IRVING, Texas — The first day of Major League Baseball’s first work stoppage in more than a quarter-century kicked off with dueling press conferences between owners and players.
Predictably, the rhetoric pointed blame at the other side rather than point to a quick path to labor peace.
MLB commissioner Rob Manfred went first Thursday morning, stepping to the podium inside Globe Life Field in Arlington, where a football field for high school playoff games was set up on a baseball diamond.
Just nine hours earlier, Manfred had informed the Players Association that all 30 owners voted to lock out the players and shut down the industry. He placed the onus in the lap of the union for an “aggressive set of proposals” that it has “refused to budge from” since May. Those proposals, said Manfred, are “bad for the sport, bad for the fans, and bad for competitive balance.”
Owners cannot sign off on concepts such as a reduction in the time it takes for players to become free agents, Manfred said, because that would make it even harder for small-market teams to compete.
“It’s also bad for fans in those markets,” said Manfred. “The most negative reaction we have is when a player leaves via free agency. We don’t see that making it earlier, available earlier, we don’t see that as a positive.”
Manfred’s comments were less barbed than those in the midnight letter released by MLB to fans. That missive spoke of “extreme” proposals that threatened competitive balance, coming from a union seeking confrontation rather than compromise.
That letter prompted sharp pushback from Tony Clark, the MLBPA executive director, and Bruce Meyer, the union’s lead negotiator, in press conference No. 2 held at the Four Seasons hotel in Irving where three days of face-to-face talks totaling less than four hours had led nowhere.
“It would have been beneficial to the process to have spent as much time negotiating in the room as it appeared was spent on the letter,” said Clark.
In one of Wednesday’s brief sessions, Manfred said MLB made a proposal “that if it had been accepted I believe would have provided a pretty clear path to make an agreement.”
Meyer disputed the owners’ definition of a proposal.
“They said they weren’t going to respond but they would respond if we agreed in advance to drop a number of our key demands in a number of areas,” Meyer said. “We don’t consider that to be a proposal.”
Clark said the owners “refused repeatedly to make counter-offers on any of those core issues” and that “from the outset, it seems as if the league has been more interested in the appearance of bargaining than bargaining itself.”
Manfred said the lockout decision, while made reluctantly, was the only recourse, needed to spur negotiations and thus serve as “the best strategy to protect the 2022 season for the benefit of our fans.”
Clark said the players — many of whom changed their Twitter avatars to the faceless head shots that replaced their photos on MLB websites — did not take kindly to the league’s reasoning on the lockout.
“Players consider it unnecessary and provocative,” said Clark. “This lockout won’t pressure or intimidate players into a deal that they don’t believe is fair. When our game is being seen and viewed as something that’s a negative, it is personal to players in that regard.”
Manfred’s letter cited the record $1.7 billion spent on free agents in November as evidence that free agency is not broken.
Meyer said using that dollar figure was “oversimplified and misleading.”
“First of all, the fact that this year there seems to be more activity sooner by clubs and free agency than in a normal year raises more questions than it answers about all the other years,” said Meyer. “Secondly, you have to take into account the strength of the free agent class; this happens to be an extraordinarily good free agent class.
“I would just say that, you know, one good week of free agency doesn’t address all the negative trends that we’ve seen over recent years with respect to free agency and doesn’t address negative trends in other areas of the system that we’ve made a priority.”
If there was a positive note to emerge, it might have been Clark saying that the tension between the sides was being overstated.
“I say that because, fundamentally, the interests of management don’t often track the interests of the union,” said Clark. “And so there are inherent friction points that are part of the relationship.
“It makes for a nice headline, but at the end of the day, a deal is going to get done and the game and the industry is going to move forward.”
Manfred said he felt disappointment, not frustration, over the labor status.
“I think we’re in a process,” said Manfred. “I’m prepared to continue that process, and I’m optimistic that we’re going to get a deal.”
As of Thursday afternoon, a date for further negotiations had yet to be scheduled.