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December 5, 2021

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MLB locks out players in first work stoppage since 1994

Major League Baseball’s collective bargaining agreement expired on Wednesday night, plunging the sport toward a management lockout that will end labor peace after 9,740 days over 26 1/2 years.

Players and owners had successfully reached four consecutive agreements without a stoppage, but they have been headed for a confrontation for more than two years.

Talks ended when management negotiators left the union’s hotel about nine hours before the deal lapsed at 11:59pm EST. Players said MLB did not make any new central economic proposals this week.

The union demanded change following anger over a declining average salary, middle-class players forced out by teams concentrating payroll on the wealthy and veterans jettisoned in favor of lower-paid youth, especially among clubs tearing down their rosters to rebuild.

“As players we see major problems with it,” New York Mets pitcher Max Scherzer said of the 2016 agreement. “First and foremost, we see a competition problem and how teams are behaving because of certain rules that are within that, and adjustments have to be made because of that in order to bring out the competition.”

Eleven weeks remain until pitchers and catchers are to report for spring training on February 16, leaving about 70 days to reach a deal allowing for an on-time start. Opening day is set for March 31, and a minimum of three weeks of organized workouts have been required in the past.

Management, intent on preserving salary restraints gained in recent decades, rejected the union’s requests for what teams regarded as significant alterations to the sport’s economic structure, including lowering service time needed for free agency and salary arbitration.

Many clubs scrambled to add players ahead of a lockout and an expected signing freeze, committing to more than US$1.9 billion in new contracts — including a one-day record of more than US$1.4 billion on Wednesday.

“It did feel like at least certain groups of free agents were moving more quickly the last few days,” Pittsburgh general manager Ben Cherington said.

Two of the eight members of the union’s executive subcommittee signed big deals: Texas infielder Marcus Semien (US$175 million) and Scherzer (US$130 million).

“This is actually kind of fun,” Scherzer said. “I’m a fan of the game, and to watch everybody sign right now, to actually see teams competing in this kind of timely fashion, it’s been refreshing because we’ve seen freezes for the past several offseasons.”

Much has changed since the 232-day strike that cut short the 1994 season, led to the first cancellation of the World Series in 90 years and caused the 1995 season to start late. That stoppage ended only when a federal judge — future Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor — issued an injunction forcing owners to restore the work rules of the expired labor contract.

The average salary dropped from US$1.17 million before the strike to US$1.11 million but then resumed its seemingly inexorable rise. It peaked at just under US$4.1 million in 2017, the first season of the latest CBA, but likely will fall to about US$3.7 million when this year’s final figures are calculated.

That money is concentrated heavily at the top of the salary structure. Among approximately 1,955 players who signed major league contracts at any point going into the regular season’s final month, 112 had earned US$10 million or more this year as of August 31, of which 40 made at least US$20 million, including prorated shares of signing bonuses.

There were 1,397 earning under US$1 million, of which 1,271 were at US$600,000 or less and 332 under US$100,000, a group of younger players who shuttle back and forth to the minors.

Union head Tony Clark, a former All-Star first baseman who became executive director following Michael Weiner’s death in 2013, said players are united and understand the need to stick together to achieve common goals. The sides are still litigating over the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, sniping over how long the season could have been and taking their positions before a neutral arbitrator.

The union has withheld licensing money, as it usually does going into bargaining; cash, US Treasury securities and investments totaled US$178.5 million last December 31, according to a financial disclosure form filed with the US Department of Labor.

“We have a pretty big war chest behind us of money that we can allocate to players,” Scherzer said.

Some player agents have speculated that management’s credit lines already may be pressured following income deprivation caused by the coronavirus pandemic, but the clubs’ finances are more opaque publicly than that of the union, making it difficult to ascertain comparative financial strength to withstand a lengthy work stoppage.

Rob Manfred, who succeeded Bud Selig as commissioner in 2015 following a quarter-century as an MLB labor negotiator, made clear last month that management preferred an offseason lockout to a midseason strike.

“We’ve been down this path. We locked out in 1989-90,” he said. “I don’t think 1994 worked out too great for anybody. I think when you look at other sports, the pattern has become to control the timing of the labor dispute and try to minimize the prospect of actual disruption of the season. That’s what it’s about. It’s avoiding doing damage to the season.”

Scott Boras, who negotiated Scherzer’s deal and shortstop Corey Seager’s US$325 million contract with Texas, has pushed for the union to insist on change to decrease the incentive for lowering payrolls during rebuilding.

“Sometimes the rules of the game require them to do things that are not in the best interest of the game,” Boras said, “for them to be a better competitor for next year, they have to do things that the rules direct them to do.”

Scherzer, Mets finalize US$130m, 3-year deal

The New York Mets have agreed terms on a three-year US$130-million deal with Max Scherzer that will the make the future Hall-of-Famer the best paid player in baseball, US reports said on Monday.

The 37-year-old three-time Cy Young winner, who finished the 2021 season with the Los Angeles Dodgers after being traded by the Washington Nationals, is set to earn a record US$43.33 million a season.

That average annual salary makes Scherzer the best paid player in baseball, 20% higher than the previous mark, the $36 million Yankees pitcher Gerrit Cole is averaging in his US$324 million, nine-year contract signed prior to the 2020 season.

Scherzer has the right to opt out after the 2023 season and become a free agent again.

The Dodgers were reportedly keen to re-sign Scherzer following his successful stint with the team, but were outbid by the Mets.

It means Scherzer will be heading to the fifth team of a 15-year Major League Baseball career.

Scherzer, a key member of the Washington Nationals’ World Series-winning line-up in 2019, was sensational after joining the Dodgers in August, going 7-0 in 11 outings with a 1.98 ERA and 89 strikeouts.

He played a crucial role in the Dodgers’ postseason division series win over the San Francisco Giants, closing out a series victory in game five.

However his season ultimately ended in disappointment, when he complained of a dead arm and was unable to start the crucial game six of the National League Championship Series against Atlanta.


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