IRVING, Texas — Separated by 12 miles physically and a million philosophically, the commissioner of baseball and his counterpart at the players’ union spent Day 1 of Major League Baseball’s lockout of the players ramping up their rhetoric, illustrating the significant gap the parties must bridge before the game returns.
Commissioner Rob Manfred and MLB Players Association executive director Tony Clark spoke within 90 minutes of one another Thursday morning, Manfred from the Texas Rangers‘ gleaming new stadium in Arlington and Clark at the Four Seasons Dallas at Las Colinas, the hotel that hosted failed talks leading to the ninth work stoppage in the game’s history and first in 26 years.
Less than 12 hours into the lockout, the sides publicly staked out their positions with far more detail than either had previously revealed. Manfred called the lockout “not a good thing for the sport” and “bad for our business” but had deemed it “necessary” in a letter he released minutes after MLB informed the MLBPA. Clark said “contrary to the statement that imposing a lockout would be helpful in bringing negotiations to a conclusion, players consider it unnecessary and provocative.”
So began a work stoppage that high-ranking officials across the sport expect to last for months. It was clear, after Manfred, Clark and union lead negotiator Bruce Meyer publicly revealed for the first time significant parts of the discussions, why pessimism, at least in the short-term, is warranted. They couldn’t even agree on what they didn’t agree on.
Both sides accused the other of fomenting the lockout by not wanting to make a deal in Texas — or over the months of negotiations leading up to the last-ditch effort. Each detailed proposals made by the other and called them “extreme” and “radical,” the pernicious sorts of words that seeped into the public dialogue during last year’s contentious negotiations over the length of the season during the heart of the coronavirus pandemic. To this point, the parties had remained quiet, eschewing inflammatory language for scant public comment, despite brewing frustration behind the scenes.
On Thursday, it spilled into the open, first with Manfred’s note and 9 a.m. news conference at Globe Life Field and then with Clark and Meyer at 10:30 sitting side-by-side to attack point-by-point some of Manfred’s contentions.
At the heart of the talks, or lack thereof, are core economic issues that have tilted decidedly in the league’s favor in the past decade — and particularly during the agreement that expired Wednesday at 11:59 p.m. Revenues grew. Salaries did not. And with the union looking to make gains, it identified a suite of areas in which to do so: removing artificial restraints on free agency, ending tanking, getting players paid more at younger ages and fixing service-time manipulation.
Following the union’s latest proposal Tuesday, MLB approached Meyer with a request: take some of the MLBPA’s asks off the table, including the potential reduction of time under team control before free agency, the ability to earn additional days of service time and a $100 million decrease in revenue sharing. The union declined to do so. Over three days here, the sides had spent a little more than three hours talking, concluding with a seven-minute session that ended with no progress and epitomized the course of these negotiations.
Said Manfred: “We made a proposal yesterday that if it had been accepted, I believe, would have provided a pretty clear path to make an agreement.”
Said Clark: “It would have been beneficial to the process to have spent as much time negotiating in the room as it appeared was spent on the letter.”
Sick burns aside, the substance of the issues was laid out for the public on Thursday, helping answer the question that befuddles those who don’t understand the cause of lockout. The myriad issues being discussed, according to Manfred, Clark, Meyer and other sources familiar with the negotiations, include:
Free agency: The union proposed allowing players reach free agency at 29½ years old at five years of service time. The league remained steadfast: Six years of service as a non-starter.
Competitive-balance tax: The CBT, or luxury tax, threshold is currently at $210 million and serves as a de facto salary cap. The league offered to raise it to $214 million and scale it to $220 million by the end of a new agreement, though it would include more onerous penalties for exceeding it. The union dropped its CBT ask to $245 million in its most recent proposal.
Arbitration: The system that allows players with three to six years of service to negotiate their salaries for the first time is a significant point of contention. The union continues to ask for arbitration to begin after a player’s second season. The league proposed a system that would replace arbitration entirely and pay players based on a formula.
Competitive integrity: The league offered a draft lottery for the first three picks. The specifics of the union’s proposed changes to the draft are unclear, though Meyer said the players’ proposal “offered to build in advantages for small-market teams” in the draft.
Pay players earlier: The union asked for a significant hike in the league minimum salary, which is currently $570,500. The league offered a bump higher than past seasons but not close to what the players sought. Further, both sides are open to the idea of a bonus pool that could enrich players with zero to three years service time who reach certain incentives, whether it’s All-Star appearances or MVP and Cy Young votes.
Expanded playoffs: MLB proposed a 14-team plan. The union countered with a 12-team plan that would include realigning each league into one eight-team division and another seven-team division.
Revenue sharing: The union proposed the $100 million reduction — almost certain to be a non-starter among the smaller-market teams enriched by the redistribution — so larger-market teams would have more to spend in free agency. Though revenue sharing has played a vital role in previous agreements, the league identifying it as a red-line item could sideline it from future talks.
Service-time manipulation: One of the trickiest issues, the union wants players to be able to earn extra service days — which go toward time accrued toward free agency — via accomplishments. The league has consistently rejected the idea.
Salary cap: MLB recognizes this is the union’s red line and has not proposed it. In an early proposal to the union, the league did offer a $100 million salary floor — with a $180 million CBT threshold. The union rejected it, operating on the idea that a hard cap naturally follows a hard floor.
Whether the public comments were a sign of things to come or a temporary airing of grievances should reveal itself in the coming weeks, when the parties are likely to meet again. The industry will already look wildly different, with no free-agent signings, no trades and no MLB properties — including its television network and website — using players’ images. Some players on social media changed their profile pictures to the blank, stock avatars that appeared alongside their names on team roster pages.
The response to the scrubbing of MLB.com pages and Manfred’s letter — in which he called the implementation of the lockout “defensive” — prompted immediate responses on social media, where Manfred’s name trended.
“I think there were some misrepresentations in the letter,” Clark said. “To be clear, and we’ve said this repeatedly, the league was not required to declare a lockout. The decision to impose a lockout was a conscious decision made by the league.”
Manfred doubled down on points made in the letter at his news conference, calling the union’s quicker path to free agency, revenue-sharing reduction and salary arbitration after two years “bad for the sport, bad for the fans and bad for competitive balance.”
“We already have teams in smaller markets that struggle to compete,” he added. “Shortening the period of time that they control players makes it even harder for them to compete. It’s also good for fans in those markets. The most negative reaction we have is when a player leaves via free agency. We don’t see making it available earlier as a positive. Taking $100 million away from teams that are already struggling to put a competitive product on the field — I don’t see how that’s helpful.”
Coming off a week in which a $1.4 billion free-agent spending spree invigorated the offseason, the counterargument — the most positive reaction fans have is when a free agent joins the team for which they root — was resonant among the union, which treats free agency as the ultimate right. Manfred’s competitive-balance conversation accompanied a week in which union leader and right-hander Max Scherzer signed a contract to receive in 2022 more than the entire Baltimore Orioles roster is due next year.
Every point, from here on, will be parsed, dissected and picked apart until a deal materializes. And amid the bad feelings about how this week went, Clark and Manfred emerged with a realistic view that goes beyond the rhetoric, past the parrying and represents a truth of collective bargaining.
“I don’t feel frustrated,” Manfred said. “I’m disappointed we didn’t get to an agreement. That’s different than being frustrated. I think we’re in a process. I’m prepared to continue that process. And I’m optimistic that we’re going to get a deal.”
“At the end of the day, a deal is going to get done,” Clark said. “And the game and the industry is going to move forward.”