ARLINGTON, Texas – Hours after Major League Baseball’s first work stoppage in 26 years, Commissioner Rob Manfred and union boss Tony Clark presented diametrically opposed views of the bargaining positions on either side that point to a prolonged strike.
In separate press conferences less than half a day after baseball’s ninth work stoppage, Manfred said the union’s proposal for more free agency and broader wage arbitration would hurt small-market teams.
Clark, the first former player to head the union, accused Manfred of “misrepresentations” in his letter to fans explaining the lockdown, saying: “It would have been beneficial to the process to have spent as much time negotiating in the room as it seems was spent on the letter”.
“You don’t need to continue the dialogue,” Clark said of the lockout. “In the first instance, at some point in bumpy water, the appeal was a strategic decision to block players.”
After 26½ years of labor peace, the parties have returned to the bitter dispute that marked eight work stoppages between 1972 and 1995, including a 7-month strike that ended the 1994 World Series.
The owners blocked the players at 12:01 a.m. Thursday after the expiration of the sport’s five-year collective bargaining agreement.
“If you play without a deal, you are vulnerable to attack at any time,” Manfred said. “What happened in 1994 is that the MLBPA chose August, when we were most vulnerable due to the proximity of the big revenue dollars associated with the postseason. We wanted to eliminate that option and try to force the parties to deal with the issues and get an agreement now. “
The players won salary arbitration in 1974 and free agency two years later, and most of the previous disputes centered on the increase in large salaries caused by both, along with lawsuits, mainly from small and medium market owners. , to control costs. and increase your competitiveness.
Management has won a series of ever-increasing restrictions over the past two decades, such as a luxury tax on high payroll, leading to a decline in the average salary during the final years of the most recent labor agreement.
Now the players want more liberalized free agency and arbitration, leading to a confrontation.
“It’s a comprehensive list of issues that we’ve been told they won’t negotiate,” said Bruce Meyer, the players’ chief attorney. “They will not accept, for example, expanding salary arbitration eligibility. They will not accept any path for any player to reach free agency sooner. They will not accept anything that allows players to have additional ways to get service time to combat time manipulation. of service. They told us that they will not agree on all those things. “
Since 1976, players can become free agents after six major league service seasons. The Players Association proposed, starting in the 2023-24 offseason, that it change to six or five years and 30.5 years, and that the age in the second option be lowered to 29.5 from 2025-26.
Players want arbitration eligibility lowered to two years of service, their level until the mid-1980s.
At the center of the dispute is the union’s anger over more teams in recent seasons that have abandoned veterans in favor of rebuilding and racking up prospects. Teams sometimes conclude that rebuilding (players call it ‘tanking’ or losing on purpose) is a preferred strategy for long-term success, although it may upset fans.
“We believe that our proposals would positively affect competitive balance and competitive integrity,” Meyer said. “We have all seen in recent years the problem of teams that do not seem to be doing everything possible to win games or put the best on the field.”
In the fight for signatures ahead of the lockout, teams committed $ 1 billion in contracts Wednesday, including six nine-figure deals that brought the total to nine in the past month and total spending to $ 2.5 billion since 1 October.
“The fact that this year there seems to be more activity from clubs in free agency earlier than a normal year raises more questions than answers about all other years,” Meyer said. “A good week of free agency doesn’t address all the negative trends we’ve seen.”
MLB would keep the existing free agency provision or change the eligibility to 29.5 years.
“We already have teams in smaller markets struggling to compete,” Manfred said at the Texas Rangers ballpark, not far from the hotel where negotiations broke down. “Shortening the amount of time they control players makes it even more difficult for them to compete. It’s bad for fans in those markets too.
“The most negative reaction we have is when a player goes through free agency. We don’t see that, do it sooner, be available sooner, we don’t see it as a positive.”
The dispute threatens the start of spring training on February 16 and opening day on March 31. An early to mid-March deal is needed for a full season, though Manfred declined to set any deadlines.
“The players association, as is their right, made a number of aggressive proposals in May, and they have refused to compromise on the core of those proposals,” Manfred said. “Things like a shorter reserve period, a $ 100 million reduction in revenue sharing, and salary arbitrage for the entire two-year class are bad for the sport, bad for the fans, and bad for the competitive balance.”
The negotiations have made little or no progress since they began last spring. Manfred said a lockout was the administration’s only tool to speed up the process.
“People need pressure sometimes to come to an agreement,” Manfred said. “We honestly didn’t feel that sense of pressure from the other side during the course of this week.”