IRVING, Texas — If the plush confines of the Four Seasons Resort and Club Dallas at Las Colinas mark the spot where the first Major League Baseball work stoppage in 26 years begins, the irony won’t be lost on anyone.
A $10 billion-plus industry that has enjoyed steady and nearly uninterrupted revenue growth over the last decade and a half and just doled out nearly $2 billion in free agent contracts and contract extensions this month pushed itself to the brink of a lockout Tuesday.
Barring a dramatic and unexpected narrowing of the sizable gap in stances between owners and players, the Major League Baseball’s collective bargaining agreement will expire at 11:59 p.m. Wednesday. Shortly after it does, the expectation remains for the owners to call for a lockout that would freeze the hot-stove season and all business operations.
There is also a scenario where owners could decide to postpone calling a lockout and continue holding talks with the union. To date, talks here have gathered little traction and left participants unimpressed with the other side’s flexibility and willingness to compromise on core economic issues.
Members of the owners’ labor policy committee, including Red Sox principal owner (and owner of the Globe) John Henry and Yankees owner Hal Steinbrenner, and negotiators from the commissioner’s office, including commissioner Rob Manfred, flew to Dallas on Sunday in order to hold last-hour face-to-face talks over competing proposals. Approximately 60 players are in attendance for their annual meetings, which happen to be scheduled at the same time negotiations theoretically should be reaching their pinnacle.
The MLB contingent met Monday with the players for two hours. On Tuesday, it arrived at the hotel for a morning session when it received a counterproposal from players. That exchange lasted roughly 30 minutes, but the owners and negotiators returned to the hotel mid-afternoon for more meetings. Their initial meeting with the players lasted 35 minutes before the sides split up to caucus internally.
At one point, MLBPA chief negotiator Bruce Meyer, accompanied by player executive subcommittee member Andrew Miller, poked his head into the owners’ conference room. Out came MLB deputy commissioner and chief negotiator Dan Halem and Rockies owner and labor policy committee chair Dick Monfort. The foursome met for approximately 45 minutes. In all, the owners stayed for a little more than 2½ hours at the hotel before departing.
On the way out, Halem told reporters, “See you later,” but nobody from either side delivered an update on progress, or lack of it, in talks. The sides plan to resume talks Wednesday.
The announcement of a lockout would surely spark a storm of negative reaction, but, given the calendar, the bark of a lockout would be worse than its bite.
All free agent signings and trades would be forbidden. The major league portion of the annual winter meetings would be canceled. Spring training facilities would be shuttered, meaning players using them for rehab and conditioning would have to go elsewhere. General managers, owners, managers, and coaches would not be allowed to speak about players to the media.
From the perspective of casual fans, none of the above is all that relevant or impactful. It’s also not especially damaging to either the players (most of whom start getting paid when the season starts) and owners (who might suffer from a late start on selling tickets). That’s why a lockout that begins in early December is more of a tactical weapon employed by the owners meant to spur negotiations before the calendar advances much further.
At the owners’ meetings in Chicago in mid-November, Manfred said fans understand that an offseason lockout is not the same as a labor dispute that cancels games.
“Symbolically, it’s a big deal, but in terms of practical implications, it’s not as much of a big deal as people might think,” said Nathaniel Grow, associate professor of business law and ethics at Indiana University.
The symbolic power is no small matter. Labor peace has reigned since the 1994-95 stoppage that wiped out the 1994 World Series and shortened the 1995 season. Since imposing a lockout is a decision and not a necessity, the debate over the impact of a lockout on the legacy of Manfred would become fair game.
”That remains to be seen,” said Grow of Manfred’s legacy. “If this is a two-week leverage play by the owners, I don’t think anyone will be that riled up, and may be a blip on the radar. If it lasts through the middle of next season, then who will the fans blame?”
Historically, millionaire players playing a kids’ game have gathered the brunt of fans’ scorn with the billionaire owners somehow escaping the worst judgment. More than a quarter-century after the last baseball stoppage, it remains to be seen if the public will be more pro-labor than before.
Owners are, broadly speaking, far more content with the current economic system than the players. MLB would like expanded playoffs, to add an international draft, and to implement rule changes with support from the players.
The players, on the other hand, seek bigger changes. They have been unhappy with the trend, spurred by cost-efficient analytics, of teams favoring younger players, many of whom are far away from free agency, and can frequently be paid less for production that rivals older players.
In addition, incentivizing winning in the next CBA is high on the players’ wish list. That would mean a change to the draft pick system in which the worst teams receive the highest picks.
So far, owners’ counterproposals, such as establishing a payroll floor but also lowering the top luxury-tax threshold and allowing all players to become free agents at the age of 29½, have not moved the needle.