The past two decades have been an unprecedented calm of equitable and amicable diligence for major-league baseball in my lifetime. Not only has there not been any kind of strike or lock-out since the one which prematurely ended the 1994 season, it doesn't seem we came anywhere close to one. Over that time, the three other major sports have all had significant disputes of one form or another, most recently in 2011, when at one point in July, both the NBA and NFL were on lockout.
But, it appears, MLB's cease-fire may be coming to an end. Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports says, "The owners will consider voting to lock out the players if the two sides cannot reach a new collective-bargaining agreement by the time the current deal expires on Dec. 1, according to sources with knowledge of the discussions." But how real a threat is this? What would be the impact? And what are the main issues of contention between the owners, led by new commissioner Rob Manfred, and the player's union, under former Diamondback Tony Clark?
It's time for players and owners to re-negotiate the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), the document which governs the relationship between the two sides. This document of over 300 pages, covers everything from the length of the season through minimum salaries to tip allowances and parking [I kid you not: "Each Club shall provide or arrange for appropriate automobile parking spaces for Players and, to the extent practicable, van and small truck parking spaces for Players, at its home ballpark on game or practice days, without cost to the Players."] The current one was negotiated five years and covered the 2012-2016 seasons.
Things change over time, and on the table here were several modifications desired by one or other side. The players want changes made to the qualifying offer process, which they believe significantly diminishes the appeal (and thus, income) for the top free agents. From the owner's side, they want an international draft, and offered a straight-up swap for that, eliminating the draft-pick compensation tied to free agents. The union, however, rejected this, saying (with some grounds) an international draft would have a far greater impact on their members than the qualifying offer system which, this year, applied to less than a dozen players.
There are some other points in the CBA to be settled, such as the luxury tax threshold and penalties, as well as potential changes to the Joint Drug Testing program, which governs testing and penalties for the use of performance enhancing drugs.
Not everyone thinks it will happen, believing the good times experienced over the last 20 years make it unlikely anyone will want to rock the boat (or, more appropriately, the gravy train). An unnamed baseball person told the New York Daily News, "There’s so much money in the game now for everyone involved that it would be unbelievably short-sighted to let something like that happen. I don’t think there are any issues that warrant such drastic action, and I believe this is really just a negotiating tactic as the deadline is nearing." That both Manfred and Clark are in their first CBA negotiation may be significant, both wanting to avoid showing any signs perceived as weakness.
Certainly, from a fan's point of view, this is an argument between millionaires and billionaires, and deserves to be treated with the appropriate amount of eye-rolling. There will be many reading this who don't even remember the last strike. I'm among them, albeit mostly because I was living in London at the time, and still regarded baseball as an over-priced version of rounders. But the atmosphere then seemed far more contentious and toxic; the strike didn't surprise many people, in the way yesterday's unexpected announcement seems to have done. I'd say the odds are still strongly in favor of an agreement being reached by the end of the month.
What a lockout would mean
Obviously, it's the off-season, so there would be no impact in terms of actual games being lost, unless it were to drag on, without resolution, well into 2017. But there would still be an impact, in that winter business would be effectively put on hold. Most obviously, this would suspend negotiations between teams and free-agent players, until an agreement is reached. Again, that wouldn't necessarily be a major problem if the lockout were relatively short. But it would condense the window before pitchers and catchers report in mid-February, and could also disrupt the early December winter meetings, traditionally a fertile source of deals and trades.
However, it's possible that, in the absence of any new settlement, the two sides will agree simply to continue as if the existing CBA is still in place, while negotiations continue. The relationship between the two sides still, in general, appears by all accounts to be amicable, so it would be in both sides' interest to avoid doing anything which would seriously interfere with the billion-dollar process at hand. That would potentially have a far greater impact on both sides than the relatively trivial matter of the qualifying offer system, or even an international draft.