UNDER FURTHER REVIEW _ Hot Stove League on hold—Opening Day, next?

Now that the World Series has ended, let the collective bargaining begin.

The current contract between Major League Baseball (MLB) and the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) expires on December 1. This is certain to affect the Hot Stove League—free agency, as well as trades. Owners are not going to dive into the open market until they have a good idea of what the future holds.

Those who follow this situation most closely seem convinced that some kind of labor disruption is inevitable.

“The relationship between the two sides is by far the worst that I have ever seen,” said ESPB baseball writer Buster Olney recently. “And I covered (the) strike in ’94 and ’95.”

That eighth (and up to now, last) concerted action wiped out the final third of the 1994 season and that year’s World Series. It also delayed the beginning of the 1995 season (and the opening of Coors Field) until April 26, reducing the ’95 schedule by 18 games per team to 144. Only a ruling by a federal judge ended that stalemate after 232 days.

Will the owners lock out the players (as early as December 2)?  Will the players go on strike (probably not before Spring Training is supposed to start)?  In today’s world of gambling on virtually anything, I’m sure there are betting lines somewhere (in the U.K., if nowhere else) on what the owners or the players will do, and when. (Colorado allows betting only on “sports”—i.e. competitive events involving some degree of skill.)

To baseball FANS, the big issues are (in no order of importance): adding the Designated Hitter (DH) in the National League . . . rumored expansion by two teams . . . increasing the number of teams that make the post-season playoffs from five to as many as 12 . . .  changing from one-game to best-of-three first round of the playoffs . . . and—my favorite—eliminating that God-awful gift runner on second base at the start of every extra inning.

But, make no mistake, as important as those might be in the eyes of the people who pay to watch, it’s all about $$$$$ as far as the two sides are concerned. Those other items are mere bargaining chips—means toward an end.

The DH, for example, will add jobs in the NL, which the union should like. But that will be tied to preventing the owners from suppressing player salaries, as the MLBPA contends they’ve done in recent years. (The average player salary dropped from $4.097 million in 2017 to $3.881 million in 2020, according to the union, and is expected to be around $3.7 million for 2021 once calculations are complete. I know, “those poor boys”.)

The MLBPA wants to address the manipulation of service time by teams that use it to delay free agency or arbitration eligibility.  The luxury tax, a penalty clubs pay if they exceed an established total roster payroll amount, has helped control salaries. But it expires with the current collective bargaining agreement and, thus, will be on the table along with “manipulation.” 

Another issue the union wants to address is the so-called “tanking” by low-budget, small-market teams. That is, intentionally maintaining a less-expensive, inferior roster and losing enough games to pick first or just behind that in the next amateur draft.  (The Astros, for example, lost 106, 107 and 111 between 2011 and 2013. But Houston, I would point out, is the fourth largest city in America—hardly a low-budget market.) 

Increasing the number of post-season berths will mean more games, which will mean a lot more television revenue for owners, and it should translate to extra earnings for the players on those teams, too. But the devil, as always, is in the detail. MLB and MLBPA are not likely to agree on what’s a fair split. 

Same for expansion. Adding teams increases jobs; so, what’s not to like about that from a union perspective? But the main reason MLB would expand is the instant revenue from expansion fees, not to mention various other sources of increased revenue. Once again, how much of the pie does each side get?

Owners make the case that they have suffered mightily the last two years: a 60-game season with no fans in 2020, and total attendance of 45,304,709 in 2021—a one-third drop from the last full season in 2019—because of capacity limits in many cities. Owners claim losses totaling $3.1 billion in the drastically limited 2020 season. The counter to that is MLB’s cut of online gambling revenue, which will be significant.

But what about us, the fans? If I had a seat at the table, representing fans, here’s what I’d say:

Using the DH instead of making the pitcher hit isn’t baseball as I have known it since childhood. But if we must give up something in return for banning—forever—that stupid rule putting a runner on second to start the top of the 10th and every half-inning after, okay. (Did anyone who watched the gripping 13-ining game between the Red Sox and the Rays—the one that ended on Christian Vazquez’s two-run homer in the bottom of the 13th—wish every half inning had begun with a man on second?)

As for increasing the number of teams in the post-season, what’s wrong with more baseball?  The races for the Wild Cards made the last few weeks and days of the just-concluded season compelling. Why not add to that drama? Think fans of the Seattle Mariners would say this is a bad idea? Same for dumping the one-game Wild Card games. Ask Yankee fans (this year, at least) if two out of three sounds better.

And expansion? it’s hard to argue against that, considering that’s how Denver finally got the Rockies.

Spring Training should start in mid-February. Let’s hope it begins on time. In the meantime, we have this new sport to watch.

Denny Dressman is a veteran of 43 years in the newspaper business, including 25 at the Rocky Mountain News, where he began as executive sports editor. He is the author of 13 books, seven of them sports-related. You can write to Denny at info@comservbooks.com.