Henning: With vast labor issues to iron out, here’s why there’s hope MLB will begin on time

Detroit News

Tigers followers ache for those old late-January moments that told you Lakeland, Florida, and spring training’s Grapefruit League bliss, were days away.

There was the annual Saturday morning exercise in frigidity, TigerFest, where people blowing condescension from their mouths didn’t mind standing in line in single-digit weather waiting for a chance to see Tigers players and re-stoke their baseball fire.

There was the sacred rite of sending newspaper photographers to Comerica Park (and in earlier decades, Tiger Stadium) as the equipment truck was loaded with bats and uniforms and workout gear for its trek south to Florida and six weeks of spring camp.

The timeline since has been walloped by COVID. TigerFest hasn’t been on the January menu the past two winters.

This year, no one knows when spring training and Grapefruit League games will get rolling.

There’s a labor lockout jamming everyone’s spring-training radar.

The shutdown is affecting my business, as well. This month we would have been having steady chats ahead of Florida’s spring fling about rosters, and new players, and what general manager Al Avila was thinking about a team’s chances in 2022, along with thoughts from a skipper, AJ Hinch, who has the baseball town in his thrall.

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It would have been fun stuff as the dead of winter smothers Michigan. But the lockout/blackout is complete. Team execs can’t even talk with media during this labor Cold War.

The issues are thick and contentious. Fans don’t care to hear about other people’s money squabbles, particularly guys as wealthy as owners and as comparatively well-heeled as players. But these talks intended to produce a new collective bargaining agreement are so heavy, so packed with firm ground on which two sides are digging in, that fans might want to put themselves in either side’s shoes.

Because fans who are irked and unsettled by the current freeze would be doing the same thing: rolling up sleeves for serious bargaining-table issues that are indeed all about money and what people believe to be their fair share.

Those who became MLB owners because of business acumen insist on running a sane business. Players who can have a short window to earn optimum cash also insist that economic justice be served.

If you believe baseball people should be exempt from realities that play out differently but with equal passion in other corridors of life and commerce, so be it. But in this view, it’s not a fair or objective take on what’s happening in 2022.

Here are a few of the tangles two sides eventually will iron out, with a couple of national labor experts suggesting the fight won’t cost fans any 2022 regular-season games:

►MLB revenue jumped during the past five-year CBA ($8.2 billion in 2017 to $10.7 billion in 2019 — ahead of COVID gashing income). But the average player’s salary in 2021 ($4.17 million) was 6.4% lower than it was in 2017.

►Owners would like to offer that relative escape-from-jail, free agency, to all players at 29.5 years of age. Younger players who by 22 or 23 or a bit older often are helping teams to playoffs and World Series parades wonder: Are you nuts?

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►Players want faster paths to free agency, or at least faster tracks to salary arbitration (two years preferred as opposed to the current three-year wait). They also want free agency to be just that — free. When teams often must forfeit a draft pick to sign a billboard star, it can tamp down interest and offers. Players also want “service time” alterations, which currently can allow teams to call to the big leagues in late May a rookie player who won’t get credit for a full year of work toward free agency.

►Owners want 14-team playoffs, which worked more than fine when it was installed as a remedy to 2020 and the COVID-reduced season. Players will go along with playoff expansion, but, oh yes, they choose to be compensated with some of the cash extra playoffs bring to MLB coffers.

►Owners want lower payrolls. Thus, they would appreciate the luxury-tax — a penalty paid for over-spending on player salaries in a given year — dropped from $210 million to maybe $180 million. MLB players, who wisely fight against the tight salary cap that has semi-shackled NFL, NBA, and NHL players, say, “Nothing doing.” They’re thinking more in terms of the luxury tax (in their view, it already functions as a salary cap) being raised to $245 million. Owners appear resigned to offering some padding there.

