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Answering FAQs about the MLB lockout

How to explain the lockout to your friends and family

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MLB: DEC 02 Major League Baseball Lockout
a moment of silence for all the AP photogs who had to go out to the hardware store and buy some chains. Make sure to donate those, guys
Photo by James Black/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

As the MLB lockout drags on and threatens to engulf the reappearance of baseball that is the first sign of spring in our dreary winter Seattle sky, we at LL know you might have lost the thread since the league locked out the players back on December 2—if you had ever picked it up to begin with. Because we are all about #ServiceJournalism here at LL, we’ve put together this handy FAQ to help you navigate the MLB lockout...or to send to friends and family who are asking you questions you’re not sure how to answer.

Let’s start with the obvious:

Why is this happening?

Because we can’t have nice things anymore ever, not even Wordle.

No, seriously, the reason this is all happening is because the CBA (Collective Bargaining Agreement) that had governed baseball expired in early December. Immediately following its expiration, the owners began their lockout of the players. The MLBPA (or the Player’s Association, or the union—you’ll see these terms used interchangeably) and MLB weren’t able to come to an agreement before the CBA expired, at which point the owners voted unanimously to institute a lockout.

MLB took the active role in instituting the lockout because it much prefers to spur the players into an agreement during the off-season rather than run the risk of players striking during the season, costing them revenue and creating a host of scheduling headaches. No one wants the season to be disrupted; while players could lose millions as well as a valuable year of their already-short careers, owners stand to lose more in the form of TV deals and gate revenues. (However, they’re also better-positioned to absorb such a blow; more on this later.) This timing allows owners to negotiate from a position of strength during the off-season rather than in-season, when it would be the players withholding their labor rather than MLB locking players out of facilities and resources.

Who is affected? Why can teams still report some signings but MLB dot com looks like a graveyard?

Only players on 40-man rosters are directly affected, because they’re represented by the MLBPA. Minor-league signings aren’t affected, and no matter what happens, the minor league season is still scheduled to open on time. Free agency is also on hold, obviously, and that includes international free agents who would be signed to MLB deals like Seiya Suzuki. However, players who are signing minor league contracts (for example the recent minor-league international free agent group, or even former big leaguers signing non-roster invitee minor league contracts) are not on the 40-man roster, and therefore unaffected.

As for why MLB’s homepage looks the way it does, MLB has scrubbed all images of player likenesses from their homepage, citing labor laws, although curiously, they’re still selling jerseys—because a player’s name and likeness is protected under the MLBPA (and jerseys are sold through Fanatics, which has its own deal with the MLBPA). The legal justification for why MLB had to do this is a little squishy, and many saw it as a power play/PR move by the league, although what it has done is point out how MLB is nothing without the players who play the game.

Why is it important to note that it’s a lockout, not a strike or a work stoppage?

Call it a lockout because that’s what it is. The owners are literally locking the players out of team facilities because the two sides couldn’t come to an agreement. A strike happens in-season, when the players withhold their labor, which was the case in 1994. You could call it a work stoppage, because work stoppage just means there isn’t any work happening, but lockout is more accurate since it’s the off-season, and also keeps the focus on the party that instituted the work stoppage. “Work stoppage” is also passive where “lockout,” and specifically “owners’ lockout” actively describes what’s happening. The players haven’t stopped training for the upcoming season, they’re just denied access to their teams’ facilities.

It’s also important to note that owners could lift the lockout at any time, as Eugene Freedman, a labor negotiations expert (and excellent Twitter follow if you’re looking for someone to explain these issues concisely) notes:

There are other problems with that AP article, but we’ll get into that later when we talk about bias.

What do the players want?

The players themselves have recently taken to social media and are doing a solid job of summarizing, broadly, what the union is advocating for:

  • Better compensation for players with 0–3 years of service time;
  • An end to tanking/more competitive balance so every team is trying to win every year;
  • An end to service time manipulation so young players get called to the big leagues when they’re ready, not when teams can squeeze an extra year of team control out of them.

In order to achieve these broad goals, there are other, more specific things the union has argued for throughout the process—and things they’ve abandoned—but these are the core issues players wish to see resolved in a new CBA.

What does ownership want?

Not...any of that. Basically, ownership wants to hold on to as much money as possible, and that largely happens by not paying young players more, and not letting them reach free agency sooner. Owners also want some things that are generally popular with (or at least less-objectionable to) players as well, like the universal DH and expanded playoffs (a huge revenue-driver for owners), although they’re trying to pitch those things as concessions in order to get more of what they want in a deal. Expanded playoffs in particular are notable for ownership as MLB has already sold the rights to them for a lucrative deal to ESPN, yet at present players receive a more minimal cut of bonuses based on playoff revenue instead of the regular season where they are paid an equal rate of their for each day in the bigs. Therefore, expanded playoffs are an opportunity to expand revenue without sharing for MLB and owners.

