Opening Day dawned with an expired labor agreement and no serious talks toward a new one. The owners released financial data which showed that Major League Baseball was highly unprofitable. The Players Association didn't believe them.
Months of negotiations led to a stalemate. The owners asked the players "to join with us in constructing a proper system to control costs and share revenues on an equitable basis." Players' union chief Donald Fehr accused the owners of "asking (the players) to straighten out the owners' finances." The players set an August strike date. Angry fans who remembered the last crippling strike vowed to boycott baseball forever if the players struck.
Is this the year 2002? No it was 1985, the Year of the Two-Day Strike.
The 1985 dispute centered on three key issues: salary arbitration, limits on high-payroll teams and the pension plan. With regard to arbitration, the owners wanted to raise the eligibility requirement from two to three years and to forbid arbitrators from awarding players more than a 100 percent raise. The players opposed both changes.
The owners proposed to improve competitive balance by preventing clubs with above-average payrolls from signing any free agent for more than the major league average salary. The players considered this an attempt to destroy free agency. They also opposed a related proposal by the owners which would have forbidden clubs with above-average payrolls from making any trade which increased that payroll.
The pension dispute involved the historic linkage between the owners' national television contracts and their pension contributions. The owners, who had historically used one-third of their TV money to fund the players' pension plan, were determined to break this link now that their TV deal had quadrupled in value. Even worse from the players' perspective, the owners wanted to tie pension contributions to player salaries, reducing their benefit payments if salaries rose too quickly.
Fehr suggested instead that the owners use a large chunk of the TV money for revenue sharing. "What they say, in essence, is that some clubs can't compete with other clubs because of poor markets and low revenues. One way to change that is to redirect revenues. We're saying don't do it with your money, do it with money the players believe is theirs." Lee MacPhail, the owners' lead negotiator, rejected Fehr's proposal as "something baseball should do rather than have the Players Association tell us how to do it."
The day of the strike, the two sides met four times for a total of 9½ hours, but reported no progress. The next morning Fehr and Player Relations Committee attorney Barry Rona met privately at MacPhail's apartment. With the rest of their negotiating teams waiting outside the room, they struck a deal in less than two hours. They split the difference on the pension issue, and the owners dropped their demands for limits on free agency and arbitration awards in return for the players' accepting a three-year eligibility requirement for arbitration.
The season resumed the following day. MLB set an all-time attendance record in 1985, then broke it in each of the next four years.
The issues dividing the parties are much narrower now than in 1985. There will be greater revenue sharing, a luxury tax and some form of drug testing -- the owners and players are just fighting over the details. Even if the players strike on Friday, the strike could well end before we return from our Labor Day weekends.
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