Nine days into a marathon negotiating session that left all involved weary and worn, Major League Baseball and the MLBPA entered the bargaining room early Tuesday morning with a chance to save Opening Day. MLB was pushing the union to finalize a middle-of-the-night accord on a new collective bargaining agreement. Behind the scenes, team officials were funneling optimistic whispers to anyone who would relay them to the public. And yet on the other side of the table was a union that wasn't ever going to accept an offer it regarded as substandard.
"They need to stop treating us like we're idiots," one veteran player told ESPN.
Communication -- the real, substantive sort -- involves so much more than talking, presenting, proposing. Listening is a skill that has been in too short supply during MLB's lockout of its players, and the unwillingness to change that paradigm is among the primary reasons baseball finds itself here today, threatening to self-immolate for all to see.
Commissioner Rob Manfred canceled the first week of the regular season Tuesday after the sides failed to reach a new deal by a self-imposed deadline to end a stoppage now approaching 100 days. He had warned weeks earlier of the "disastrous outcome" of losing games, and here he was in Jupiter, Florida, after more than a week of bargaining had gone completely sideways, standing in front of a microphone, trying to spin the league's offer as substantive enough.
For the league, it was. To the players, its too-low competitive-balance tax thresholds led them to walk away from the league's final offer and into a cloud of uncertainty: "We're not bluffing." Owners need to believe players when they say this, because doing the alternative leads nowhere good.
The players are ever emboldened by the league's posture, in both these negotiations and before. The MLBPA's first statement in responding to MLB's announcement was to accuse the league of trying to "break our Player fraternity." While any union runs the risk of splintering -- especially as paychecks are missed -- strong evidence points in the direction of player solidarity to challenge it. Star players have expressed to the rank-and-file a willingness to miss a full season. The union's statement concluded: "As in the past, this effort will fail. We are united and committed to negotiating a fair deal."
There always has been a fundamental disconnect between the owners and players, and in these negotiations it has grown increasingly apparent. Everyone needs to do less talking and more listening. There is no issue so fundamental that it warrants putting not just the season's first week but its entirety at risk. Compromise is within reach, and the words of the players and the commissioner Tuesday provided a road map for it.
For months, as the union presented a suite of asks, league officials wondered what the union really wanted to achieve. Players had been saying it the whole time, a point reiterated Tuesday by executive subcommittee member Andrew Miller: "The core goal in these negotiations is to increase competition."
The union provided four clear tenets that offered unlimited opportunities to solve problems: competition, fixing service-time manipulation, getting players paid earlier and removing restraints on spending. MLB tried to address each, first through proposals with minimal likelihood of adoption and, eventually, with more serious approaches. Only as the clock ticked on MLB's deadline did there feel like true compromise, even on things that should have been shared goals.
There were some successes. MLB accepted the union's proposal to give a full season of service time to top Rookie of the Year finishers, even if they start the year in the minor leagues. The implementation of a five-team draft lottery was another win. The best example was the league's willingness to move from a 14-team playoff proposal to the union's preferred 12. The players feared 14 would decrease teams' inclination to spend in free agency because they could sneak into the playoffs with mediocre records.
That playoff expansion -- valued by the league at $100 million for 14 teams and less for 12 -- is a key addition for the owners, and it is even more of a lever now with Manfred saying the league will take away games. Bruce Meyer, the union's lead negotiator, reiterated that regardless of how many games the league cancels, he expects players to be paid for a full 162-game season. The union will yank expanded playoffs from any agreement that doesn't include it.
The longer the league waits to give in certain areas, the more games it loses. The more games it loses, the less likely it is to pay a full 162. And the prospect of losing hundreds of millions in additional postseason revenue over the course of an agreement should provide enough motivation to listen to players when they say something.
If somehow that's not enough, consider the other, more-prominent leverage point left for the players: rebates paid out to the regional sports networks that carry local broadcasts for games not played. Depending on the team, avoiding rebates necessitates between 138 and 150 games broadcast. It provides the basis for a widely shared view among players: that because of the rebate threshold and low April attendance, teams are perfectly fine missing the first month of the season.