►Owners are sensitive to the charge some teams can “tank” as a means to keep payrolls low and early draft-picks coming their way. Contrary to popular local opinion, the Tigers didn’t “tank” during their long rebuild. They got rid of indefensible red ink, took their lashes after over-spending and over-committing to too many contracts, and got into a legitimate rebuild when they accepted the game-changing draft picks that now have put a valid re-do in motion.

►In something of a progressive move, owners are warming to thoughts of a salary base — perhaps in the $100 million range — to keep some teams (hello, Pirates, among others) from playing more for poverty than for competitiveness. They also might buy into an NBA and NHL-style lottery system for determining an early-overall draft order.

►Owners want an international draft rather than abiding by the current, often-sordid, world of signing Latin teens to deals that can leave too many involved parties feeling jobbed. Players are OK with that, to a point, as long as the Latin kids aren’t being signed for a pittance of what United States amateurs make.

More: Two Tigers among Baseball America’s top 5 prospects for 2022, 3 in top 100

The points cited above stand as a basic framework for topics that no fan should see as being easily resolved.

After tracking these MLB labor disputes for an even 50 years, it seems this one could lead to (a) a later-into-March start for spring camp and (b) a delayed 2022 regular season, with Opening Day likely closer to April 20 and maybe a 145-game schedule .

The good news for fans: Labor professionals said they expect the regular season to begin, unimpeded, even if spring training might lose a few days.

The experts both work for a national labor-relations giant, Fisher & Phillips, based in Atlanta. Todd Lyon is chair of the firm’s labor-relations practice group. Alex Desrosiers is an attorney in Fisher & Phillips’ sports-member group, which includes MLB dealings.

“I understand there’s more realism than pessimism,” Desrosiers said during a Friday conference call, while acknowledging that some past CBA economic issues were delayed ahead of what was likely to be a tough 2022 reckoning. “History is on the side of everything not happening on time in terms of Opening Day, including a condensed spring training, the closer we get to those (MLB) deadlines.”

Desrosiers added this nugget:

“But the more likely scenario is that both sides are going to be giving up some ground. There’s nothing different here than would be found in any courthouse litigation.

“I still stand firm in my projection from an article I wrote a few weeks ago that we’re not going to miss any games. The closer we get to the prospect of everybody missing out on dollars, the more likely this (new CBA) will be hashed out.”

In a nod to fans apoplectic about baseball being delayed, or a season even lost as was the case during MLB’s last bloody war, in 1995, Lyon said he understood the roiling, intensifying, bad blood fans harbor as they all but dare baseball to fool with Opening Day.

“From a fan’s perspective,” Lyon said, any delay to baseball in 2022 “is mutual destruction for both sides.”

Lyon, though, agreed with Desrosiers. He is “confident,” he said, that owners and the players association will sign a new CBA before a season is gouged.

The assorted economic issues are so sticky, 2022 was shaping up to be a likely labor war as a new five-year deal is considered.

The players were widely viewed — Desrosiers happens to agree — to have given more than they gave in 2017, opting, it seemed, for adjustments in scheduling and amenities while not playing hardball on financial matters.

More: Tigers’ international recruiting class highlighted by 17-year-old shortstop Osorio

That is going to change in 2022. To prove it, the players association decided to gird its current executive director, one-time Tigers star Tony Clark, with more muscle in the persons of labor lawyers Bruce Meyer and Jeffrey Kessler.

“The thought prevails that the players kind of gave up the farm in terms of that one (2017), and didn’t get all the stuff they should have gotten on the economic side,” Desrosiers said.

“I think most people following (2022 CBA talks) knew this was going to be a fight.”

Which it most certainly is — a heavyweight bout that almost certainly will gnaw at fans who are itching for sunshine, palm trees, pitchers and catchers reporting.

For Tigers fans, it’s those Grapefruit League games, with the sound of Dan Dickerson’s play-by-play reassuring that baseball and green grass are on the way back, that signal winter’s end ahead of that grand civic holiday, which is Opening Day at Comerica Park.

Now, guys, just give that negotiating table a workout. And put some ink in place.

Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.

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