What’s the timetable been so far? Will Spring Training start on time? Will the season?

As you probably know, talks have been progressing at a glacial pace. After the lockout on December 2nd, the two sides didn’t meet for almost six weeks, when the league extended a proposal via Zoom on January 13 that was promptly rejected by the players. As for why the players rejected the initial offer, that’s to be expected; traditionally, early in labor negotiations, the sides start very far apart and then slowly move closer to agreement. MLB actually refused to discuss core economic issues—free agency, the arbitration system, and revenue sharing— with the union initially, which is partially what led to an infamous seven-minute meeting early in the process. Meetings have been few and far between and when they have happened, they’ve been brief.

Recently, instead of responding to the latest offer from the union as promised, MLB instead formally requested a federal mediator to get involved, an odd request given that mediators—who are trained to facilitate conversations, not broker deals, and definitely don’t have the power to impose anything—usually enter the picture once two parties are approaching an agreement rather than miles apart, as MLB and the MLBPA seem to be. The union rejected the idea of meeting with a federal mediator, instead requesting MLB return to the bargaining table first so the two sides can work towards the broad strokes of an agreement before getting a mediator involved.

While it’s technically still possible for spring training to start on time, there is a very low likelihood that it will, and a growing likelihood that the season itself will have a delayed start. That said, deadlines spur action, and we’re quickly approaching the approximate deadline to be able to start Opening Day on time. Expect things to heat up soon, but even then, I wouldn’t go booking tickets to Peoria just yet.

I don’t side with the billionaire owners, but why should I side with the players? They’re all millionaires making more money in a year than I’ll ever see in my lifetime, and they get to play a kid’s game for a job.

There are a few different misconceptions mashed up in this very common refrain, but let’s take apart a handful of them:

There is more context to that graph—adjusting for inflation, etc.—but one of the largest revenue streams for ownership that has recently emerged is money from TV deals with regional sports networks (RSNs), in addition to national deals and a share in MLBAM, 85% of which was recently acquired by Disney for $3.7B.

Oh, and then there are the naming rights deals, which vary stadium-to-stadium (even the Reds, the smallest fish in ownership power at $400M, pulls in a couple million annually from GABP). These aren’t revenue streams so much as they are revenue waterfalls.

  • Finally, about that “kid’s game” part: baseball players would be the first to agree with you that they have a great job and feel incredibly lucky to be playing the game they love. They are also elite athletes—literally elite, the 0.5% of male high school baseball players who make it to pro ball; the old saw that you have a better chance of being struck by lightning than getting to MLB hits a little different as a pro-labor soundbite—who generally spend their in-season workdays putting in anywhere between ten and fifteen-hour days, and their off-season training days at about half that. For all that work, they’re now entitled to a career that’s gotten an average of over a year shorter than their predecessors twenty years ago, at just under four years (3.71 as of 2019). If you Google “MLB pension plan,” you’ll see a lot of outdated information (no, players don’t get lifetime healthcare after playing just one day in the majors), and probably a decades-old SABR article about how MLB has one of the best pension plans anywhere. That’s true, with one big caveat: you have to make it 10 years in the league to hit the upper level of that plan, and as we saw with Kyle Seager’s retirement, getting to that 10-year mark is a rare accomplishment, with only about 10% of players reaching that lofty mark.

Where should I go to get unbiased information about the labor negotiations?

Unfortunately, as that horribly-written AP article shows, objectivity can be hard to come by. It can sometimes be easier if there’s a bias that’s evident from the jump in evaluating a source, and it’s no secret that we at LL are pro-labor and tend to side with the players. But we believe it’s much better to get that out in the open rather than hiding behind the cloak of objectivity while subconsciously—or consciously—reporting one side’s talking points. One good thing to keep in mind when evaluating a source is: whose checks does the writer cash? An MLB dot com writer will have a certain slant; a reporter who relies heavily on access or super-secret-special-scoops might have another. In general, we’ve admired the work done by Jeff Passan at ESPN and Evan Drellich at The Athletic, but anyone can have their blind spots. Ask yourself “what would the other side say about this?” or “what’s missing?” as you’re reading, keep in mind who writes the checks, fact check the claims you see floating around on social media, and refer often to your own internal compass about what feels fair.