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MLB lockout begins, ending 26 years of labour peace

By Riley Stovka, December 15 2021—

For the first time in a quarter-century, Major League Baseball has ended its labour peace as the League’s owners formally voted to lock out its players. 

Free agency has stopped, all team transactions have been frozen, players cannot enter any team facilities or communicate with any team official for the foreseeable future. Even MLB’s Instagram page has stopped uploading posts. 

In the days leading up to the Collective Bargaining Agreements Dec. 1 deadline, the talks between the League and the Players Union became increasingly hostile, with the final meeting between the two sides lasting all but seven minutes. 

The league will not pick back up again until another CBA is negotiated but that doesn’t look like that will happen anytime soon and the chance of this lockout lasting into the spring is incredibly likely. If that is the case, we could go several months without a baseball season or, God forbid, a period lasting anywhere up to a year.

Now before the details of what the two sides are demanding are talked about, I think it is important to say that Major League Baseball’s Player Union is one of, if not the most militant union in professional sports. The relationship between the league and its players is almost always on an edge, a perpetual ticking time bomb, just ready to explode. 

We have seen as such pretty recently in the COVID shortened season of 2020 — the owners negotiated in bad faith in an attempt to limit the number of games played, while also trying to cut back on players’ prorated salaries. Eventually, the owners relented and paid the players prorated salaries in full but that wasn’t without refusing to pay for minor leaguer salaries. 

At the heart of the problem of baseball and the central focus of this lockout, is money. 

Players want more money. Owners don’t want to pay them that money. Very plain and simple when it is laid out that way. 

But when you take a look at the recent baseball news, it doesn’t seem like that. In fact, it looks as though player salaries are going up. In the couple of days leading up to the lock out, a frenzy of high-priced free agents inked lucrative contracts with teams all over the league. 

In Texas, the Rangers signed former Toronto Blue Jay and MVP candidate, Marcus Semien, to a seven-year, $175 million deal. A day later, the Rangers also signed former Los Angeles Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager to a ten-year, $325 million deal. In the span of 24 hours, the lowly Texas Rangers, a team that lost 102 games last season, spent half a billion dollars on two players. 

In New York, the Mets signed future Hall of Famer Max Scherzer to a record-breaking deal. Scherzer, who is entering his age 37 season, signed a three-year, $130 million deal, setting the record for highest annual average value for any player in the sport, at $43 million a year. 

The Blue Jays, hot off a year where they won 91 games but came up a win short of making the postseason, also opened up the cheque book for the third straight year. The Jays signed former San Francisco Giant ace, Kevin Gausman, to a five-year $110 million deal. The Gausman signing came just days after the Jays extended pitcher Jose Berrios to a seven-year, $131 million extension. 

This isn’t the first time that the Blue Jays have shelled out big money for premier free agents. In 2020, they signed George Springer to a six-year, $150 million contract, a team record for money given out to a free agent.  And a year before the Jays signed pitcher Hyun-Jin Ryu, to a four-year $80 million deal.

The Blue Jays are owned by one of the sport’s second-wealthiest owners, the Rogers Family of Rogers Communications, the largest telecommunications and media company in the country. Money is clearly no object for Rogers, so their willingness to spend big is no surprise. But what about some of the other owners in baseball, who own teams in less lucrative cities, in smaller sports markets, like Tampa or Oakland? 

There is this notion that teams in smaller markets, like the Oakland Athletics, Tampa Bay Rays and Pittsburgh Pirates, can’t compete with big market teams like the New York Yankees or Boston Red Sox financially, so they need to turn to other ways to field competitive teams.

The strategy is often called “Moneyball,” popularized by the early 2000s Athletics, who used advanced statistical metrics called sabermetrics, to find undervalued players to field competitive teams. This method has been popularized and copied by dozens of teams over the years, to varying degrees of success but the message has remained unchanged. Poor teams cannot compete with rich teams, so they need to get creative to be competitive. 

This idea that there are rich and poor teams in baseball, is a complete fabrication, existing in a reality that is not our own. There is no such thing as a rich and poor team in baseball. Some teams spend and some teams don’t. 

In 2019, MLB grossed $10.7 billion in revenue. For reference, that number is good enough for the second-highest revenue of any professional sports league in the world. Only the NFL grosses more money annually, at $13 billion. 

