The Major League Baseball season is supposed to start on March 31.
Whether or not that actually happens is very much in the air.
Team owners and the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) have been involved in a particularly acrimonious set of labor negotiations that culminated in the owners locking out the players earlier this winter.
To make it as clear as possible: Whether the major league baseball season starts on time is entirely up to the team owners. They can keep waiting, leveraging lost games and wages against the players until they get a favorable agreement. They could also end the lockout right now, let players come back to work, and either force the players to strike or to continue playing under the terms of the most recent collective bargaining agreement.
Both the players and the owners very much want to come away with whatever constitutes a “win” from the current negotiations. From the players’ perspective, they feel they have come out behind in the last several negotiations and very much want to make up lost ground. For the owners, they feel they have the players association on the ropes, and that by applying just enough pressure, they can break the last two labor pillars that set Major League Baseball apart from the other major professional sports leagues in the U.S: fully guaranteed contracts with no maximum amount, and no hard salary cap.
Managing to end one of those two in the current negotiations would be a big win for owners, but if they could get both, they would end the players union as a significant bargaining power.
The problem the players face in trying to come out with a win from the lockout is one of public relations and marketing.
The owners are a smaller, almost exclusively white and male group of wealthy individuals, united in the common purpose of becoming even more wealthy.
The players have union representatives from each team. Still, they must try to strike a deal acceptable to a diverse range of players, both rookies and vets, players from countries across the globe, and from a wide range of backgrounds and experiences. Veteran players want to find a way to make sure that the money they have paid their dues for comes their way. Younger players want to find a way to make more money faster, to take advantage of the limited window every professional athlete has to make use of their natural gifts and talent.
You will notice that everything I said about the players involved them wanting to make more money, which is true. That is the core of what the players want: To be paid in a manner they feel is fair and equitable and what the market dictates.
What the owners want is also to make more money. But because they are a smaller group and quickly come to a consensus on offers and plans, they can hide the desire to make more money by creating proposals they say are in the best interests of the fans and the sport and the players- things like expanded playoffs, bonus pools for players who haven’t reached free agency, or even a salary floor to go along with a salary cap.
All things that sound good on the surface but allow them to hide the fact that their proposals also boil down to the core ideal of making more money.
As the start of spring training looms, it appears that not much progress has been made at the bargaining table. That leaves the owners with two choices: persist with the lockout and hope the union caves, or end the lockout and put the ball in the union’s court if they want to strike.
A strike by the players would be a catastrophic decision on their part. Then the owners really could put proof to their spin that they want what is best for the game, and the players are just being greedy. Instead, they need to hold the line, and if the owners end the lockout, get back to work, knowing that the owner’s biggest weapon is now used up while you continue negotiating.
If the owners persist with the lockout, the players need to seize the public relations opportunity granted to them. The players should be showing up to Arizona and Florida and then to their team’s home cities if the lockout continues into the regular season. Rent out city fields, play free, light-hearted exhibitions for fans. Maybe even take a few little league teams with you to peer mournfully through the fences of the stadiums where the players are not allowed to pay. Those are images and scenes none of the owners want.
The players also need to be abundantly clear they didn’t want this situation. They need to say publicly, loudly, and repeatedly that they want to play and that owners are not letting them. To date, they have largely been playing right into the owners’ hands by swapping proposals back and forth and giving ground while ownership gives up relatively little. Only when the players stop playing by the owners’ rules will anything start to give. Once that happens, we’ll finally know if and when the Major League Baseball season will start.