The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

If MLB returns, the players’ health will be at stake. That should be worth something.

Seattle Mariners pitchers participate in a drill during spring training in Peoria, Ariz. (Charlie Riedel/AP)

In the spring of 1992, I was granted a lengthy interview with Fay Vincent, then the commissioner of Major League Baseball. MLB had had seven work stoppages in the past 20 years, and an eighth was beginning to look inevitable. Vincent knew that. He also knew it would have disastrous consequences.

“If there’s another work stoppage, it will damage the game,” he said. “Most fans will view it as a bunch of greedy millionaires fighting with a bunch of greedy billionaires. And they’ll be right.”

The previous November, the owners had hired a New York City lawyer named Richard Ravitch to be their chief negotiator. Vincent knew Ravitch was counseling the owners to go to war with the players when the collective bargaining agreement expired at the end of 1993. He knew this was a bad idea. But the owners, burned by labor loss after loss and having lost hundreds of millions of dollars after being found guilty of collusion a few years earlier, wanted to bring the union down once and for all.

“A mistake,” Vincent said then. “Don Fehr [the union’s executive director] is a tough negotiator, but he’s a reasonable guy. We need to work with him, not against him.”

The owners sided with Ravitch. They forced Vincent out in September 1992, appointed Milwaukee Brewers owner Bud Selig as acting commissioner and, within three weeks of the expiration of the CBA, proposed a new contract that included a salary cap. The players adamantly objected. We all know what happened after that: The owners attempted that summer to impose a salary cap, the players went on strike, and the 1994 World Series was wiped out.

Only after the owners had signed “replacement players” the following spring and then-federal district court Judge Sonia Sotomayor issued an injunction against the owners did the strike end. Baseball attendance declined by about 20 percent that season, and it took years for the game to recover.

Vincent had been right. All of which brings us to today.

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Despite some close calls, baseball has had labor peace since 1995. Everyone on both sides seemed to learn a lesson about compromise. In fact, baseball is the only major sport that hasn’t had some kind of work stoppage since then, although the most recent ones have been initiated by the owners locking out the players.

Now we are in a unique, hostile labor environment. Baseball’s CBA expires at the end of 2021, and long before the novel coronavirus pandemic began, there were rumblings that the negotiations were going to be difficult. The union is upset that veteran players who aren’t superstars have had difficulty in recent years finding work as free agents and often have been forced to sign one-year contracts after the season has started. Players are also upset that teams keep young stars in the minors, delaying their access to free agency for an extra year.

That, however, is down the road. Dealing with this summer is a here-and-now topic because baseball is hoping to start the season by the Fourth of July. Myriad logistics have to be worked out, but how much the players will be paid is clearly going to be a battleground again.

The issue appeared to have been resolved in March, shortly after the shutdown began, when players and owners agreed that players would be paid on a prorated basis, meaning if baseball had a half-season (which is now the goal), players would receive 50 percent of their salaries. Now, with it becoming apparent that if baseball does start in July, it will do so without fans, the owners want to renegotiate. With no revenue coming in from ticket sales, concessions or parking, the owners want the players to agree to a 50-50 split of revenue, most of which will come from TV contracts. The players see this as a salary cap and have objected strenuously from the moment the idea was floated.

Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Blake Snell, who won the American League Cy Young Award in 2018, became a symbol of “greedy millionaire” players when he declared on social media: “I’m not playing unless I get mine. That’s just the way it is for me. Like, I’m sorry you guys think different, but the risk is way higher and the amount of money I’m making is way lower. Why would I think about doing that?”

Snell could have used an editor or a public relations consultant. Someone scheduled to make more than $7 million this season isn’t going to engender much sympathy. But much of what he said is accurate: The players will be at risk, and they have agreed to a pay cut.

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How much the players would be paid if they agreed to a revenue split is impossible to know, but there is also an important issue involved here. The 1994 strike happened because the owners attempted to unilaterally impose a salary cap. Baseball is the only major sport without a salary cap, although the Competitive Balance Tax — better known as a luxury tax — has curbed spending by big-money teams somewhat.

Tony Clark, executive director of the MLB Players Association, has said the union won’t agree to revenue-splitting even for one season because the precedent could be dangerous. There is also the question of renegotiating a deal that had been agreed to in March.

Baseball has had labor peace for the past 25 years in large part because leadership on both sides understands how right Vincent was about the damage done by the 1994 walkout: a lost World Series, the specter of replacement players, the fans’ disgust with both sides.

If baseball can’t have a season because the logistics turn out to be impossible, everyone will understand. But if money is the issue a year after MLB reported record revenue of $10.7 billion, there is going to be a lot of anger.

As is almost always the case when there is a work stoppage in sports, the players will get the brunt of the criticism. They are more visible, and the average fan finds their salaries stunning. But here’s a fact: The owners are far more wealthy and don’t have a limited earning window. What’s more, as Snell pointed out, albeit less than eloquently, the owners won’t be putting their health at risk and won’t have to live in some form of quarantine.

It’s always easy to blame the “greedy millionaires.” But more often than not, the “greedy billionaires” are most at fault. That was the case in 1994. That’s the case now.

Read more baseball coverage:

Barry Svrluga: Baseball is a dream job, but it’s still a job with a workforce that needs protection

Thomas Boswell: Ignore baseball’s labor squabbles. For once, the money isn’t what really matters.

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