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We are one month from a possible MLB lockout

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This, obviously, is not good.

Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

The 2021 MLB season has not yet ended. We’re awaiting Game 6 of the World Series tonight, and there’s still possibly going to be a Game 7 tomorrow.

After a World Series winner is determined, though, we head into an uncertain winter in which free agency will begin, but... what team is going to sign any major free agent or make any major trade while the terms under which the game is governed have not yet been decided?

The current collective-bargaining agreement between owners and players expires December 1. And, per this long article in The Athletic by Evan Drellich, if there’s no agreement by then, a lockout likely begins the next day. This is what would follow:

If Major League Baseball and the Players Association have not agreed on a new collective bargaining agreement by midnight entering Dec. 2, it is very likely that the sport’s owners will lock out the players. If that happens, all of the typical offseason transactions, from free agency to the arbitration process to the Rule 5 draft, would likely be frozen until a new deal is reached. The sport’s annual mid-December winter meetings would likely be canceled — at least the portion of the meetings involving the major leagues. (There is a minor league component, as well.) Players would not be able to use club facilities, but spring training and the 2022 regular season itself would only become threatened if the lockout lasted long enough. Spring training starts in February, the regular season at the end of March.

None of that sounds good. There have been a couple of Twitter reports that the winter meetings will be cancelled, but at least as of yesterday, when MLB sent an email to media explaining how writers could apply for winter meetings credentials, the meetings are apparently still on.

Last week, before Game 1 of the World Series, Rob Manfred and Tony Clark expressed cautious optimism about having an agreement done before the deadline. But what else would you expect them to say, especially on the cusp of the sport’s biggest event?

Evan Drellich points out:

Even though baseball itself has avoided a stoppage for more than a quarter-century, every subsequent work stoppage across the NBA, NFL and NHL since the 1994-95 strike has been a lockout. That does not appear to be a coincidence. Baseball’s last strike was devastating in part because it began in August, in the middle of the playing season. From that point on, owners became unlikely to ever allow players to pick the time and place of a work stoppage. They see it as wiser to institute a lockout before games begin, rather than entering spring training without a deal agreed to, and giving players a chance to walk out.

That’s almost certainly true. A lockout gives the owners leverage, and they’d almost certainly take it if no agreement is in place by December 1. Since no games are going on at that time, it’s not as if they could continue playing any games under the current deal while they continue to negotiate.

At the same time, for that exact reason, if there’s no deal and time is growing short, it is still possible that owners and players might agree to play one more year under the current agreement and kick the can down the road to give them more time to hammer out a new CBA.

In the end, though, here are the attitudes and narratives we will likely be hearing much more about over the next four weeks. The quote is from Lauren Rich, a former MLBPA and NLRB attorney:

At the same time, sports work stoppages can engender different feelings than those involving blue-collar workers. Sports labor disputes often produce a millionaires vs. billionaires narrative.

Ultimately, if MLB does move for a lockout, both the owners and the commissioner alike would be taking a risk, one that could affect the commissioner’s legacy.

“Does he want to be the commissioner who took the first labor dispute in 25 years? Does he want to be that commissioner?” said Rich. “I don’t know. … But also what’s going to matter is where the owners are at. And if Rob is good at anything, he is a master at figuring that out.”

As bad a MLB commissioner as Rob Manfred has been, you’d think he wouldn’t want to preside over the first MLB work stoppage in a quarter century. Whatever else Manfred is, you’d think he’d care about his personal legacy. If that’s what it takes to avoid a lockout, I’m okay with that.

As always, we await developments.