The start of spring training likely will be a casualty of Major League Baseball’s lockout, which will threaten opening day unless the drawn-out talks lead to a deal in less than a month.
After a half-year of bickering over the sport’s economics, baseball’s warring factions couldn’t even agree on whether to have a mediator.
The Major League Baseball Players Association on Friday ruled out a third party intervening, one day after MLB asked for help from the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service.
“Two months after implementing their lockout, and just two days after committing to players that a counterproposal would be made, the owners refused to make a counter, and instead requested mediation,” the union said in a statement.
“After consultation with our executive board, and taking into account a variety of factors, we have declined this request. The clearest path to a fair and timely agreement is to get back to the table. Players stand ready to negotiate.”
Owners locked out players on Dec. 2, immediately following the expiration of a five-year collective bargaining agreement. There have been just three in-person negotiating sessions on core economics since, on Jan. 24-25 and this past Tuesday, plus a digital session on Jan. 13. The sides are still far apart.
“With camps scheduled to open in less than two weeks, it is time to get immediate assistance from the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service to help us work through our differences and break the deadlock,” MLB said in a statement.
“It is clear the most productive path forward would be the involvement of an impartial third party to help bridge gaps and facilitate an agreement,” the league said. “It is hard to understand why a party that wants to make an agreement would reject mediation from the federal agency specifically tasked with resolving these disputes, including many successes in professional sports.”
No negotiating sessions are scheduled on the primary economic issues. The sides met three times this week on non-core topics.
“We don’t need mediation because what we are offering to MLB is fair for both sides,” tweeted pitcher Max Scherzer, who agreed to a $130 million, three-year contract with the New York Mets on the day prior to the lockout.
“We want a system where threshold and penalties don’t function as caps, allows younger players to realize more of their market value, makes service time manipulation a thing of the past, and eliminate tanking as a winning strategy,” Scherzer wrote.
George H. Cohen, director of the FMCS from 2009-13 after many years as an outside lawyer for the baseball players’ association, mediated disputes involving the NFL, NBA and Major League Soccer.
“A mediator’s objective is to try to persuade the parties that it’s in their best interests to try to resolve their problem directly — namely to control their own destinies,” he said. “In the end, it’s the parties that reach an agreement. All I did was to provide them a forum and an opportunity and some thinking that goes into it.”
Players blame owners for the lockout. Commissioner Rob Manfred said his side was being proactive, not wanting to risk a late-season strike similar to the one that wiped out the 1994 World Series.
Players are upset payrolls declined to $4.05 billion last year, the lowest in a fully completed year since 2015. They are asking for an expansion of salary arbitration eligibility, a significant increase in luxury tax thresholds and minimum salaries, a decrease in revenue sharing and new rules to prevent what they allege is service time manipulation by clubs.
Teams say they will not expand arbitration or decrease revenue sharing, and that intensive negotiations on the luxury tax are for the final stage of bargaining.
The lockout entered its 65th day Friday and shows every sign of rolling past the scheduled start of spring training workouts on Feb. 16. Given that at least three weeks of training and exhibition games are required and the need for several days for players to report to camps and go through COVID-19 protocols, opening day on March 31 will be threatened if there is no agreement by the end of February or early March.
There is little chance of negotiations next week, when owners are scheduled to meet from Tuesday to Thursday in Orlando, Florida. Management’s bargaining team is expected in Orlando for the session.
Players do not start accruing salary until opening day, and teams generate a large portion of their revenue from opening day through the World Series.
Baseball’s ninth work stoppage is its first since a series of strikes and lockouts set back the sport from 1972 to 1995.
The players’ association has made $5,000 stipends available to its members from the $178.5 million in cash, U.S. Treasury securities and investments available on Dec. 31, 2020, according to its latest financial disclosure form filed with the U.S. Department of Labor.
There is a wide disparity in income among players. Of the 1,670 who appeared on a major league roster last year, 1,145 earned under $1 million, including 771 below $500,000 and 241 under $100,000. The 100 highest-paid players accounted for 50.6% of earnings.
By RONALD BLUM