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MLB players and owners are as far from agreeing as they’ve been in decades

A look at previous labor disputes and how they might relate to getting a 2020 season underway.

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Amanda Juech

Today, I’m not going to talk about specific baseball revenue figures or other numbers that have been put out there by various sources. There are just too many different numbers for any of us — and we don’t have access to any of them, really — to make an informed decision or for me to parse them.

Instead, I want to call your attention to one reason we’re probably heading toward not having a baseball season at all in 2020, summarized here by Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich at The Athletic:

Nearly one week after the two sides met digitally, the familiar distrust between the sides already is coloring the talks. The league, pointing to language in the initial March agreement to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic, says the union needs to drop its stance that the salary matter is closed before it makes a new proposal. The union does not think it should discuss sacrificing additional pay until the league demonstrates its financial distress with hard evidence — never mind the idea of a 50-50 revenue sharing system, which the union equates to a salary cap.

This is starting to feel like 1981, or 1994, years in which players and owners were so far apart that a huge chunk of the season was lost in ‘81, and a similar portion plus the postseason were cancelled in ‘94. Regardless of what the actual dollar figures are in 2020, players and owners are as far apart as ever in how they’re looking at carving up whatever money is available to MLB owners this year.

A brief little history lesson will help you understand why this distrust is happening now.

The strike in 1981 was largely due to a disagreement over how compensation would be made for free agents leaving teams. Remember, at that time free agency was new, only six years old. Arbitrator Peter Seitz had ruled the reserve clause, which bound players to their teams in perpetuity, was illegal and thus players could theoretically leave teams after each season. In fact, exactly this was proposed by Charlie Finley, owner of the A’s. He wanted to make every MLB player a free agent every year. This would have flooded the market and probably kept salaries down, but owners, accustomed to the reserve clause, dismissed Finley as a crank. He was almost certainly correct.

Anyway, after losing about 50 games to the strike, players and owners agreed to a “compensation pool” of players who would be made available to teams who lost free agents. It’s how Tom Seaver got to the White Sox — the Mets didn’t think anyone would take him, so they left him unprotected, and when Sox pitcher Dennis Lamp left as a free agent, the Sox took Seaver.

No one liked this system so it was scrapped after 1985.

The 1994 strike happened because hardline owners led by Jerry Reinsdorf wanted a salary cap. Remember, at this time baseball had suffered through 22 years’ worth of labor disputes that stopped the game multiple times, including loss of a week’s worth of games in 1972 and other strikes and lockouts (1985 and 1990) that did not cost any games. Players and owners were at the peak of their distrust for each other, and the MLBPA, then led by Don Fehr, struck over the issue of a salary cap. By September, with no solution in sight, the postseason was cancelled. Nothing happened to resolve the dispute over the offseason and owners went into 1995 planning a season with replacement players, minor leaguers and others not under the aegis of the MLBPA. It might have happened except for an unfair labor practices complaint and court ruling against the owners made by federal judge Sonia Sotomayor, who now sits on the U.S. Supreme Court.

In 2002, there was nearly another strike at the end of August. Revenue sharing and what became the current “luxury tax” were the issues, and I vividly remember not knowing whether the Cubs and Cardinals, scheduled to be the first game played on Friday, August 30, was going to happen or not. The settlement came just hours before game time that afternoon.

Once that strike was averted, players and owners seemed to come to an understanding that everyone in the game was making money and there ensued, up to now, 17 years’ worth of labor peace and more than 25 years without losing a single game to a strike or lockout. The NBA and NHL have lost games to labor disputes since 2002, with the NHL losing an entire season (2004-05). Meanwhile, baseball has continued, making more and more money.

There was likely going to be contentious discussion over the next labor agreement in baseball. The current CBA expires at the end of the 2021 season. What’s happening now is no one’s fault; the coronavirus pandemic has affected every business in the world, not just Major League Baseball.

But the proposed revenue split by owners has been viewed by players as a potential salary cap, something players have universally rejected for decades. And so, here we are:

The league has yet to propose the 50-50 revenue split it wants, and ultimately might pivot to another idea rather than push a plan the players are certain to reject. The union opposes the concept on multiple grounds, including philosophical ones. But the league disagrees that it would be a salary cap, saying the one-time arrangement would include no minimum or maximum payroll. Regardless, such a plan also might be impractical, considering the parties likely would need far more than two weeks to define what constitutes revenue. The NFL collective bargaining agreement devotes 15 pages to the subject.

The baseball players and owners compromised on economics in March. If a revenue split is out, the question is how to start the conversation again.

It’s negotiating Catch-22: The league will not make a proposal until the union says it is willing to talk. The union will not talk until it receives a proposal and proof of financial distress.

It’s May 19. The proposal made to start an 82-game season in empty ballparks across North America would have a “Spring Training 2.0” begin in around three weeks and games begin in about seven. The gulf between players and owners on how to get such a season started seems deeper than ever.

And that’s not even considering the health and safety issues that have to come first.

I’d love to see baseball this year, and so would you. Given what’s in Rosenthal and Drellich’s article, I have my doubts about whether that can happen.