SBJ/April 4-10, 2011/In Depth

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While some leagues face a labor showdown, MLB and its players say they see little in the way of getting a deal done on time

The irony of baseball’s labor landscape is simply impossible to ignore. After more than three decades of vicious warring between management and labor, including a historic 1994 strike that eliminated that year’s World Series, Major League Baseball stands in a conspicuously peaceful place compared with the NFL, NBA and NHL.

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Baseball's quiet, early start to labor negotiations contrasts the unrest seen in other pro sports leagues.
Each of those other leagues are either currently in a work stoppage or are soon to begin their own seismic debates on industry economics. But baseball has already held two formal bargaining sessions toward forging a new deal to replace the current five-year accord that expires in December.

With that start to negotiations, at least several weeks earlier than normal for MLB and the players association, there was no saber rattling and no tough talk publicly of being at “war,” as has been the case between the NFL and that league’s players association. Instead it’s been a quiet, earnest effort to roll up sleeves and get to work.

“I don’t see either side bargaining for fundamental, radical changes to the system,” said Michael Weiner, MLBPA executive director. Weiner has been with the union for more than two decades, but this set of talks is the first since he replaced Donald Fehr as the organization’s lead figure in 2009. “Both sides are well-prepared for bargaining. There’s been a lot of preparation.”

Indeed, each side has spent more than a year readying for formal negotiations. MLB Commissioner Bud Selig has invited the 30 team general managers to quarterly owners meetings since January 2010 to canvass opinion on industry issues such as the First-Year Player Draft, postseason format and arbitration rules. Selig made the move in large part due to on-field issues being expected to take a historically disproportionate amount of time and prominence in the talks.

Similarly, the union’s player relations staff over the course of last year held extensive meetings with players to gather individual insight and opinion, adding to the usual team-by-team canvassing of players that Weiner does.

After all that preparatory work, there is no desire on either side to risk a work stoppage, particularly Selig, who could be in the final two years of his nearly two-decade tenure as commissioner and is looking to buttress his legacy, or Weiner, who is just beginning to write his. And though no one will say it publicly, many executives within baseball believe the sport now has a major opportunity to distinguish itself with continued labor peace while the other leagues continue or prepare to fight.

“The philosophical issues in this sport are for the most part resolved. That’s such a major change given where they were at the start of Bud’s tenure [in 1992],” said Marc Ganis, a Chicago-based sports consultant who has advised numerous MLB teams, including the New York Yankees.

That doesn’t mean, however, the talks will be simple. Selig last fall predicted an “intense” round of negotiations, and many corrections are still needed, particularly with regard to how players enter the sport, are able to manage their own careers through free agency and arbitration, and how teams manage debt. And even in the easiest of negotiations, creating a new collective-bargaining agreement will almost certainly require at least six months of active work.

But both sides are speaking now of negotiations as an opportunity, as opposed to a chore, to make those corrections, and are trying to maintain their labor momentum over the past decade.

“2006 [when a deal was struck weeks ahead of the expiration of the prior pact] was sort of a watershed for us. We did the deal in ’02 literally right at the deadline, but ’06 was a big next step in the progression for us,” said Rob Manfred, MLB executive vice president for labor relations and human resources. “Our experiences in those two negotiations have been really instructive. So I’m optimistic that we’ll be able to make an agreement this time with a minimum of problems.”

To that end, both sides are fully cognizant of the labor woes elsewhere in pro sports, but don’t expect that to infuse the baseball talks.

“We go in certainly aware of what’s happening, and it’s part of the context of what we discuss,” Weiner said. “That said, we have our own history, our own approach, and we’re going to make our own decisions. I would hope and expect the owners take their cues from our own bargaining relationship.”

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