No one wins in a baseball labor dispute - BaltimoreBaseball.com

Rich Dubroff

No one wins in a baseball labor dispute

My father wasn’t much of a sports fan. Our family talks over dinner weren’t often about baseball. He talked more about current events and eagerly shared his thoughts, which were always interesting and nuanced.

He spent his entire working life, 49 years, working for Western Union. As a dedicated member of the Communications Worker of America, he was clearly pro-union but wanted the company to do well, too. He eagerly participated in Western Union’s stock purchase plan for employees.

I’ve never been a member of a union but, thanks to him, I’m always skeptical about labor/management disputes. Also, thanks to him, I’ve always believed that no one wins in a strike.

In his time, his union regularly struck against Western Union, and he knew that the incremental gains the union may have made after a lengthy strike weren’t worth the pain of a multi-week or even a multi-month strike.

One year when I was in high school, his union struck in early June. He didn’t return to work until mid-September, when I was returning to school. There was no summer vacation for us that year.

While the Major League Baseball Players Association’s dispute with Major League Baseball is not anything like what my family often went through, the same principle holds. No one wins, and the settlement that could be made on February 1st is possible on December 1st.

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With just over two weeks to go before the current Collective Bargaining Agreement expires, the sides are, not surprisingly, reportedly far apart.

Of course, it’s possible that there will be an agreement, but the overwhelming majority of observers think there won’t be one and the owners will lock out the players on December 2nd, putting offseason transactions on hold.

In previous labor disputes, the players had the edge because the CBA expired during the season, and they could withhold their services. There are no games, so the owners can put the offseason on pause.

That creates uncertainty in players. Since few trades have been made and few free agents have been signed, that leaves dozens of players unsure of where they’ll be playing in 2022.

Uncertainty is unpleasant, and players want to know where they’ll train come February. That uncertainty is the leverage the owners hold.

If the dispute goes past early February, then the players have the leverage. Once spring training is delayed and Grapefruit and Cactus league games are canceled, money is lost by the owners.

Many fans will again label this as a fight between millionaires and billionaires and threaten to boycott games and not watch on television. There were fans who turned away from the game during the 1994-1995 strike that saw the World Series canceled.

Baseball can’t have a repeat, especially after the truncated 60-game season of 2020 and the pandemic-restricted crowds of early 2021. It needs several seasons of normalcy to lure back fans who got out of the habit of going to games during the pandemic.

Some fans whose sympathy would normally be with the owners might be drawn to the players because issues in dispute could be relevant to the Orioles.

Service time manipulation and free agency are being hotly debated, and so is the so-called “tanking” issue. The Orioles are set to pick first again this season in the draft, their fourth straight year of picking in the top five. A new agreement may put a restriction on how often a team could have a high pick.

Perhaps a draft lottery, similar to the NBA’s, could be instituted, though that has hardly eliminated tanking.

A salary floor, guaranteeing that teams like the Orioles spend more on the major league payroll, is being discussed, too, though the players don’t want a salary cap.

Even though some baseball fans shift their focus to the holidays and football during November, December and January, they would miss the free-agent and trade chatter.

If an agreement is reached, say around February 1st, there would be a condensed free-agent market. While the NFL, NBA and NHL have brief free-agent markets, they don’t occur  just before training camp.

It could be entertaining to watch teams hurriedly assemble their teams, and annoying for agents such as Scott Boras, who likes to craft a market for his clients and often avoids having them sign until late January or even into spring training.

Teams could suffer during a lockout, too. Ticket sales, which are often tied to free-agent signings, are likely to take a hit from the lack of offseason news, and teams can’t schedule their preseason caravans, conventions and FanFests because major league players wouldn’t make promotional appearances during a lockout.

In the end, a two-month offseason lockout probably wouldn’t hurt much. If no games are lost, fans would quickly forget about the dispute and start discussing the season.

The players and the owners have worked together on the establishment of the World Baseball Classic, discipline on domestic violence, and on health and safety protocols during the pandemic.

Even though ESPN, FOX and TBS have long-term agreements with baseball in place for regular season, and most important, postseason games, ratings haven’t been strong. The 2021 World Series had the second-lowest ratings in history, ahead only of last year’s neutral-site series.

Players and owners need to work together on a host of issues, especially the pace of games. In 2021, players withheld their blessing from the universal designated hitter and expanded playoffs because they had little leverage, and they needed to show the owners they were united.

The owners, few of whom were involved in the game during the 1994-1995 dispute, know they can’t break the union. They know that free agency and the publicity that goes along with a major signing is a boon to ticket sales. They would love to do away with arbitration, and that’s under discussion, too.

While fans are excited when their team signs a top free agent, arbitration creates only bad feelings.

There’s a lot to work to do between now and December 1st, and while there’s incredible animosity between the two sides, they’re going to have to work together at some point. Otherwise, I’m going to be hearing my father’s voice every hour reminding me that no one wins in a labor dispute.

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