Major League Baseball’s financial fight cost regular-season games for the first time in 27 years when often acrimonious talks to end a management lockout collapsed Tuesday and Commissioner Rob Manfred scrapped March 31 openers.
With owners and players unable to agree on a contract to replace the collective bargaining agreement that expired Dec. 1, Manfred cancelled the first two series for each of the 30 teams, cutting each club’s schedule from 162 games to likely 156 at most. A total of 91 games were erased.
“We exhausted every possibility of reaching an agreement before the cancellation of games,” Manfred said during a news conference in the left-field corner of Roger Dean Stadium as fans outside the spring training home of the Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals chanted: “We want baseball!”
Five miles away and 90 minutes later, the players’ association held its own news conference at a hotel, with union head Tony Clark and chief negotiator Bruce Meyer flanked by pitchers Max Scherzer and Andrew Miller — both members of the union’s eight-man executive subcommittee — and Noah Syndergaard seated among about a dozen players in the audience.
“This has been making in the years, seeing things that have happened over the course specifically of this last CBA,” Scherzer said, “things that have happened to different players in certain situations, that we absolutely have to have corrections.”
Manfred vowed players will not receive salary or major league service for games missed, exacerbating already visceral anger of the roughly 1,200 players locked into a contest of will against 30 controlling owners. Manfred maintained daily interleague play made rescheduling impossible.
“To say they won’t reschedule games if games are cancelled or they won’t pay players for those games that are cancelled is solely their position,” Meyer said. “We would have a different position.”
Talks that began last April went nowhere, and MLB locked out players Dec. 2 in the sport’s first work stoppage since 1995. There were just six economic negotiating sessions over the next 2 1/2 months in New York, but more intensive talks began Feb. 21 in Florida.
After 13 negotiating sessions over 16 1/2 hours Monday, the sides recessed at 2:30 a.m. having made progress but still far apart on key economic issues.
Tone changed with the daylight, and the league sent the players what it termed a “best offer” on the ninth straight day of talks. The union held a Zoom call of 30-40 players and reacted angrily with a rejection. Both sides said they were leaving town, and there was no date scheduled for bargaining to resume.
At 5:07 p.m. of the lockout’s 90th day, Manfred declared the opposite of play ball!
“Against that backdrop of growing revenues and record profits for owners of the league,” Clark said, “players seek and deserve nothing more than fundamental fairness.”
Baseball’s ninth work stoppage will be the fourth causing regular-season games to be cancelled, leaving ballparks quiet from Fenway Park to Dodger Stadium.
Caught in the crossfire of the money fight, players said they would only discuss — but not commit to — possible on-field changes that Manfred says are needed, such as pitch clocks and the elimination of defensive shifts. An expanded postseason was another casualty — for now.
“Manfred gotta go,” tweeted Chicago Cubs pitcher Marcus Stroman.
The bulk of fan ire on social media was aimed at Manfred, who was spotted practicing his golf swing between bargaining sessions by an Associated Press photographer Tuesday. Others were upset that Manfred was laughing and jovial with reporters at his news conference announcing the cancellation.
“Have no clue how he has the ability to laugh about anything right now,” Los Angeles Angels pitcher Michael Lorenzen tweeted. “Mind is blown.”
Players are angry payrolls decreased by 4% from 2015 through last year and many teams jettisoned a portion of high-priced veteran journeymen in favor of lower-priced youth.
“The game has suffered damage for a while now. … The game has been manipulated,” Clark said. “The value inherent and how players are respected and viewed has changed. Players have been commoditized, monetized in a way that is really hard to explain.”
Some clubs gave up on competing in the short term to better position themselves for future seasons.
“We have been screaming for years about competition issues,” Miller said.
The sport will be upended by its second shortened season in three years following a 2020 schedule cut to 60 games because of the pandemic. The disruption will create another issue if 15 days are wiped out and stars such as Shohei Ohtani, Pete Alonso, Jake Cronenworth and Jonathan India would be delayed an extra year from free agency.
Players would lose $20.5 million in salary for each day of the season that is cancelled, according to a study by the AP, and the 30 teams would lose large sums that are harder to pin down.
The first 86 games of the 1973 season were cancelled by a strike over pension negotiations, the 1981 season was fractured by a 50-day midseason strike over free agency compensation rules that canceled 713 games, and a strike that started in August 1994 over management’s attempt to gain a salary cap cancelled the final 669 regular-season games and the World Series. It also led to a three-week delay of the 1995 season, when schedules were cut from 162 games to 144.
The most contentious proposals involve luxury tax thresholds, the size of a new bonus pool for pre-arbitration players and minimum salaries.
MLB proposed raising the tax threshold from $210 million to $220 million in each of the next three seasons, $224 million in 2025 and $230 million in 2026.
“We have a payroll disparity problem,” Manfred said, “and to weaken the only mechanism in the agreement that’s designed to promote some semblance of competitive balance is just something that I don’t think the club group is prepared to do right now.”
Players asked for $238 million this year, $244 million in 2023, $250 million in 2024, $256 million in 2025 and $263 million in 2026.
“We’re seeing it act as a salary cap,” Scherzer said. “The San Diego Padres have the higher payroll than the New York Yankees.”
MLB offered $25 million annually for a new bonus pool for pre-arbitration players, and the union $85 million this year, with $5 million yearly increases.
“There’s dollars to be allocated toward them that would fairly compensate their contributions on the field, more so than what’s on the table,” Scherzer said.
MLB proposed raising the minimum salary from $570,500 to $700,000 this year, with increases of $10,000 annually, and the union asked for $725,000 this year, $745,000 in 2023, $765,000 in 2024 and increases for 2025 and 2026 based on the Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners.
“The last five years have been very difficult years from a revenue perspective for the industry given the pandemic,” Manfred said.
Ronald Blum/The Associated Press