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MLB cancels regular season games as labor negotiations with players union implode

The Post's Chelsea Janes explains what led to the lockout between the MLB players union and team owners, which has already resulted in canceled games. (Video: Joshua Carroll/The Washington Post)
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JUPITER, Fla. — After all that, the angst and the waiting, the posturing and the bickering, Major League Baseball announced Tuesday that it will delay the start of the 2022 season after the MLB Players’ Association rejected its latest proposal for a collective bargaining agreement. For the first time in nearly three decades and a half-dozen CBAs, labor unrest will cost MLB part of its regular season — at least the first two series, or roughly 90 games.

“I had hoped against hope I would not have to have this particular press conference, in which I am going to cancel some regular season games,” Commissioner Rob Manfred said. “We worked hard to avoid an outcome that’s bad for our fans, bad for our players and bad for our clubs. I want to assure our fans that our failure to reach an agreement was not due to a lack of effort by either party.”

News conference pleasantries aside, the blame game will play out over the weeks, months and years to come, regardless of how long this dispute continues and how many games are lost. It began to play out Tuesday afternoon, when an MLB spokesman declared that the players union’s tone had changed dramatically since the sides split up around 2:30 a.m., even though the union had been far more measured in cautioning about the gaps remaining between their offers.

In that impromptu news conference, the spokesman announced that MLB would be presenting its “best” offer. A few hours later, after the union voted not to accept an offer that did not move much from where it had been Monday night, MLB announced that it would delay Opening Day, which had been set for March 31, and cancel the first two series of the season.

In this dispute, which has cost the sport regular season games for the first time since a strike led to the cancellation of the 1994 World Series and part of the 1995 campaign, what happens next is unclear. The sides are likely to schedule new talks at some point, but as of Tuesday, the schedule seemed to be in MLB’s hands.

“We’re willing to stay here and have the conversation tomorrow,” union leader Tony Clark said during a news conference following MLB’s announcement, reiterating a frustration he echoed many times Tuesday — that the union was eager to negotiate all along and found MLB unwilling to make it happen.

“The reason we are not playing is simple: A lockout is the ultimate economic weapon,” Clark said. “In a $10 billion industry, the owners have decided to use this weapon against the greatest asset they have: the players.”

As Clark suggested, the lockout is not a mandatory part of what both sides knew would be contentious bargaining because of player frustration following previous deals. The owners implemented the lockout Dec. 2 when the sides could not come to an agreement by the time the previous CBA expired. At the time, Manfred called it a “defensive” measure meant to create urgency — and then his office did not schedule a negotiation session for 43 days.

“You understand that you need as much time as possible to work through [the changes you want made],” Clark said. “... It’s why we stood ready for six weeks after the lockout on December 1, ready to have a discussion. It is remarkably interesting against the backdrop of the things that needed to be worked through to find ourselves on February 28th and the course of the last week ... working through the issues that needed to be, could have been and should have been discussed in more depth much earlier than they were.”

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From mid-January to late February, the sides met intermittently, with proposals on small parts of a would-be agreement exchanged now and then, neither sensing any give in the other nor conveying much urgency to do much before the last minute.

Then, in mid-February, MLB told the union that it was imposing a deadline of Feb. 28, arguing that was the last date the sides could agree to a deal and conduct a long enough spring training to avoid injury risk. The union never fully agreed with that assessment, and players’ frustration with what they saw as an artificial deadline continued through early Tuesday morning, when 16 hours of negotiations pushed well past midnight and made clear that the deadline wasn’t exactly firm.

When dawn broke on a new “deadline day,” the sides were maintaining something of a fragile detente. They knew what each side would concede in return for what. They knew what needed to be in a package for the other side to meet them halfway. That they broke off talks Tuesday morning was, in part, because the players didn’t want to rush a deal, didn’t want to find themselves hurried into something they didn’t have time to vet.

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So that they broke apart injected new uncertainty into the situation, giving players time to scan social media and internalize outward perceptions of the deal. Both sides met with their constituents before talking again Tuesday morning. Maintaining momentum would require keeping everyone on board with progress made overnight and with the urgency of getting a deal done Tuesday.

The talks were supposed to begin at 11 a.m., and both sides arrived about an hour before that to speak with their constituents. The union held a Zoom call with around 50 players, but an official familiar with the union’s plans said player representatives were on the phone with the negotiating team late into Monday night’s talks, too. At 1:30 p.m., representatives from MLB headed to the players’ side of the facility, where the union presented them with a proposal. MLB officials didn’t like it, prompting that statement and the announcement of a final offer. That offer — almost identical to the one MLB had on the table when the sides broke early Tuesday morning — was delivered to the union shortly before 4 p.m.

By 4:30, the players had unanimously rejected it, and lead negotiator Bruce Meyer called MLB deputy commissioner Dan Halem to tell him they would not be taking it — an easy decision, according to multiple people in the room. A little after 5 p.m., Manfred announced that regular season games would be canceled, saying that if it “were solely in my ability or the ability of the clubs to make an agreement, we would have an agreement.”

The union continues to believe that an agreement is within the owners’ reach and that they and their representatives are being unfair in their unwillingness to share a larger portion of rising revenue with the players. In a wide-ranging news conference that featured Clark, Meyer and MLBPA executive subcommittee members Max Scherzer and Andrew Miller, the union indicated its belief that the owners continue to foster changes in the game that benefit their own interest, not the sport’s.

The sides ended up tens of millions of dollars apart on everything from the collective bargaining tax threshold (which MLB proposed be at $220 million next year, while the union was at $238 million) to the size of a new bonus pool that would reward players too young for arbitration for high performance (MLB proposed $25 million and the union $85 million). Scherzer and Miller were adamant that the sides were also far apart on their vision for the competitive integrity of the game.

“The game has suffered damage for a while now. The game has changed. The game has been manipulated,” Clark said. “… Players have been commoditized in a way that’s really hard to explain in the grand scheme.”

The sides, in need of a break, are unlikely to talk again Wednesday. The earliest they will talk again is Thursday, Manfred said, though when and where remains to be seen. But if the union was frustrated by a lack of urgency before, neither side should feel comfortable now: Every day that goes by results in more canceled games. Every game canceled and not made up represents revenue lost and, according to MLB’s threat, salary that won’t be paid to players. So every day they go without a deal costs everyone money now. And it costs the sport much more.

This is a developing news story and has been updated.

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