flattening the curve, close contact, social distancing, asymptomatic, essential worker, epidemic, pandemic, quarantine, isolation, lock down, containment, and mitigation.
And that term is Work Stoppage.
Yes, it just may rear its ugly head again, and regardless of how it is framed, it will be déjà vu all over again.
It’s hard to get an exact number, but just in the modern era of baseball we have been down this road before 14 times.
Below is a summary of some of the previous work stoppages, and how 2020 may not be much different from some of the others when the smoke clears.
I wouldn’t consider it a work stoppage, but more of a sign of respect, however it is technically classified as a work stoppage. To commemorate D-Day, when over three million allied troops stormed the beaches in Normandy France, all sporting events were cancelled on June 6, 1944. Just two MLB games were on the schedule for that day. One in Brooklyn and the other in Pittsburgh; each was rescheduled.
The very first time in MLB history the players went on strike. The principal point of the disagreement was the pension fund; players wanted inflationary increases added, and the owners balked. It lasted 13 days for a total of 86 games at the start of the season. The owners realized that they were losing more money with the lost attendance than they would have to pay to meet the MLBPA’s pension demands. They conceded, and agreed to contribute an additional $500,000 to the players’ pension fund, and institute salary arbitration.
The concept of a new salary arbitration agreement, deciding on exact terms and the process involved were the problems. The players were locked out of spring training in early February until the owners and the MLBPA agreed on a three-year Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) that distinctly defined the salary arbitration process of utilizing a neutral arbitrator to hear cases and decide between the player’s salary request and the owner’s offer. Spring training games resumed later that month. No regular-season games were impacted.
Marvin Miller the Executive Director of the MLBPA found a flaw in MLB’s reserve clause which was a section in player contracts that bound a player to a single team for a long period, even if the individual contracts signed covered only one season. In December 1975 a neutral arbitrator ruled in favor of Miller and against the owners.
As a result, pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally immediately became free agents. Owners, obviously didn’t like this development, and they locked players out of spring training the first couple of weeks of March. No regular-season games were missed.
To put it mildly, the initial years of free agency were a contentious time for management and labor. We as Yankees fans, enjoyed the fruits of it, but that was not the case for most other teams and cities. There were many issues involved in 1980 and the players went on strike towards the end of spring training, terminating the final eight days of camp. They also promised to strike again if a new deal wasn’t reached by May 23rd of that year.
Both sides were able to come to an agreement on all issues, with the exception of the big one; free-agent compensation. That enabled the 1980 season to kick off on time. But, a big problem was looming in 1981.
This one was bad, and was easy to see coming after the 1980 work stoppage. The issue was free agent compensation. Not the money free agents can be paid, it was about what was given to teams who lost free agents. The owners had implemented a system that made any team who signed a free agent surrender a roster player and a draft pick in return. The players felt it would damage their value in the open market.
Owners were prepared to fight, and players were not going to give in.
The strike lasted from June 11 until Aug.10.
On July 31 a compromise was reached, whereby teams that lost a “premium” free agent could be compensated by selecting a player from a pool of players left unprotected from all of the teams, rather than just the signing team. Players also agreed to restricting free agency to players with six or more years of major league service. The settlement gave the owners a limited victory on the compensation issue.
The first game back was agreed to be the 1981 All-Star Game in Cleveland. A total of 713 games were lost, and the remainder of the season was played with a first half winner and second half winner for each division, and the playoffs were altered.
When all was said and done, an estimated $146 million was lost in player salaries, ticket sales, broadcast revenues, and concession revenues.
Allegedly, the negotiations were so vicious that when a settlement was finally reached, Marvin Miller and the owners’ negotiator Ray Grebey refused to pose with each other for the traditional “peace ceremony” photograph.
Yes, there was a work stoppage in 1985. Once again, the pension fund was the primary issue. In 1983 MLB signed what was considered at that time a huge Media Rights deal for $1.2 billion and the players wanted to amend their pension plan.
Also involved was the current salary arbitration cap. It lasted from August 6 to August 7, the games missed were made up at the end of the season. A resolution was struck, and it ended. But the impact of this would be felt in the next couple of years when the owners colluded with each other to not sign each other’s players in the off seasons (1985-1987); an effort to eliminate competition and drive down the price of the players.
Eventually, the owners were found guilty of collusion, and had to pay the players a total of $280 million in damages. It actually may have cost the Yankees a chance at Jack Morris.
Déjà vu all over again, free agency and arbitration were the main issues. Also a point of contention was revenue sharing. The owners locked the players out of spring training from mid-February to mid-March, 32 days in all.
It came to a conclusion when the owners and players agreed to additional pension payments, an increase to the minimum salary, and adjustments to the arbitration process. The season was not shortened, but opening day was pushed back 1 week.
This one hurt many fans, and especially those in Montreal and New York as the Yankees and Expos were on an October collision course. The season came to an abrupt end on August 11, and never resumed. It also marked the first time that an American sports league’s post season was cancelled over a labor dispute. It was the longest and most damaging work stoppage in Baseball’s history, lasting 232 days and costing a grand total, over 2 seasons, of 932 games plus the 1994 post season.
The strike was essentially the result of the owners’ demand for a salary cap.
A March 1995 court order ended the strike by forcing the continuation of play under the existing CBA rules through the 1996 season.
