Kobritz: Too early to predict a strike in baseball
February is one of the best times of the year for baseball fans. Players report to spring training camps in Florida and Arizona and optimism abounds — our team will win the World Series!
For those of us who live in cold country, better yet if we can journey south to watch our favorite players prepare for the season while simultaneously enjoying the warm sun.
In addition to games and workouts, spring training includes way too much free time for players and members of the press, time the players can fill with golf, fishing or playing video games. The media, on the other hand, needs topics to expound on beyond the clichéd, “Johnny showed up in the best shape of his life” headline. This year, the first reports out of spring training had players lamenting the dearth of free agent signings for the second consecutive winter, and debating what they can or should do about it.
Many players criticized the Collective Bargaining Agreement, specifically how the owners have manipulated it to their advantage. Some players guaranteed a strike to remedy the current state of affairs. Adam Wainwright, St. Louis Cardinals pitcher, said, “Unless something changes, there’s going to be a strike, 100 percent.” Philadelphia Phillies reliever Pat Neshek told USA Today, “I think you’re going to have to burn the whole system down.”
For players such as Neshek and Wainwright, a brief history lesson may be in order.
For almost 25 years, MLB has had labor peace and players and owners have gotten rich. For players, their financial streak actually began in 1968 when Marvin Miller negotiated the first CBA. Players enjoyed year-over-year salary gains in all but four of the past 50 years - 2018 being the most recent of the four outliers — along with benefits that includes a pension the envy of every union in the country. Despite an average salary north of $4 million, players’ percentage of industry revenues has been falling. The additional percentage going to the owners is money players believe they are entitled to.
Lost in the strident rhetoric from players is the fact they negotiated and approved the CBA. Arbitration doesn’t kick in until three years of major league service? Players agreed to that. Teams manipulate service time to delay free agency for an additional year? A permitted tactic under the CBA. The competitive balance, or luxury, tax is rising slower than industry revenues? The players voted for those thresholds. No minimum team salary floors? That’s a principle the union has considered inviolate.
Players can kick themselves for agreeing to the terms of the CBA, but the past is history. If they want to change the system, the first step is the negotiating table. While some players use the “S” word, union executive director Tony Clark has generally preached conversation, as he should.
It’s premature to talk about a strike — the current CBA doesn’t expire until after the 2021 season. If change proves elusive, then we’ll see if the players have the appetite to walk out.
Jordan Kobritz is a non-practicing attorney and CPA, former Minor League Baseball team owner and current investor in MiLB teams. He is a professor in the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland and maintains the blog, sportsbeyondthelines.com. The opinions contained in this column are the author’s. Kobritz can be reached by email at email@example.com.