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For Major League Baseball, spring may not be in the air

Scott German
(© Sean Gladwell – stock.adobe.com)

Spring training around Major League Baseball is less than a month away, with Feb. 15 the reporting day for pitchers and catchers in the Grapefruit League (Florida) and Cactus League (Arizona).

Since Major League Baseball locked out its players on Dec 2, the two sides have met just once, by Zoom, and in that meeting the owners made a new proposal. The players will counter it on Monday at an in-person meeting in New York. At least the two sides are finally meeting face-to-face.

There’s a lot of offseason business left to settle regarding trades and free-agent signings that, without a new Collective Bargaining Agreement within the next few weeks, spring training starting on time is unlikely.

Spring training is too long (six weeks) with about 32 exhibition games per team. Players today condition and train year-round. You won’t see any major leaguers working as greeters at the local Walmart during the offseason.

Players don’t get paid for spring training; they do get expenses. Clubs don’t charge regular-season prices for the mostly meaningless games. They are basically photo-ops of players basking in the bright sun from Florida or Arizona, while many of their fan bases are digging out from a winter snowstorm.

The issues

The Players Association pleads the case that they have taken a step in the wrong direction since the last CBA was signed in 2016. The average salary has fallen since 2017 and, indeed, while large contracts have been handed out, many teams, not just small-market teams, have filled their rosters with younger and far less expensive players.

Currently a player is under team control for six years; the MLBPA seeks a faster route to free agency and at least arbitration, and higher minimum salaries for younger players. And most important, the MLBPA is demanding a salary floor-but no salary cap for team payroll. To date, neither side has given an inch their positions.

The two sides

The MLBPA believes that a higher minimum payroll will make MLB more competitive. The owners? They believe a higher minimum payroll will further prohibit small market franchises from being consistently competitive. Owners are united in saying that a shorter path to free agency (currently six years) makes it harder for franchises to fully develop prospects and again penalizes smaller market teams.

Players don’t like new rules; fans don’t like them either. Baseball has suffered at the box office through two seasons of the pandemic era of baseball. Both players and fans are adamant on certain issues – primarily on how the game is played.

The fans complain the game takes too long to complete and moves at a snail’s pace. Pace of the game is citied as the main culprit to the decline in both television ratings and attendance. Commissioner Rob Manfred could have imposed a pitch clock with a year’s notice to players, but instead declined, saying he “didn’t want to further anger the union.”

When the lockout began, Manfred said discussions on the rules of the game weren’t on the table, but recently stated he hoped rules could be addressed after a new five-year agreement was reached. Talk about changing the rules after the game has started!

The players balked at some of the rules adopted for the 2020 and 2021 seasons: the automatic runner on second to begin each extra inning, and seven-inning doubleheaders. Players don’t want to put a cap on the length of the game (see NFL overtime rules). Seems many players are of the old-school mentality and don’t see the need to make the game fit in a nicely wrapped box to suit television scheduling.

In the end, the fans draw the short straw:  fans (like me) want to make plans for spring training trips, purchase single-game or season ticket plans, all difficult to impossible with the current lockout. Turning off fan bases is the last thing baseball should be doing.  MLB is falling further behind the ever-popular NFL, and even soccer (yikes!) is creeping up on baseball popularity.

Here’s hoping that in the next few weeks the two sides will sit down across from each other and act like grown adults and make serious progress toward an agreement and end the lockout. Allowing me to hop on expedia.com and snatch a cheap flight down to Sarasota and put the snow shovel away for a few days or so.

Story by Scott German

Scott German

Scott German

Scott German covers UVA Athletics for AFP, and is the co-host of “Street Knowledge” podcasts focusing on UVA Athletics with AFP editor Chris Graham. Scott has been around the ‘Hoos his whole life. As a reporter, he was on site for UVA basketball’s Final Fours, in 1981 and 1984, and has covered UVA football in bowl games dating back to its first, the 1984 Peach Bowl.