It wasn’t pretty, but the only thing that matters is that they got the deal done.
Major League Baseball and the MLB Players’ Association reached a tentative agreement on a new collective bargaining agreement Thursday afternoon. The deal became official after the players and owners ratified the deal a few hours later, which paved the way for free agency to officially reopen at 7 pm ET.
Baseball is back, and despite previous claims to the contrary by MLB commissioner Rob Manfred, an agreement was worked out in time to preserve a full 162-game schedule. The regular season is expected to begin on April 7 and the two series that were “cancelled” just last week will be added back to the schedule, although the details of how that will work still aren’t clear.
The breakthrough appeared to happen Thursday morning after the two sides agreed to push the negotiations surrounding an international draft to a later date. The owners and players have until July 25 to work out the specifics of a draft that would begin in 2024. If a deal isn’t finalized by then, the qualifying offer system will return, and international free agency will remain as is.
The optics of the last several months were terrible for baseball. Representatives from the league and the union went weeks without even speaking to each other after the owner’s implemented a lockout on Dec. 2. When they finally sat down at the same table, there was an endless stream of leaks, finger pointing and fake deadlines.
It was a roller-coaster ride for diehard fans who were following the play-by-play on social media of what should have been private negotiations. The mornings recently felt like Groundhog Day, beginning with reports of “optimism” surrounding an imminent deal, followed by a predictable breakdown in talks and finally resignation that this might take weeks, if not months, to figure out.
The unfortunate spat likely will forever change how the public views MLB commissioner Rob Manfred, perhaps even union executive director Tony Clark. What it didn’t do, however, is cause long-term harm to a sport that couldn’t afford it. The risk was there, but both parties managed to avoid what easily could have turned into a disastrous outcome.
The fans who followed these talks closely aren’t the ones the sport should have worried about. They care, a lot, and while a slew of canceled games would have angered them, the vast majority likely would have returned for opening day whether it happened this year or not.
The customers that MLB and the union should be concerned about are the ones who didn’t pay attention to these negotiations at all, the ones who become invested after a big off-season signing or get sucked into the atmosphere of wanting to take in a ballgame on a hot sunny afternoon. They might be casual fans but they’re essential to everything from ticket sales to ratings to merchandising.
The major-league season might have been pushed back a week, but April isn’t when a lot of those people tune in. They begin paying attention when their favorite hockey or basketball teams get eliminated, or once they get an idea of whether their hometown club has a legitimate shot at playing meaningful baseball. They hear the buzz and want to become part of it.
If an April start date bled into May — worse yet June or July — those people might have taken a long time to become invested again. If there was a repeat of the 1994 strike, it’s possible some of them would have never returned. It happened before, it could have happened again, and this time the sport wouldn’t have a roided-up Mark McGwire to roll into town a few years later and save the day.
The players got what they needed out of this deal. They secured substantial raises on minimum salaries and a bonus pool for a select group of pre-arbitration players. That achieves the initial goal of getting the least experienced members paid more money earlier in their careers. They also got the owners to increase the competitive balance tax, which most teams treat like a salary cap. The union’s brass might have wanted more, but in the end it did just fine.
The owners avoided fundamental changes to their business model. Players still require six years of service before free agency, and arbitration won’t begin until after Year 3. They also secured a fourth level on the CBT, otherwise known as the Steve Cohen tax, that will further penalize its top-spending teams and even the playing field for the smaller-market clubs.
Not everyone was on board. According to The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal, the union’s sub-executive committee voted 8-0 against the deal. Player reps from four teams — the New York Mets, New York Yankees, Houston Astros and St. Louis Cardinals — also voted no after polling their teammates. Even so, there wasn’t nearly enough dissent from either side to put the final verdict in Jeopardy.
The doomsday scenario a lot of people were worried about has been avoided. Contentious negotiations are now ancient history and shouldn’t resurface for another five years. The dispute was ugly, at times it was petty, but the Boys of Summer are back, and opening Day is suddenly just around the corner.
Forget about everything else. That’s a beautiful thing.
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