On December 2, 2021, Major League Baseball’s owners made the short-sighted and aggressive decision to impose an offseason lockout on the sport, freezing 40-man rosters and barring players and team employees from communicating. It has been one month since that fateful day ended more than 25 years of relative labor peace in baseball, and as we emerge from the holiday season into what is typically a very busy part of the offseason, let’s take stock of where this story stands so far.
In the days prior to the Collective Bargaining Agreement’s expiration on December 1st, representatives from Major League Baseball and the Player’s Association met in Texas to try to hammer out an agreement. It went about as well as the negotiations for the shortened 2020 season, which means it really didn’t occur at all, with league ownership making demands of the players that were designed to kill any potential offer and delay the negotiations long enough so that they could institute the lockout.
Immediately after the lockout went into effect, Rob Manfred published, “A letter to baseball fans,” a highly disingenuous statement that attempted to pin the blame for the lockout on the players. In it, the league’s commissioner said that he was “disappointed” that he was “forced” to implement a “defensive lockout” because the players were “unwilling to move from their starting position, compromise, or collaborate on solutions.” It was a long, drawn-out statement that claimed that the league’s financial system wasn’t broken and that the players were fighting to implement a vision that would “threaten the ability of most teams to be competitive.”
In response, the MLBPA issued the following statement, notable for its brevity:
Statement from the Major League Baseball Players Association: pic.twitter.com/34uIGf762W— MLBPA Communications (@MLBPA_News) December 2, 2021
MLBPA Executive Director Tony Clark added the following:
“This drastic and unnecessary measure 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.”
At the same time these statements dropped, MLB made the curious decision to completely wipe any trace of modern players from its website. Citing legal concerns over the use of player likenesses, they removed any articles about active players, replaced all player pictures with generic silhouettes that make everyone from Gerrit Cole to Andrew Velazquez look like a user-created player from MVP Baseball 2005, and turned all site content into retrospectives on the sport’s history.
Legal experts, however, have struggled to identify what exact legal concerns the league are worried about, especially considering the fact that the league continues to sell jerseys and other gear on its website. Nathaniel Grow, a professor of business law and ethics at Indiana University, suggested to The Athletic that it was concerns over the uniform player contract, which states that the team can use images of the player for marketing purposes, although he does note that since the players are still technically under contract, the scrubbing is probably not legally required.
For what it’s worth, the scrubbing is not even limited to just websites, with the teams removing signs featuring active players from the stadium. Most laughably, this resulted in the Philadelphia Phillies removing a banner celebrating Bryce Harper’s MVP award a mere 12 days after it was put in place.
Some, including myself, wonder if the move at its heart represents an attempt to apply pressure to the players, albeit one that is so incredibly small it borders on pettiness. In either case, it appears that the move had the opposite effect, as a number of players have instead changed their profile picture to the silhouette in solidarity to mock the league’s move.
While this was going on, baseball writers began to break down the lockout for fans, in particular explaining the economic issues that sit at the core of the dispute. Writing for Forbes, Anthony Witrado notes that MLB essentially wants to keep the status quo because the status quo is extremely in their favor. Chelsea Janes of the Washington Post goes into more detail, highlighting how the league points to the high salaries of the game’s elite players, while the union is instead fighting to get younger players and baseball’s “middle class” paid at a rate more comparable to their value on the field. Numerous writers, meanwhile, have gone into detail on the league’s rising revenues and declining payrolls over the last decade.
After the initial storm of reactions petered out and the lockout became business-as-usual for baseball, we began to get a glimpse of how the baseball world has settled into a life locked out. Ranging from awkward Christmas dinners to a lack of communication between injured players and their training and coaching staffs, the league’s decision to essentially shut down the baseball world has simply complicated the baseball world — and because the league and union have not negotiated on anything serious in the month of December, for absolutely no reason at all.
And why has this lockout truly been pointless, at least so far? Because there has been almost no negotiation since the owners implemented the lockout, with the exception of a brief meeting in mid-December that was specifically about “noncore” issues such as the PED policies, the joint domestic violence/sexual assault/child abuse policy, and protocols for filing grievances — all important topics that need to be discussed, but at the end of the day, they have absolutely nothing to do with the lockout. Conversations about revenue sharing, expanded playoff, tanking, free agency, service time manipulation, and the like will not occur until some point in January...which means any day now, hopefully.