Teams must believe the players when they say they will use these last few carrots at their disposal. And in return, the players must hear clearly all the clues that Manfred shared publicly Tuesday. For all of the platitudes that fell flat during his media briefing -- "The concern about our fans is at the very top of our consideration list," he said unconvincingly -- he managed to lend insight into the league's priorities.
"We have a payroll disparity problem," he said.
Whether it's a problem is up for debate -- there's an almost-nonexistent annual correlation between payroll and wins -- but still, this is an exercise in listening, and payroll disparity is clearly important to owners. There are manifold solutions that don't involve an artificially low competitive balance tax, which exists more to impede spending than to promote competitive balance. The union proposed incentivizing lower-spending teams to win through extra draft picks. The commissioner's discretionary fund could help subsidize low-revenue franchises. Elegant solutions abound; Manfred highlighting the concern should be enough to compel the union to help find them.
Cutting through Manfred's rhetoric helped find another issue. "The last five years," he said, "have been very difficult years from a revenue perspective for the industry given the pandemic." Manfred was rightfully roasted for this statement, which conflated the losses teams say they suffered during the COVID-shortened 2020 season with the years surrounding it. The 2017, '18 and '19 seasons were wild financial successes during which revenues and franchise values ballooned, increasing more than half a billion dollars in average value (from $1.3 billion to $1.85 billion), according to Forbes. Arguing that the sport suffers from revenue problems on the day he canceled the very things that enrich the sport didn't exactly register as genuine.
And yet if the owners truly are concerned with present-day revenues, the players should offer a solution. If the CBT truly is the issue dividing the parties the most, the players can relent on lower thresholds in the first two seasons of an agreement in exchange for higher ones later. The league indicated a desire to chart this course with its five-year proposal of $220 million, $220 million, $220 million, $224 million and $230 million. Something closer to the league's desire over the first two years (say, $222 million and $227 million) and more in line with the union's ask for the final three ($237 million, $247 million and $257 million) gives the league the short-term revenue fix it desires while expanding the CBT in later years to be more commensurate with revenue growth.
The final ask takes a leap of faith by the union, a small bit of trust that the league has not necessarily earned through its treatment of players. "My deepest hope," Manfred said, "is that we get an agreement quickly." For months, both sides have accused the other of not wanting to strike a deal, and it has been one of the most insidious parts of the negotiation, this notion that their efforts were little more than an exercise in futility.
It's a deeply cynical premise and one that grows more dangerous by the day. The consequences of not reaching a deal in the coming weeks are devastating. Manfred will cancel more games. The ability to reschedule games and get players paid for 162 will become a logistical near-impossibility. The longer they wait, the more it imperils any sort of season at all.
This is no Chicken Little simulacrum; baseball's sky is metaphorically falling, and now that Manfred put into motion the cancellation of games, urgency is the best method to stop it. Otherwise, the sides will dig in -- because of pride and spite and the emotional torque that has the ability to twist the 2022 season entirely off its axis. Every day there isn't a game, players theoretically lose a projected $21 million in salary. Every day there isn't a game, teams move closer to having to provide rebates to their RSNs.
So as much as it's time to talk, it's even more imperative that the players and owners listen to one another, that their words go not through cochlea of doubt but understanding. If the players insist they can be ready in a three-week spring training, the league must give it serious thought. If the owners say they need extra doubleheaders to make up for this week of lost games, the union must help make it happen.
It's not like any of this is foreign. In 2020, during the most fearful stages of the pandemic, these same parties figured out how to turn a three-week spring training and doubleheader-laden schedule into an actual season. None of it was ideal, but then the potential fallout from Manfred's cancellations doesn't exactly scream normalcy either.
The substitute for diplomacy is chaos, something baseball can ill-afford. When not even a deadline can foster a settlement, it's clear the problems run deep and the approach requires modification. There's a solution here, a deal to be had, an agreement still within reach, a way to render the "disastrous outcome" Manfred foretold moot. They can see it, taste it, even hear it. All they have to do is listen.