Why everyone is to blame for the failure to end the MLB lockout

Feb 28, 2022; Jupiter, FL, USA; Major League Baseball Players Association chief negotiator Bruce Meyer arrives for negotiations with the players union in an attempt to reach an agreement to salvage March 31 openers and a 162-game season, Feb. 28, 2022, at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, Florida. Mandatory Credit: Greg Lovett-USA TODAY NETWORK
Feb 28, 2022; Jupiter, FL, USA; Major League Baseball Players Association chief negotiator Bruce Meyer arrives for negotiations with the players union in an attempt to reach an agreement to salvage March 31 openers and a 162-game season, Feb. 28, 2022, at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, Florida. Mandatory Credit: Greg Lovett-USA TODAY NETWORK /
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There is, of course, plenty of blame to be shared by both sides in the collapse of talks over a new MLB Basic Agreement. On Tuesday, the owners’ side enforced its self-imposed deadline for a deal that would permit the start of the regular season on time, and Commissioner Rob Manfred announced cancellation of the first week of scheduled games.

What has ensued since then is an orgy of assigning responsibility, much of it sophistic posturing, for the failure to end the MLB lockout.

The truth is there is plenty of room for blame on both the owners’ and players’ sides. Neither group has to date acquitted itself especially well. Three areas in particular stand out.

The first blame goes back to the initial glacial pace of the talks themselves. Since 2017, it has been clear that the Agreement would expire on December 1. Since not long after that, it has been clear that the Union, retrospectively unhappy, would seek significant alterations, and that owners would generally oppose them.

In that context, it represents a fault of both sides bordering on willful negligence that serious talks were not begun as much as a year ago. Instead, what fans got was kabuki: owners submitted a largely status quo proposal last spring that the unions summarily rejected, and there matters stood basically until the expiration date.

For eight weeks after that date passed and the owners declared a lockout, nothing of meaningful consequence happened. There was only mutual posturing.

Finally, with less than a week remaining before the owners’ deadline, serious talks began. By then, though, the preponderance of issues and deep mutual residue of ill will was too much to overcome.

The easy temptation is to blame the owners who, after all, imposed the lockout. That is to some extent, however, fatuous.

Although only too late to work, the lockout — with its attendant threat of games being lost — at least appears to have had the effect of spurring negotiations.

Beyond that, had no lockout been imposed, spring camps may now be open, but there is no reason to believe a deal would be any closer. The opposite is likely true. And rather than a lockout we would be talking about the specter of the game’s third in-season strike.

Who here thinks that’s a better outcome? Me neither.

The blame for the glacial pace of negotiations, then, has to be read as mutual.

The owners, however, do bear responsibility for one major hurdle whose resolution has confounded these negotiations from the start. That is the status of the competitive balance tax.

Under the existing agreement, the tax threshold for 2021 was $210 million. Owners proposed raising it to $220 million, and leaving it there for the duration of the agreement. That’s less than a 5 percent increase over five years, one the union rightly saw as insultingly low.

The expired Agreement raised the threshold by about 8 percent over the deal’s five-year life. That’s certainly not much, but at least it somewhat approximated the 11.3 percent inflation rate over that same period.

But anybody who’s been to the grocery store or gas station knows where inflation is headed now. The value of a dollar has declined by 4 percent already this year … and it’s barely March. Over the five-year life of the proposed deal, nobody obviously knows what’s going to happen to the value of that same dollar, but the impact is almost guaranteed to well exceed 5 percent.

A starting point of $225 million, with annual 2 percent increases taking the threshold to $243.5 million over the life of the deal — a 16 percent increase in the ceiling — would have been more realistic, and may also have broken the logjam.

On that major issue, the owners are responsible.

The third area of failure was the union’s refusal to accept MLB’s twice-stated request for intervention by a federal mediator.

Let’s be clear what a mediator does and does not do. A mediator sits, listens, and proposes suggested avenues toward compromise.

A mediator is not an arbitrator, meaning a mediator does not render judgments. That being so, use of a mediator runs no risk of terms being imposed that the union would find onerous or unacceptable.

Particularly with respect to the owners’ chintzy proposed increases to the competitive balance threshold, a mediator might well have pushed the sides toward a compromise that is far more favorable to the players.

In a labor negotiation, sides tend to seek out impartial mediation for two reasons: When they believe in their positions, or when they place primacy on making a deal, even if it is not totally favorable to them. Conversely, they tend to reject mediation when they believe their arguments might not stand up to scrutiny, or when they are ambivalent about making a deal.

The winners and losers from MLB cancellations. dark. Next

Either of those interpretations condemns the players for what can be viewed as a lack of sincerity in seeking a solution, especially if they believe — as they say they do — that their solutions are best for the game.