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MLB delays start of spring training games as labor negotiations continue

The MLB lockout began in early December. (Ross D. Franklin/AP)
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Major League Baseball officially announced what had recently become inevitable Friday when it said that spring training games, originally scheduled to begin Feb. 26, will not start until March 5 at the soonest amid the ongoing lockout.

The announcement, which comes as team owners and the players union negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement, was the first time MLB acknowledged the spring training delay, which was already underway — camps didn’t open to pitchers and catchers as planned earlier this month.

Not until games were lost and tickets needed refunding did anyone want to say out loud what everyone had been whispering for some time — that after nearly three months of a lockout in which the sides met just six times, spring training probably wouldn’t start on time.

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But by Friday, a day after the players union made a counterproposal that MLB felt was narrow and unproductive, MLB finally admitted that fans hoping to attend games in Florida and Arizona this month should cancel those plans.

“We regret that, without a collective bargaining agreement in place, we must postpone the start of Spring Training games until no earlier than Saturday, March 5th,” MLB said in a statement. “All 30 Clubs are unified in their strong desire to bring players back to the field and fans back to the stands. The Clubs have adopted a uniform policy that provides an option for full refunds for fans who have purchased tickets from the Clubs to any Spring Training games that are not taking place. We are committed to reaching an agreement that is fair to each side.”

That the games are delayed is not exactly the direct result of the owners’ and players’ inability to finalize a new CBA. The owners do not, under collective bargaining rules, have to lock out the players if a CBA is not in place. The sides could continue to operate under the old agreement until they decide on a new one, allowing the offseason and spring training to move forward as usual — a point the union made clear in its statement Friday.

“MLB announced today that it ‘must’ postpone the start of spring training games. This is false. Nothing requires the league to delay the start of spring training, much like nothing required the league’s decision to implement the lockout in the first place,” the MLB Players Association said in a statement. “Despite these decisions by the league, Players remain committed to the negotiating process.”

When the sides failed to agree to a new deal before the old one expired in early December, the owners locked out the players to create what MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred called a previously unseen sense of urgency in the negotiations. MLB then waited 43 days, until mid-January, to make a substantive proposal to the players union — a delay that has not been explained in much detail. When asked last week, Manfred said only “phones work two ways.”

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The union hasn’t exactly been quick to react, either, taking four days from the time MLB made an extensive proposal Saturday before making its counterproposal in a 15-minute meeting Thursday in New York. Those conversations also yielded something both sides had been reluctant to provide in the weeks leading up to the start of spring training: a deadline.

According to people familiar with the discussions, MLB officials indicated to the union that they would need to agree to a CBA by Feb. 28 to ensure the regular season starts on time March 31. MLB controls the schedule. By the time the sides meet in person again Monday, they will have eight days to do what they have been unable to do in three months, lest they lose regular season games as well — which Manfred has said he would consider “a disastrous outcome” for the industry.

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But the sides are meeting Monday and, according to a statement from MLB, will plan to do so every day next week in pursuit of a deal. That statement also said owners from MLB’s negotiating committee will join those talks, which has not been the case for most in-person meetings to this point.

The pattern of quick meetings at which proposals are exchanged but not debated, then weighed for days before being countered, seems as though it may finally be shifting into something that more closely resembles actual discussion. To the extent that anyone has signaled urgency in these negotiations, MLB’s stated plan to include owners in daily negotiations next week is as close as either side has come.