The 1995 season didn’t begin until late April and was shortened to a 144-game schedule. The two sides didn’t agree on a new CBA until March of 1997.
Fans in some cities didn’t forgive either side, and attendance was down for some time. It also was the driving force that made the once great fan base in Montreal turn their heads from Baseball and eventually the Expos relocated to Washington DC.
Many believe the strike and resulting decrease in attendance was also the driving force behind Commissioner Selig overlooking the rise of steroid use, as fans poured back into the stadiums to watch all the home runs being hit at outrageous rates, and the dollars followed.
Not related to a labor dispute we saw a 1 week work stoppage in 2001 as a result of the September 11 terrorist attacks.
On March 18, MLB cancelled the season-opening series, which was set to be played in Japan, between the Athletics and Mariners. This was due to the increasing threat of military action in Iraq. The two games were rescheduled for later that season, in the US. The season instead opened on March 30 with a game between the Rangers and Angels.
Which brings us to 2020. We all know how this work stoppage started. But how will it end?
The conditions that existed between 2020 and most of the other work stoppages did not appear to have any parallel lines back on March 12, when this all began to spin out of control.
Last week on May 14, 2020 MLB presented a plan to the MLBPA that detailed the dynamics involved to potentially resume play. It has come under great scrutiny.
A clear plan for the health of the teams was the paramount component of the plan, full of many medical tests, protocols and contingency plans to provide the best protection to the player’s health.
Since then, players, the MLBPA and agents have come forward claiming MLB has moved the goalposts at the 11th hour.
As a matter of background, back in March an agreement was entered into by the both parties that essentially guaranteed a prorated salary for the players if they played a shortened season. Makes perfect sense on the surface. If the league is able to start up and play, and all things remain equal, it works. Play 81 games, and get half your salary. Sounds fair.
The problem is since March, many things have changed, and not for the better. Now, if they resume play there will be no fans allowed at the ball parks. No fans at the ballparks equates to significant revenue loss for the league and teams.
If the revenue streams have been dramatically reduced, the March plan no longer works. We covered this aspect of the business earlier this month https://startspreadingthenews.blog/start-spreading-the-news/2020/5/7/the-changing-landscape-of-the-sports-industry
So, where do we go from here?
This past week, MLB’s plan provided the contingencies supposedly agreed to when the March plan was formed. It’s pretty simple, it comes down to numbers.
The amendment to the plan essentially installed a benefit share arrangement. A 50/50 split on revenue along with other components such as an 82 game season, increase of the roster to 30 players, add a 20 player taxi squad, and a 14 team playoff system.
Right off the bat, we heard from Blake Snell of the Tampa Bay Rays. I will paraphrase to spare our readers from his ridiculous video, “Bro, If I don’t get paid, I aint playin”. He ranted about how he was risking his life and his health. I have no problem with that, it should be a personal decision. But if he really was so concerned with his health, why bother discussing the pay cut? So, in the end, it’s not about his health, it’s about his salary.
Than we heard from the notorious agent Scott Boros when he stated “The players I represent are unified in that they reached an agreement and they sacrificed anywhere from 30 to 40 percent of their salaries so that the games could amicably continue. The owners represented during that negotiation that they could operate without fans in the ballpark. Based on that, we reached an agreement and there will not be a renegotiation of that agreement.”
Again, no reference to health, just money.
The problem with the Boros comment is that we now have learned it was not factual. The NY Post reported that they had “obtained a March 26 email from an MLB lawyer to top league officials that documents the substance of talks between two MLB officials and two MLBPA officials…The email covers seven points, including that MLB explained to the union officials that MLB would need a second negotiation if games were not played in front of fans to determine pay and claims that union officials understood that concept.”
In the end, it’s the same old song and dance. Billionaires fighting millionaires for the Baseball dollar. What makes it worse in my opinion, from prior work stoppages, is that right now the country can really use the game more so than at any other time. They have a chance to come into our living rooms every night and provide some hope for many people. People that have lost their jobs, and in some cases, a loved one. By resuming play, the media rights business will start to recover, advertising sales will increase, content distribution fees will increase, etc. The whole trickle down effect will begin.
Most fans I have spoken with all have a similar opinion and agree with ownership on this impasse, with the players getting branded as selfish, spoiled, out of touch and over paid.
There are solutions that if agreed to could avoid a work stoppage. Compromises such as deferred pay with interest in exchange for the owners conceding on the service time loophole they’ve used as an instrument to keep players from free agency. Or even to raise the minimum salary in 2021 leading into the negotiations on a new CBA.
In business there is a negotiation tactic known as BATNA which stands for best alternative to a negotiated agreement. In essence an alternative course of action a party can take if negotiations fail and an agreement cannot be reached, but you have to have leverage.
In this case there is no real advantage for either side, and high risk for both.
What started out as a health issue on March 12, has now evolved into a very complex financial issue. One that I do not pretend to know everything about.
What I do know is there are 3 sides to every story. Yours, mine, and the truth.
A lot is at stake for all and if the season is cancelled due to a labor strike, and not due to the pandemic, the fans will not forget, and it will set baseball back many years.
Let’s hope everyone involved takes a step back, puts their ego aside, and does the right thing.
But, judging from past history and the distrust these two sides have had for each other for many years, the odds are slim. I hope I’m wrong.
Uncharted waters? I don’t think so.
Hang in there everyone!