CHICAGO — With less than two weeks before Major League Baseball’s collective bargaining agreement expires, the odds of team owners imposing a lockout on players are only increasing.
If it should happen, said commissioner Rob Manfred Thursday, he believes that fans will recognize the gambit as necessary for the good of the game, since the intent is to preserve all of the 2022 season.
“I can’t believe there’s a single fan in the world who doesn’t understand that an offseason lockout that moves the process forward is different than a labor dispute that costs games,” said Manfred at the conclusion of the owners’ quarterly meetings. “[Fans] don’t want a labor dispute, and that’s our No. 1 priority, is to make a deal.”
The calendar, however, is beginning to conflict with hopes.
“We understand, I understand, that time is becoming an issue — that’s a challenge,” said Manfred about the approaching expiration at 11:59 p.m. Dec. 1.
The owners did not decide to impose a lockout at these meetings, and they “will not make a decision as to what’s next,” said Manfred. “We’re focused on making an agreement prior to Dec. 1.”
The reaction among fans will hinge on whether or not the lockout strategy — getting the players to negotiate with more urgency — spurs actual progress that leads to a deal or sparks a heated standoff that affects spring training and the regular season.
Negotiations have picked up in frequency and intensity, with Zoom meetings held Wednesday and more talks scheduled for Friday.
In response to players’ concerns such as younger players getting paid more and a draft structure that incentivizes losing, owners have made proposals ranging from establishing free agency for players reaching 29½ years of age, a salary floor for teams that comes with a lower competitive-balance tax threshold, and draft pick limitations for consistently losing teams.
The initial reaction from the players has been less than tepid, and indications from both sides are that negotiations to date have yielded little common ground on core economic issues.
Manfred said it is “not accurate” that the players have made two core economic proposals and the owners have made only one.
While declining to get into any specifics, Manfred emphasized that the owners are focused only on getting to yes before Dec. 1. Should it happen, however, it is not a declaration that a 26-year span of no work stoppages in baseball has come to an end.
“When you look at other sports, the pattern has become to control the timing of the labor dispute and try to minimize the prospect of actual disruption of the season,” said Manfred. “That’s what it’s about. It’s avoiding doing damage to the season.”
Manfred deflected questions about the tenor of the talks, especially compared with the summer of 2020, when each side issued barbed communiques over the duration and timing of the shortened season during the height of the pandemic.
“Honestly, I find the focus on 2020, I think, has been excessive,” said Manfred. “One sort of midterm negotiation in the middle of a crisis, a pandemic, I just don’t put that much weight on it.”
On the non-labor front, Manfred said the presentation about change-of-game ideas made to the competition committee from a group that included MLB consultant Theo Epstein was “really, really impressive.”
Among the topics that Manfred covered:
▪ Owners remain “very interested” in the kind of pitch clock that was used in the Low A West league this past summer and is being used in the Arizona League now.
▪ MLB is moving closer to using baseballs that come pre-loaded with “sticky stuff” to avoid the hullabaloo when Spider Tack was banned to lessen the edge pitchers had on batters. Further testing will occur this winter, and the balls could be used by next season or 2023.
▪ There is a “renewed focus” on diversity, equity, and inclusion in baseball, and Manfred singled out the contributions two Black former general managers, Mike Hill and Tony Reagins.
▪ No conclusions have been reached on the Tampa Bay Rays’ desire to share a home base with Montreal.
▪ He lauded the dual-track efforts of Oakland A’s ownership to pursue a new stadium in the Bay Area while also exploring a move to Las Vegas.
▪ With fans back in the stands, the league’s financial performance in 2020 was “much better than what we were projecting.” Final numbers are not in yet.
Michael Silverman can be reached at email@example.com.