Sunday Longread: Groundhog Day for baseball fans

A short, painful history of labour relations in the major leagues

This article was originally published in the March 1 edition of Trinity News. Since then, Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players’ Association have reached an agreement, ending the 99 day lockout.

Here we are again. The clock hits 6:00 a.m. EST. Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe” starts playing. Denizens of and visitors to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania eagerly await the groundhog’s prediction. And Major League Baseball is locked out again.

I have enjoyed this paper’s coverage of the great sport of baseball—editorial support for the filthy, cheating Astros notwithstanding—courtesy of my sitcom arch-nemesis Jack Kennedy for some time now, and have been eagerly anticipating the start of the new season for many months after my Mariners came within two games of making their first playoffs in twenty years. However, as I have observed the off-season through the winter, it became quickly apparent that baseball might not come back as early as the first of April, which was the scheduled date. By February, I quickly came to realise it may not come back at all, at least not in 2022, and as we have come closer still to April that sinking feeling has increasingly been vindicated by reality.

It may not be apparent to those not watching closely why this is; work stoppages are nothing short of calamitous for the health of any sport, as they trade on visibility and currency. If baseball isn’t on, it is quickly forgotten about, and yet we are on the verge of our second such incident in three years. This doesn’t seem like a risk that the sport can afford to take, especially given the simply appalling attendance numbers over the last five years.

And yet, here we are. At this point, I feel I might be able to lend my perspective in order to help readers who have not ruined their sleep pattern staying up to watch American League West games why baseball team owners are about to potentially cut off their nose to spite their face.

Major League Baseball has, quite simply, the most powerful labour union in sports. While union culture as we might understand it did not take off in the United States to the same degree as it did in Europe, the Major League Baseball Players’ Association, founded in 1966, has leveraged the power of the players and their labour to a degree that would put industries on this side of the Atlantic to shame with respect to their say on industry matters. The union has routinely been willing to confront ownership in recognition of adversarial interests, fighting to ensure healthy minimum salaries, the most expansive draft in American sports, and player control of the way they are marketed. It can take cases to arbitration on players behalf, and it has been behind the loosening of free agent regulations. Player likenesses are licensed through the MLBPA, not MLB itself, which has led to the amusing historical quirk that labour scabs are not portrayed in video game adaptations of the series – which I love.

This is not to say they are uniformly good; they have shown little solidarity with their Minor League counterparts, neither allowing them into the union or to form a union in their own right, but in a conflict between employees collectively bargaining with ownership, it is far more clear cut that the normal, cynical narrative of “millionaires fighting billionaires.” There is a good side and a bad side. People come to watch the show put on by the players, not the owners. The value is created by the game played on the field, not in the boardroom. This is not a neutral article.

But this doesn’t answer the question; why are we looking at a year without Major League Baseball? Ultimately, it is due to the expiration of the most recent collective bargaining agreement (CBA). This ceasefire between the PA and MLB is renegotiated every few years upon the eve of its expiry. The first one was negotiated in 1968, ensuring a minimum salary of $10,000 per year, and was written to last for seventeen years, and when it expired in 1981, both parties had to head back to the negotiating table.

This is not a bad thing; inflation, and the changing economy, would mean that a fixed minimum salary would lose its actual value very quickly. However, renegotiation goes both ways, and owners, far from willing to concede more, were eager to see some of the concessions they had allowed be rolled back. This will become a theme.

In 1981, following an eruption in tension over the free agency draft, MLB players used the leverage of their labour and went on strike, hoping that the loss of income would hurt the owners enough to concede. While there had been lockouts over the previous years, this was the first to break into the season, and it would ultimately end after six weeks. An estimated $146 million was lost in revenue due to the cancellation of 713 games, with the players going without an average of $4 million a week in salaries and the owners suffering a total loss of $72 million altogether. In the end, the owners won, with the players agreeing to restrict free agency to players with six or more years of Major League service.

“When you take yourself off TV, you harm your product as newer and more exciting sports suck up the fresh oxygen”

This status quo lasted until December 1993, when the sport, unable to reach an compromise on a new CBA, went on the longest strike in its history (so far), with the players unable to accept the proposed elimination of salary arbitration and empowering of owners to force players to stay by matching salary offers (even if it came with a raise in salaries). It was, as they saw it, a bribe from the owners for players to surrender control over where they played.