The way MLB works with revenue sharing, is that whatever the league makes every year is equally divided up amongst the league’s 30 teams, with each team, no matter how successful they are, getting equal shares. 

Not to mention the average net worth of a Major League owner is around $2 billion. Even the A’s, who popularized the use of Moneyball and are notorious for their unwillingness to spend on players, is owned by John Fisher, the chairman of Gap Inc., whose net worth is $2.9 billion, which would put him in the middle tier of baseball owners. 

Therein lies the problem. Baseball and its owners have money, billions upon billions of dollars worth, but they have been able to take advantage of their players and manipulate certain aspects of the CBA for their gain. And the players have had enough. 

Now you may be thinking, seeing all these massive contracts handed out to all these players ($1.7 billion worth of contracts were signed in a couple of days leading up to the lock out) that maybe these players, the entitled millionaires that they seem to be, should just shut up and play. 

This lockout is not about baseball stars. The problem is not that these players, who are making millions of dollars a year, are being taken advantage of. These players, the top one per cent of the league if you will, will always get paid what they are worth, that has never been the issue. No, this lockout is about the fight for the middling players who have their service time manipulated and are being underpaid for their market value. It is about the minor leaguers, the guys who get called up back and forth, those good enough to play but not good enough to stick. 

The average major league salary dropped 4.8 per cent to just under $4.17 million from the previous full season in 2019. The average has fallen 6.4 per cent since the start of 2017 and it is the middle class of baseball players who have borne the brunt of this salary downturn. 

The median salary for baseball players in the big leagues is $1.15 million, down 18 per cent from two years ago and down 30 per cent from the record high of $1.65 million from 2015. 

Baseball is the only professional sport in North America without a salary cap or salary floor. There is no max to what teams can pay players — actually, most years in free agency new records are set every year, with big-ticket free agents signing record contract after record contract. The minimum a team can sign a player for is $500,000, which is still a lot of money for most people. The way it works, however, is that a player needs to be added to a team’s 40-man roster to get paid league minimum. 

Baseball’s minor leaguers live below the American poverty line with pay ranging from $290 to $700 a week. A Lot of these players have to take part-time or off-season jobs, forfeiting training or practice just to make ends meet. And these minor leaguers are not even protected by the players union, so they are subject to the whims of their teams and owners, with no one to protect their interests. 

Even when these minor leaguers finally do make the big league roster, their service time is manipulated so that they are essentially indentured to their team for six years. 

Every player has to play six years of service time before they are eligible for free agency. Until then, they are subject to whatever the team wants from them. Teams will manipulate service time, by waiting to call up top prospects until a certain date to retain years of control over the said prospect. Because of this, most players won’t hit free agency until they’re 30, which means players drafted out of high school are owned by their teams for a decade. 

MLB’s commissioner, Rob Manfred, said in a written statement on Dec. 1 that, “This defensive lock out was necessary because the Players Association vision for the league would threaten the ability of most teams to be competitive. The PA has been unwilling to move from their starting position, compromise or collaborate on solutions.” 

“Payers feel like the system has gotten out of whack and really has gone too far in favouring the owners,” said lead Union negotiator, Bruce Meyer. “There’s a feeling among players that front offices have become very good at manipulating the system to their advantage. We want to find ways to get players compensated at an earlier time in their career when the teams are valuing them the most.” 

“Unless the CBA addresses the competition issues and younger players getting paid, that’s the only way I’m going to put my name on it,” said Scherzer, who is a member of the MLBPA’s eight-player executive subcommittee. 

The players want a change to the league’s revenue sharing system, which keeps teams unwilling to invest in their players afloat. They also want a change to the number of years it takes for players to reach free agency, from six years to a more favourable four or even three. 

The owners remain steadfast in their opposition to these demands, while also countering with demands of their own, chiefly among them a hard salary cap. 

Since 1972, there have been eight work stoppages in baseball, four of them affected the play of the regular season, three of the stoppages have been lock outs and the other five have been player strikes. The longest stoppage occurred in 1994 when a 232-day player strike resulted in the cancellation of the playoffs that year. 

Hopefully, it doesn’t come to that this time around but at the outset of negotiations between the Union and the League, things aren’t looking great for the sport of baseball. 

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