Baseball deserves kudos for sealing deal
New CBA ensures continued labor peace through 2016
Some of us remember all too well baseball's longest winter. The walkout and the cancellation of the World Series; Major League Baseball Players Association chief Donald Fehr playing the piano at 2:30 a.m. in Rye Brook, N.Y.; the attempted intervention by President Bill Clinton; replacement players; and finally, the thankful and rightful ruling by Judge Sonia Sotomayor that sent the game back to work.
Seventeen seasons have passed, and while some of those years were stained by the steroids issue, revenues are at a record level, and attendance has essentially grown through a recession.
As the final semicolons and parenthetical clauses are completed, baseball has a new Collective Bargaining Agreement. In light of the NFL, NBA and NHL labor problems, it is important for baseball to get this done, which Commissioner Bud Selig, MLB executive vice president of labor relations Rob Manfred and MLBPA president Michael Weiner all understood. In this economy, no one would tolerate a squabble between billionaires and millionaires, putting concessionaires, ticket-takers and ordinary lifers out of work.
Yes, it is important for the Commissioner's legacy, but also is vitally important for the sport he legitimately loves. Post-Mitchell Report, baseball will now have Human Growth Hormone testing to go with a program that suspended players with Cooperstown credentials. While the NFL has agreed to HGH testing, it still has not completed the kind of agreement baseball has in place.
The parties have agreed to a realignment that will even out the leagues to three divisions of five teams apiece; some of that season-long Interleague Play may be controversial, but it should improve the logistics of the scheduling system.
The agreement will add another Wild Card team and create elimination-game playoffs. Now, one-game playoffs may seem unfair, but the reward for winning a division will be greater and more fair. Television revenues are vital, and let's face it, elimination games are good television; as we have seen, audiences grow when series reach the elimination point.
There is, however, widespread belief that the disparity between small and big markets is not addressed in the new agreement.
The restrictions on the Draft virtually guarantee that baseball will not compete with college football and basketball for the extraordinary athletes like Austin Jackson (whom the Yankees bought out of a hoops ride to Georgia Tech) or Bubba Starling (whom the Royals swayed from a football scholarship to Nebraska). Not including Japanese players or older Cubans to the international limitations sends American kids the message that it's OK to spend $100 million for Yu Darvish or $35-50 million for Yoenis Cespedes, but teams may not spend $8 million on an American phenom. Check the 15 players who got $7 million or more in the Draft since 1997, and you'll see that they have been supreme talents, and when you're done there, think where the Tigers would have been the last three years without Rick Porcello -- considering how much they'd have had to spend on the open market for a third starter.
Most general managers believe that the revenue-sharing dollars saved from the Draft will simply go to middle- or lower-level free agents, which will not help the Pirates, Indians, Athletics, Padres, et al, with premium skill players.
If, on the other hand, the slotting system gets more outstanding teenagers to eschew pro ball and go the college baseball route, that is a good thing. If teams do not have to be subject to slotting and taxes on players signed for less than $100,000 after the 10th round, and that leads to more college players sticking it out for a fourth year and a degree, it will be a very good thing.
There may be no way to give small and rusted markets a better shake. But up and down the industry, there are serious concerns about the future viability of Tampa Bay, Oakland, Cleveland, Detroit, San Diego, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati ("How can they keep a great player like Joey Votto?" asks a GM), even Arizona, maybe even Miami, when the novelty of the ballpark, market aggression and cool new uniforms wear off.
It could well be that no agreement can lessen the growing disparity between the rich and the poor, and that while the three other sports have been shut down, baseball at least has maintained its peace and can look out at its American public and say the gap between rich and poor in baseball is growing at a far slower pace than the rest of society.
Judge Sotomayor ended Baseball's longest winter, and Commissioner Selig rose and made the sport a well-run, profitable and viable business. The MLBPA doesn't have to decertify, games do not have to be cancelled, the sport's television partners have been offered a better way to build October audiences and there was so much trust that even when discussions were ongoing, and the Basic Agreement was in suspended animation, Jonathan Papelbon was able to negotiate a $50 million deal with the Phillies and Jamey Carroll could get $6.75 million from the Twins.
No imposed system, no Homestead, Fla., tryout camp, no salary cap, no piano sonatas from Donald Fehr. Three years from now, they may well have to rethink the manipulation of the Draft, but those of us who remember where the game was in April 1995 and see where it is in November 2011 appreciate the greater good that has guaranteed an 18th consecutive uninterrupted season.
Peter Gammons is a columnist for MLB.com and an analyst for MLB Network. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.