In the wake of today’s league-imposed deadline to reach agreement on a new collective bargaining agreement passing, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred announced this afternoon that the league is canceling the first two series of the regular season. As Max Molski of NBC Sports writes, that’d mean the loss of 91 total games. The league has stated on multiple occasions they have no plans to reschedule those contests — either via doubleheaders or the rearranging of previously-scheduled off days. In addition to the delayed start to the regular season, the league informed teams it is pushing back the start of Spring Training until at least March 12, as noted by Micheline Maynard of the Washington Post (Twitter link).
The commissioner’s announcement would seem to indicate that a 155-game schedule is the maximum number that’ll be played in 2022. Asked why the league was set on outright cancelations as opposed to postponements, Manfred pointed to the challenges of reworking interleague play in a suitable manner (via Chelsea Janes of the Washington Post). Reports last week indicated that the league intends to merely pick up where the schedule left off if/when an agreement is in place, so it seems each club’s first two series (to this point) will just be lopped off the league calendar.
Unsurprisingly, Manfred added that it was the league’s position that players would not be paid for any games that aren’t played (via JJ Cooper of Baseball America). That sets the stage for a second season in the past three years with possible debates regarding prorated salaries, as the union has maintained that they didn’t believe today should’ve represented a drop-dead date to avoid game cancelations.
MLB instituted the lockout unilaterally and could’ve lifted it at any time, electing to proceed under the terms of the 2016-21 CBA. There was never any possibility of the league taking that course of action, but the decision to set a hard deadline (first last night, later delayed until this evening) for an agreement was also made solely by MLB. The Players Association has never assented to that deadline, and Giants outfielder Austin Slater — the club’s player representative — argued that the union preferred continuing negotiations over today’s outcome.
“I don’t think it’s necessary,” Slater told Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle of game cancelations after the league deadline passed. “The PA has been setting up training camps and in 2020, we showed we could do it in three weeks. .. But that’s their prerogative and Rob’s bargaining strategy was to push up past this deadline and see if they could shove a deal down our throats.”
Others on the players’ side have taken a similar stance, arguing that the league deadline was a negotiating position of MLB’s to press the union into accepting an unfavorable deal. Slater’s teammate Alex Wood was among the players to take to Twitter this afternoon to accuse the league of exaggerating the progress made in negotiations last night, thereby allowing MLB to suggest the union was at fault for the lack of agreement today. Manfred made some references to that effect in his press conference this evening, noting the truism that finalizing a new CBA requires agreement from both parties.
After the past week and a half of daily negotiations didn’t result in an agreement, what’s the next step? Asked by Hannah Keyser of Yahoo! Sports whether the league’s “best and final” offer this afternoon meant that MLB had no plans to continue negotiations, Manfred pushed back. “We never used the phrase ‘last, best’ offer with the union,” the commissioner replied. While he conceded that the parties were “deadlocked,” he indicated that the league was open to continued negotiation. Manfred stated that today’s proposal was only the league’s final before canceling games, not of negotiations entirely. On the other hand, Bob Nightengale of USA Today hears from a source the league did use the “best and final offer” terminology.
That’s an important distinction. As Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times pointed out this afternoon, the possibility that the league had made its “best and final offer” could give way to MLB declaring a formal impasse in negotiations — a decision that could halt bargaining and involve the court system. Manfred declined to speculate on that possibility, but his stated amenability to continuing negotiations would seem to indicate that the league doesn’t plan to pursue that course of action at this point.
When negotiations will pick up isn’t clear, although the commissioner indicated they couldn’t resume talks until Thursday at the earliest. Manfred also made clear he considered the ball to be in the union’s court, stating that the league has made the most recent offer on issues “without exception,” and rhetorically told reporters to draw their own conclusions about which side should make the next move (via Scott Miller of Bleacher Report). That the league has made the most recent proposal may technically be true, although doing so an hour before the press conference with no willingness to continue negotiating today makes Manfred’s pointed barb a bit odd.
Manfred also made some ancillary statements about negotiations that are sure to draw some attention. He claimed that the past five years have been “difficult” for the industry financially, an assertion that immediately sparked backlash. As Erik Boland of Newsday points out (on Twitter), the league grossed a record $10.7 billion in 2019. The past two seasons have indeed seen pandemic-driven revenue losses — particularly in 2020, a year mostly without fan attendance — but Manfred’s claim that the entirety of the most recent CBA involved financial hardship is easy to dispute.
The commissioner also discussed the terms of the league’s most recent proposal. He highlighted what he felt to be player-friendly economic provisions (i.e. the creation of the bonus pool for pre-arbitration players) and added that the league was also seeking alterations to the on-field product. Manfred claimed MLB had proposed ways to implement a pitch clock and limits on defensive shifting during their last offer. The league’s desire for a pitch clock has been previously reported, but it hadn’t been apparent that MLB was trying to outlaw the shift this winter.
Of course, changes to the sport’s aesthetics take a back seat so long as core economics disputes continue to rage. The MLBPA released a statement in response to Manfred’s press conference (on Twitter). It reads in part:
“Rob Manfred and MLB’s owners have cancelled the start of the season. Players and fans around the world who love baseball are disgusted, but sadly not surprised. … What Rob Manfred characterized as a ’defensive lockout’ is, in fact, the culmination of a decades-long attempt by owners to break our Player fraternity. As in the past, this effort will fail.“