Baseball likes to pride itself as the only major team sport without a clock. It does have something more important than a clock, and that’s a calendar.
To baseball fans, 162 games is a special number. From 1996, the year after the last work stoppage ended, until 2019, baseball played full 162-game seasons.
The 60-game schedule necessitated by the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 was an aberration, but there was a postseason, and it was an exciting one even if the regular season was forgettable.
Major League Baseball, which imposed a lockout on December 2nd, told the players’ association on Wednesday that there must be a deal on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement by Monday for the season to begin on time on March 31st.
When the lockout began, I thought that there would be a deal by about February 1st and that spring training would begin on time.
The optimist was wrong. These are difficult days for optimists.
As I read everything I can about the dispute, it’s hard to believe that in five days the sides will come to an agreement. They seem determined.
Fans don’t care much about the esoteric details of the Competitive Balance Tax, which is the main area on which the sides are far apart. Reports are that they’ve left this alone because they know how tricky it would be to come to an agreement on it.
Perhaps if there’s an agreement on the other issues, where the sides seem open to compromise — minimum salary, draft lottery and the bonus pool for arbitration-eligible players — there could be some movement on the CBT.
Players and owners are meeting daily in Jupiter, Florida, where the St. Louis Cardinals and Miami Marlins train, and have vowed to do so through the Monday deadline set by MLB, but not agreed to by the players.
On Wednesday, an MLB official said that if a deal wasn’t reached by the deadline, regular season games would be canceled and players wouldn’t be paid for lost games.
If the sides can’t move closer after all this time, it seems unrealistic to think that a few days will change everything. There didn’t seem to be a sense of urgency to discuss the issues after the lockout began. Until this week, talks have been sporadic and seemingly unproductive.
Normally, we’d be pestering manager Brandon Hyde for news on the starting pitchers for the first Grapefruit League game, which was scheduled for Saturday against the New York Yankees in Sarasota, Florida.
That game and the rest of the first seven days of spring action were canceled, and another week is likely to be canceled soon.
Spring training vacations to Florida and Arizona have been disrupted and businesses dependent on fans will suffer greatly.
Even though there are still sports on television, these can seem like the dog days for fans. The NFL is over. So is the Winter Olympics, and the NBA and NHL playoffs are still weeks away. The NCAA tournament is less than three weeks from now, and if spring training hasn’t begun by then, it will truly be “March Madness.”
The real issues for fans — pace of game, banning shifts, the lessened prominence of starting pitchers — won’t even be addressed in the CBA, and those seem more important and relatable to fans.
Of course, what the players are owners are negotiating are important, but the issues aren’t easily explained. Fans dismissively label the dispute: “Millionaires vs. Billionaires” when it is about the product you see on the field.
Because baseball has gotten younger and cheaper, the players want the minimum salaries to go up, higher than MLB’s latest proposal.
Even though Max Scherzer, who signed a two-year contract with a third-year option for $43.3 million a year, is heavily involved for the players, he’s far from the average player.
Fans point to that, thinking the negotiations are about Scherzer and his New York Mets teammate Francisco Lindor, who begins a 10-year, $341 million contract this season who are part of the players’ negotiating team, wanting more.
Scherzer, Lindor and other players in Jupiter, including Yankees pitchers Zack Britton and Gerrit Cole, are long past minimum salary concerns, but most of the Orioles likely to be on the 26-man roster aren’t.
According to published reports, the owners’ latest minimum salary proposals are for $640,000 this year, with $10,000 increases until it reached $680,000 in 2028.
In the NFL, the minimum salary is $660,000. In the NBA and NHL, it’s $925,258 and $750,000.
Few of the players drafted or signed internationally will ever get to the major leagues to make those minimums, and most live modestly in the minors.
In 2021, the Orioles had two pitchers, Manny Barreda and Mickey Jannis, both past the age of 30, make their major league debuts and stay briefly with the team. They have a combined 26 years of minor league life and 23 days of major league service time.
Barreda, Jannis and their families sacrificed greatly to make a prorated portion of the $570,500 minimum salary in 2021 for those few days in the big leagues, and their stories aren’t unusual.
The players and owners are ultra-competitive. They don’t want three-plus months of negotiations to end with a deal where they question why they waited so long and got so little in return.
That stubbornness could mean blowing past next week’s deadline and lead to a substantial loss of the season.
The regular season is the motherlode for most teams. Even if there are expanded playoffs, the majority of teams will see their season end by the first week of October.
Those 162 games matter. Cedric Mullins wouldn’t have had a 30-30 season with a 130- or 140-game schedule. His 30th home run came in Game 154, and his 30th stolen base was in Game 153.
If a deal isn’t reached next week, the guess here is that a sizable number of games—20 or 30 — would be lost. Losing perhaps a month of the season at a time when baseball needs interest would be awful, and regaining fans, especially in the Orioles’ case after five consecutive losing seasons and two years of a pandemic, would be difficult.
Follow Rich Dubroff on Twitter @RichDubroffMLB