Spring training for the Orioles is scheduled to begin in just over three weeks, February 15th, in Sarasota, Florida, and an on-time start isn’t looking promising. Since Major League Baseball locked out its players on December 2nd, the sides have met once by Zoom this month when the owners made a new proposal. The players will counter it on Monday at an in-person meeting in New York.
There’s still so much offseason business left to conduct that unless there’s a Collective Bargaining Agreement within the next two weeks, spring training’s start will be delayed.
Practically, there probably isn’t a need for six weeks of spring training and 32 Grapefruit League games, including three split-squad games.
Players aren’t paid for spring training but receive expenses. Clubs don’t charge full-season prices for those games, but spring training is an infomercial. Shots of players working out while those at home are shoveling snow remind fans that warmer weather, and presumably happier times, are ahead.
In the seven-plus weeks since the lockout, there has been Oriole news: the change to the left field-dimensions of Camden Yards, the signing of 24 international players, the announcement of the 2022 coaching staff, and a smattering of players signed to minor league contracts.
With major league managers and front office executives banned from discussing their 40-man players, and with the Ravens’ season ending prematurely, the Orioles have missed an opportunity to hype their season, although they can discuss Adley Rutschman and Grayson Rodriguez, the top position player and pitching prospect in the minors, according to Baseball America.
A number of baseball writers have offered logical compromises to end the standoff, but it’s not our money or egos on the line.
The Players Association contends that it has taken a step backward since the last agreement was signed in late 2016. The average salary has fallen since 2017 and, while large contracts have been handed out, teams have employed younger and less expensive players. The players want a faster route to arbitration and free agency, higher salaries for younger players and a salary floor, but not a salary cap for team spending.
Players say they want the higher minimum payroll so that baseball is more competitive. Owners say that allowing players free agency after five years instead of six will make the game less competitive because smaller-market teams would be harmed.
At some point, the sides will come together and make a deal on economic issues, and confront health and safety protocols for 2022.
With no games being played, tickets probably are being sold at a slower pace because clubs can’t use the names, images and likeness of their 40-man players. Fans can’t go to caravans, conventions and FanFests.
Baseball, which has suffered economically through two seasons of the pandemic, has fallen farther behind other sports. Absent from the negotiations are a lot of issues fans are passionate about, principally how the game is played.
Commissioner Rob Manfred could have imposed a pitch clock with a year’s notice to players but said he didn’t because he didn’t want to further anger the union. When the lockout was imposed, he said discussions about rules weren’t on the table, and that he hoped those could be addressed during the five years of the agreement.
Players have been sensitive to changes in the rules, arguing that a pitch clock would alter how the game is played. Pace of the game is a key reason why television ratings and attendance has fallen. Rules on limiting the infield shift also have not been addressed.
This season, NFL ratings have been robust, and it’s not because players and owners have a warm relationship. A bare majority of the players approved their most recent contract, which included adding a 17th game to the regular season, but fans can’t get enough of pro football.
That extra week means that the Super Bowl will be played on February 13th, just two days before the scheduled start of spring training.
Ratings for the 2021 World Series between the Braves and Astros, which wasn’t a compelling one, were the second lowest on record. Two of the six games were four hours or more, and a third took three hours, 45 minutes.
Players weren’t thrilled with some of the rules adopted for the 2020 and 2021 seasons: the automatic runner on second to begin each extra inning, and the seven-inning doubleheader. They were imposed to put somewhat of a cap on the length of games as part of the health and safety protocols.
While a shortened spring training isn’t ideal, it probably wouldn’t seriously damage the game. A delayed start to the regular season, scheduled to begin on March 31st, would be.
It seems that there would have to be a Collective Bargaining Agreement by March 1st to avoid a delay. As long as the season gets started on time, the labor discord probably will be forgotten.
Fans who want to make plans for spring training aren’t pleased, and turning off fans is the last thing baseball should be doing.
The long-standing complaint from fans that owners and players don’t care about them has been proven true again during the dispute. Here’s hoping the two sides will make progress toward an agreement this week, and maybe even allow fans to go to Sarasota to get out of the cold for at least a few days.
Follow Rich Dubroff on Twitter @RichDubroffMLB