Whenever these negotiations resume, however, expect them to be contentious. From the day the lockout began, both sides blamed the other for it, and that public posturing has not let up in the meantime. This is an understandable negotiation tactic, an attempt to sway public opinion by portraying themselves as the victim.
This time around, it appears that the players are winning the PR battle, at least online. Over the last few weeks, both sportswriters and financial experts have penned pieces on the lockout, most of which have a decidedly pro-player slant. Stephanie Apstein of Sports Illustrated advocated for the players seizing their own narratives after the league essentially “erased” them, in order to help break through the “millionaire vs. billionaire” oversimplification that is often thrown around. Jules Posner of Forbes.com, meanwhile, reframes the discussion from “millionaires vs. billionaires” to “employee vs. employer,” writing:
Even if the MLB working class has some millionaires, MLB’s work stoppage is just a microcosm of the larger socioeconomic landscape. There are pensions, health insurance coverage, and salary considerations with broad implications on the table for the next CBA—all very real labor issues impacting real laborers. Even a victory for MLB workers is still a victory for all workers.
Meanwhile, for the first time, the amount of money that owners have access to is taking center stage. MLB Trade Rumors’ Darragh McDonald provided a summary of MLB owners’ net worth — with sources! — in a format akin to a rundown on free agent contract values. Despite their immense resources and the fact that the league is seeing record revenues, total payroll has dropped since 2017, now reaching the levels it was at in 2015. Kevin B. Blackistone of the Washington Post warns fans not to trust the owners, who are trying to spin the lockout and their own financial position in order to win the PR battle. They claim that the sport is in a dire financial position and needs to rein in expenditures to keep the sport afloat, but then refuse to open up their books even to the players they are negotiating with to prove it. Going back to last year’s negotiations for the pandemic-shortened season, Ken Rosenthal reported that the financial data given to the players was described by the union attorney as “so heavily redacted as to be essentially meaningless.”
While this has been going on, many players have gone on the record, both in talking to members of the media and through their own social media accounts, discussing what they are looking for out of the negotiations. Zack Britton, Marcus Semien, and Lucas Giolito appeared on Jomboy Media’s Chris Rose Rotation this past week and expressed frustration with the current lack of negotiations, with the Yankees reliever saying, “We feel like we’ve offered some good proposals. And really we didn’t get anything from their end in Dallas (in negotiations during the final few days of November).” Giolito added more details, saying:
“We’re here, we’re ready to negotiate. We’re pretty much waiting on MLB. We’ve made our proposals, we’ve made multiple proposals right before they decided to lock us out. They said no, they weren’t interested at the time. … We’re not going to negotiate against ourselves. It takes two to tango.”
Beyond this understandably frustrating issue, the trio also discussed the players’ major goals, which include attacking tanking and the low salaries of young star players. Britton highlighted in particular Aaron Judge and Juan Soto, two “guys that are superstars who come into the league and just tear it up” but who are forced to wait multiple seasons to earn salaries commensurate with the value they bring to their teams.
Formal interviews and public appearances by high-ranking union officials are not the only ways that players have shown agency in the lockout. Jameson Taillon drew attention on the fact that the players have no contact with their trainers by mocking it on Twitter.
Since MLB chose to lock us out, i’m not able to work with our amazing team Physical Therapists who have been leading my post surgery care/progression. Now that I’m in charge of my own PT- what should my first order of business be? I’m thinking I’m done with this boot. It can go— Jameson Taillon (@JTaillon50) December 2, 2021
Many Quadruple-A types — i.e., those who float on the border between major league bench piece and Triple-A starter and who would likely receive a spring training invite — have opted to head overseas and play for Korean and Japanese teams next year, including former Yankees Chris Gittens, Mike Tauchman, Iván Nova, Brooks Kriske, Breyvic Valera, and Socrates Brito.
And that leads us at last to today, January 2nd, 2022. In recent years, the Yankees have been busy in the opening days of the year, signing Troy Tulowitzki, DJ LeMahieu (twice), and Corey Kluber, and trading for Jameson Taillon before the year turned a month old. For the time being, however, the hot stove remains in the off position, and all we can do is hope that the negotiations will be short.