Major League Baseball’s lockout hell entered a new stage Thursday: Now the owners and players can’t even agree on how to disagree.
In the wake of a largely unproductive bargaining session Tuesday that featured a counteroffer by the Major League Baseball Players Association, MLB pivoted from taking its turn at a tweak, instead requesting immediate assistance from a third-party mediator through the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service.
The players face no obligation to accept this; the MLBPA declined comment and an industry source said the players would huddle to decide how to react. Even if the players do sign on, the mediator’s recommendations are non-binding.
So, with spring training scheduled to start in less than two weeks and only the most cockeyed optimist believing pitchers and catchers will actually report on time, the development Thursday left the two sides no closer to the finish line. It just gave them (and the game’s understandably frustrated fans) a new wrinkle to discuss while opening up other possibilities, as well as further tensions. The owners are aggravated by the players’ most recent counters and the players are aggravated by the owners opting for this route rather than tendering another counter, as was the expectation at the conclusion of the get-together Tuesday.
The FMCS holds a mixed track record. Longtime NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and affable Winnipeg Jets player Ron Hainsey both commended mediator Scot Beckenbaugh in 2013 when he helped end a four-month lockout. Beckenbaugh proved an effective if understated uniter and still works for the FMCS. The organization also received credit for working twice (2012 and 2015) with Major League Soccer and its players and with the NFL and its officials in 2012.
Its most recent foray into baseball, on the other hand, was widely viewed as a disaster when the appointed mediator, Bill Usery Jr., swung and missed after meeting with players and owners during the sport’s work stoppage in 1994.
When that initiative failed, the owners declared an impasse and unilaterally instituted its desired system, which included a salary cap. That plan never went into effect because United States District Court Judge Sonia Sotomayor (now a Supreme Court justice) upheld the National Labor Relations Board’s unfair labor practices complaint against the owners. MLB’s move Thursday puts déjà vu in play, although it seems unlikely at this juncture.
Mediator Ken Moffett (who wound up briefly heading the MLBPA) received public credit for ending the players’ strike in 1981. The reality is that the fact the players’ strike insurance was running out probably played a more significant role.
When commissioner Rob Manfred implemented the lockout on Dec. 2, he wrote in a letter to fans that “an offseason lockout is the best mechanism to protect the 2022 season.” Then the two sides, after huddling in person in Dallas on Dec. 1, maintained radio silence for six weeks.
From Jan. 13 through Tuesday, the players and owners held four sessions (one via Zoom and three in person) on the core economic issues, They did make up some ground. Most notably, the players gave up on their proposal to lower the service-time requirement for free agency from six years to five.
Nevertheless, if these talks were “The Wizard of Oz,” Dorothy wouldn’t even have met the Scarecrow yet.