Leaders from Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association met Tuesday for their first official negotiating session a little more than six months before the sport's collective bargaining agreement lapses, sources told ESPN.
The long-anticipated meeting between the sides marked the first foray into what many in the sport fear could be a contentious and protracted negotiation, with the possibility of a work stoppage upon the Dec. 1 expiration of the current deal. Relations between the league and players have grown combative in recent years, with both sides accusing the other of operating in bad faith amid multiple failed efforts to reach deals.
The league and union declined to comment on the discussions.
At the same time, baseball has found unprecedented economic success amid more than a quarter-century of labor peace, and players and officials likewise continue to express hope that the differences between the sides can be bridged during the next half-year of discussions. Owners and players both understand that the $10 billion-a-year industry could be gravely harmed by a labor dispute.
The meeting, held over videoconference, included dozens of people, including player leadership. It was the first negotiating session between the sides since the union turned down MLB's offer for a paused-and-shortened season with full pay that included expanded playoffs. Between those discussions and the failed negotiations about when to resume the delayed season in 2020 that led to commissioner Rob Manfred implementing a 60-game season, mistrust between the sides deepened and fostered the pessimism about the chances of an on-time agreement that percolate around the game.
Negative feelings on the players' side have festered since the last basic agreement was instituted Dec. 1, 2016, and further tilted the sport's economics in favor of the teams. Player salaries have dropped for three consecutive seasons -- and are expected to fall in 2021, too. While the best players in the sport continue to reap massive windfalls -- from the $300 million-plus contracts of Mookie Betts, Fernando Tatis Jr., Francisco Lindor and Gerrit Cole to the $40 million salary this year for Trevor Bauer -- MLB's middle class has contracted significantly.
An overhaul of baseball's core economic system is highly unlikely, sources said, citing the limited amount of time to strike a deal and keep labor peace uninterrupted since 1995. The union nevertheless intends to target spending and competitive integrity -- particularly the promotion of competition by all teams -- among its priorities with a new deal. Players are also in favor of funneling money to players earlier in their careers, the potential for free agency before six years of service and a solution to -- or at least remedy of -- service-time manipulation.
MLB, whose efforts to tie an expanded postseason to a pause this season were rebuffed by the union this spring, is expected to pursue a larger playoff field than the 10 teams that will participate this October. The league has also spent significant time and effort looking at potential rule changes that would help increase action in games and speed them up, measures that could be considered at the bargaining table.