It took 99 days of a contentious lockout, but baseball is back.
An agreement reached Thursday by Major League Baseball’s club owners and its players’ union after months of heated negotiations will allow for a full season, with opening day scheduled for April 7.
The five-year collective bargaining agreement will increase pay for young players and better incentivize teams to compete, among other provisions. Over the last two days, the deal was nearly derailed by a disagreement over creating a draft system for players overseas, but a compromise was struck that will be finalized later.
“Being back on the field is exciting for owners, players, fans as well,” Gerrit Cole, a Yankees star pitcher and a member of a union subcommittee that worked on the deal, said in a phone interview. “I think that’ll be the first step to maybe trying to mend some of the fences with some of the fans that have probably been upset with this process, and rightfully so.”
In a news conference soon after the owners of MLB’s 30 clubs voted to ratify the deal, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred beamed as he announced the return of the sport. He then tried to strike a more conciliatory tone with players—and fans who watched the labor fight drag out in public and compromised spring training.
“I apologize to our fans,” he said. “I know that the last few months have been difficult. There was a lot of uncertainty at a point in time when there’s a lot of uncertainty in the world. Sort of the way the process of collective bargaining works sometimes.”
The news was welcomed by fans, players and even politicians, with the game’s best player, Mike Trout, tweeting the simple message “See you in Tempe” in reference to the Angels’ spring training facility in Arizona.
With the agreement, baseball will get to approach something closer to a normal season for the first time since 2019. The last two seasons have been disrupted by the pandemic, which limited the number of fans who could attend games, and the dread of what was expected to be a bitter labor dispute.
Now, with the lockout behind them, the league and its players will begin a mad dash to the regular season. Despite a flurry of activity before the lockout, there are more than 200 unsigned players, including stars like first baseman Freddie Freeman and shortstop Carlos Correa.
During what is expected to be a frenzy of transactions, players will need to get to spring training camps in Arizona and Florida this weekend. Spring training, which is normally six weeks, will be reduced considerably. Players are required to report by Sunday and exhibition games will start on March 17.
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“In terms of the shortened spring, we had to go through this in 2020,” Cole said. “There’s some experience there before. And I think that that will impart some wisdom on some players and some organizations about how they go about that.”
Baseball’s last work stoppage had come when the players went on strike in 1994, with that dispute dragging into the 1995 season. Since then, the league and its players had enjoyed labor peace.
It was not always a friendly relationship, and the players’ union, the strongest in professional sports, became increasingly vocal in recent years about its complaints. Those included salaries lagging behind club revenues, wishing to improve competition among teams and how younger players were paid less despite being heavily relied upon. And when a new agreement couldn’t be reached when the previous one expired, Manfred locked the players out on Dec. 2.
“If we had just slid into the season and started the season without the lockout, I don’t think we’d have an agreement today,” Manfred said.
Tony Clark, a former player and the head of the union, said in a statement: “Our union endured the second-longest work stoppage in its history to achieve significant progress in key areas that will improve not just current players’ rights and benefits, but those of generations to come. Players remained engaged and unified from beginning to end, and in the process re-energized our fraternity.”
In negotiating this agreement, the club owners and the players pushed each other to the brink. The wiggle room with which to organize a full 162-game season without major changes to the schedule was shrinking with each passing week.
In the end, a full schedule will be retrofitted into the existing calendar, with the previously canceled games being made up on off-days and with nine-inning doubleheaders scattered throughout the season, which will end only three days later than normal. The dates for the World Series will remain the same.
The agreement came after an exhausting three days of negotiations this week. Although a top union subcommittee voted 8-0 against the deal, the union’s larger executive committee voted 26 to 12 overall in favor of it. The owners ratified the deal Thursday night, officially ending the lockout.
The sides initially began discussing a new labor deal last spring, trading proposals through the summer and fall. After Atlanta beat Houston in the 2021 World Series, a new pact became the foremost concern in the sport.
Despite many record-setting contracts in recent years, the average major-league salary of roughly $4 million has reached a plateau. The average career length is about four years, and salary arbitration — which provides raises — generally starts after a player has increased three years of service time. According to the union, 60 percent of players who played a game in the major leagues last year were paid roughly the league-minimum rate of $570,500.
Face-to-face talks in Texas in late November failed to produce a deal. So did meetings in New York throughout the winter. There were lulls, too, with MLB going 43 days between instituting the lockout and making another economic proposal in January.
Nine straight days of negotiations in Florida, beginning Feb. 21, resulted in only modest progress. And when a deal wasn’t struck by MLB’s self-imposed deadline of March 1, Manfred called off the first two series of the season for every team and said players would not be paid for unplayed games.
A week after Manfred called off the games, MLB tried again to facilitate a deal with a new deadline. It altered its stance and offered the players the chance to play a full season and receive full pay and service time if the players reached a deal by Tuesday, with a corresponding threat of more games being canceled.
Sensing some urgency, the packages of proposals evolved repeatedly. But on Wednesday, when a roadblock over the implementation of the international draft and the end of a draft-pick compensation system emerged, the sides could not agree to a solution ahead of the league’s 6 pm deadline.
Even though Manfred announced the cancellation of another week of games — bringing the total to roughly 180 contests — the sides kept talking and cleared the remaining hurdles over the international draft and qualifying-offer system on Thursday morning, with the final decision on those issues pushed until July 25.
The players had held firm throughout the process because the previous two collective bargaining agreements had been viewed as having further tilted the balance of power and economics in the owners’ favor. Realizing that significant changes to the system would be tense and full of brinkmanship, the union spent years preparing for this fight against MLB owners, who ran an estimated $11 billion-a-year business before the pandemic.
Although some players wanted to keep pushing because they felt some aspects of the deal still hadn’t kept pace with owners’ coffers, the youngest players made the biggest gains in this agreement.
“We’re committed to the idea of working hard during the term of the agreement maybe to more regularly get to the bottom of player concerns so that they don’t build up,” Manfred said. “This negotiation started a long way apart — and in case anyone missed the memo — they did come with a very, very broad agenda for change. They’re entitled to that. That’s what the process is about.”
Where players saw notable changes: The minimum salary will jump to $700,000 in 2022 (and increase $20,000 each year), and the luxury tax thresholds, which effectively penalize owners for overspending, will go from starting at $210 million in 2021 to $230 million in 2022 (and rise to $244 million in 2026).
A $50-million bonus pool will be created for top young players not yet eligible for salary arbitration; a lottery system will be added for the top six spots of the amateur draft as a way to stop teams from losing to gain the No. 1 pick; the postseason will be expanded to 12 teams (the owners wanted 14, which the union argued watered it down); and there will be new ways to prevent clubs from manipulating young players’ service time (those who finish first or second in the annual Rookie of the Year voting will be credited with a full year).