One month after the 2021 season ended with the Braves winning the World Series, Major League Baseball descended into its first work stoppage in more than a quarter-century.
The MLB owners enacted a lockout of the players at 12:01 a.m. Thursday, freezing offseason activity -- including trades and free-agent signings -- and casting doubt over whether spring training and even the regular season will begin on schedule next year.
The long-expected action came after baseball’s collective bargaining agreement expired at 11:59 p.m. Wednesday without apparent progress toward a new deal.
For the Braves, who clinched the World Series championship Nov. 2, the lockout means negotiations with free-agent first baseman Freddie Freeman are halted until there’s a new CBA, whenever that might be. The lockout also will defer any negotiations with the Braves’ free-agent outfielders -- World Series MVP Jorge Soler, National League Championship Series MVP Eddie Rosario and NL Division Series star Joc Pederson -- and likely will interrupt ticket-sales momentum built by the championship season.
MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred, whose office represents the owners in labor negotiations, announced the lockout in a 12:03 a.m. “letter to baseball fans.”
“Simply put, we believe that an offseason lockout is the best mechanism to protect the 2022 season,” Manfred wrote. “We hope that the lockout will jump-start the negotiations and get us to an agreement that will allow the season to start on time.
“This defensive lockout was necessary because the Players Association’s vision for Major League Baseball would threaten the ability of most teams to be competitive. It’s simply not a viable option. From the beginning, the MLBPA has been unwilling to move from their starting position, compromise or collaborate on solutions.”
Players Association executive director Tony Clark responded with a statement that called the lockout a “drastic and unnecessary measure” that “will not affect the players’ resolve to reach a fair contract.”
“We remain committed to negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement that enhances competition, improves the product for our fans and advances the rights and benefits of our membership,” Clark said.
The lockout is MLB’s first work stoppage since a 232-day strike that began in August 1994, canceling the postseason and delaying the start of the 1995 season. MLB has had nine work stoppages, all since 1972, including five strikes and, now, four lockouts. Strikes are initiated by the players’ union and lockouts imposed by the owners, but the result is largely the same: a shutdown of the sport.
Although MLB had enjoyed 26-1/2 years of labor peace since its longest work stoppage ended in April 1995, old tensions between the players and owners have been exacerbated in recent years by a series of issues. Negotiations between the two sides throughout this year, including meetings near Dallas this week, didn’t bridge the gap.
Braves president and CEO Derek Schiller, in a lengthy statement emailed to ticket buyers and other fans Thursday, echoed many of Manfred’s points and expressed disappointment “in the situation our game finds itself in today.”
“We have been prepared for this undesired outcome,” Schiller wrote. “Once a new agreement is reached, the Braves will be well-positioned to finish constructing an exciting roster ready to compete on the field.”
He expressed confidence “there is a path to an agreement” and defended the timing of the lockout.
“(D)elaying this process further would only put spring training, opening day and the rest of the season at further risk,” Schiller wrote, “and we cannot allow an expired agreement to again cause an in-season strike and a missed World Series, like we experienced in 1994.”
The Players Association is seeking fundamental changes to baseball’s economic system, such as shortening the amount of service time required for free agency and salary arbitration, in hopes of getting players paid more earlier in their careers. Players also want changes that would reign in “tanking” by rebuilding teams, address service-time manipulation by many teams, significantly soften the luxury tax on high payrolls and sharply reduce revenue sharing among teams.
Manfred said the union’s ideas, which he called “collectively the most extreme set of proposals in their history,” would particularly damage small-market teams. He argued: “While we have heard repeatedly that free agency is ‘broken,’ in the month of November $1.7 billion was committed to free agents, smashing the prior record by nearly 4x.”
The Players Association vowed that its membership will remain unified amid the lockout, which it said was “calculated” by the owners “to pressure players into relinquishing rights and benefits and abandoning good-faith bargaining proposals.”
“These tactics are not new,” the union said. “We have been here before, and players have risen to the occasion time and time again – guided by a solidarity that has been forged over generations. We will do so again.”
During the lockout, teams won’t be permitted to sign (or negotiate with) free agents and can’t make trades, release players or offer contract extensions and renegotiations. Also, MLB said players won’t be allowed to appear at any team event or in any team programming across broadcasting or other media channels. Early Thursday, photos of all current players were removed from the Braves’ and other teams’ websites.
Although Manfred said the lockout “accelerates the urgency for an agreement,” players aren’t paid during the offseason, so it’s debatable how much urgency will be created until the point at which the lockout threatens the start of spring training and the season. No further negotiations were scheduled as of Thursday.
Kennesaw State economics professor J.C. Bradbury, who has written two books on the business of baseball, told the AJC that the argument boils down to a fight over what percentage of MLB’s revenue goes to the players versus the owners.
“A lot of times, particularly because we see players’ (salaries), we say: How can these guys making $20 million a year complain about the salaries they’re making?” Bradbury said. “Well, when you’re siding with owners, you’re siding with the billionaires, not the millionaires. There are two wealthy parties here, and they’re basically trying to bargain over who gets what share of the pie.
“It’s just very unclear (how the dispute will play out). In economics, whenever you have a buyer and a seller who are both in a monopoly situation, there is no equilibrium outcome. What it means is there is no obvious point of compromise. That is why we have these strikes and lockouts.”