The owners, trying to counter this, tried to bring Minor League players—who were not on strike—up to the Major Leagues as replacements, in a serious show of disrespect to the striking players. For the remainder of their career, no replacement player would be portrayed in any MLB licensed media, and would be the subject of immense scorn. The season had to be cancelled, the 1994 World Series never happened, and in the end ownership lost $580 million, while players lost $230 million.

The strike only ended when future Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor declared that the players should return to the field of play under the terms of the previous agreement until a new one could be negotiated. The greatest leverage the players had, the ability to withhold their labour, had been taken away, and the agreement which was eventually negotiated.

However the impact on baseball was catastrophic. While the 1995 season is a fond one for me to remember, afterwards the sport was not nearly as popular as it had been, and would not return to pre-lockout levels until the mid-2000s. When you take yourself off TV, you harm your product as newer and more exciting sports suck up the fresh oxygen. Covid-19, for much the same reason, has been nothing short of a hammer-blow to teams’ revenue, not only during lockdown but in the months after, as so much momentum had been lost.

Taken altogether, 2021 had the lowest game attendance since 1984, with some teams having an average of less than 10,000 fans in venues built to host 100,000, even in areas with no Covid-19 restrictions. Looking at a stadium on game day was like looking at a ghost town, especially with owners who are guaranteed money through revenue sharing with the league having no incentive to perform, who spend as little as possible on the product so as to squeeze as much as possible out of the guaranteed revenue stream that is a baseball team.

In 2020, in order to get games started again, players compromised on a lot of their benefits, in what they believed to be a temporary measure to be able to play lockdown baseball. This included pay cuts to account for loss of fan attendance, a universal designated hitter rule, and other altered rules. Surprise surprise, the owners’ first priority is to make these concessions permanent, now that the door to them has been opened. And they won’t, at the time of writing, stop until they get it.

To them it is more profitable to have no fans, spend the absolute minimum on players and stadium facilities, and live off the revenue-sharing stipend from the league alone, than to invest in the product and attract fans to attend games, short-sighted as this is.

For this reason, when the 2016 CBA expired in late 2021, owners were in no mood to spend any more money on their players. They wish to continue to be rewarded for mediocrity, with no incentive with reasonably flat revenue sharing to improve their teams, and for spending caps to put a ceiling on how much a player can earn, regardless of the value they create.

Across the period of this lockout, the trend has been repetitive; owners make a paltry offer, but signal that their next offer will be in good faith & more substantial, only for that offer to be no different than their previous offers. Far from allowing players to advance their position, the owners are making sure that progress, if it moves at all, only moves towards them. Of course, what is being threatened is incredibly damaging for them; they are not stupid. They understand that a prolonged lockout will harm the sport, and will cause them to haemorrhage fans. However, from all appearances they are willing to live with this, as they understand that time is on their side. As Joe Sheehan put it; “no amount of negotiation short of full capitulation will change [the owners’ position]. That’s the goal here. Not baseball games, but breaking the union.”

Until they break, or the union falls, there will be no baseball. Given the attitudes of owners, I do not expect movement soon. However there are two pieces of good news. First, some enterprising New Jerseyite by the username DidItForTheStory has been drawing increasingly absurdist pictures of Mike Trout for every day of the lockout, and I cannot encourage you enough to check them out. My favourites are days 11, 35, 45, 60, and my absolute favourite two, otherwise known as Troutface.

Secondly, from everything I’ve seen, while the consolidation of the owners as a class—recognising their interests and standing together to crush the union—is disheartening, everything I have seen from the players indicates not only a willingness to see this through to the end, but a determination to. Scherzer, Cole, Semien, and Miller, MLBPA’s negotiators, have all spoken of their determination to win this fight, and Austin Slater has spoken of “a willingness to ride this out as long as it takes” on the part of the players he speaks for – as not only as the Giants’ First Baseman, but its union rep.

Godspeed lads. Go win one for labour.