New labor deal a truly significant achievement
Baseball ceased to be simply a game for me right around the time I was 13 years old and standing outside a vacant Wrigley Field in October 1994.Now, the easy joke here is that Wrigley Field has been vacant in plenty of Octobers other than '94, but suffice it to say it felt especially empty this time around. We were in Chicago on a family trip, and my brother, dad and I -- baseball fans that we were -- still felt compelled to visit the Friendly Confines, even as some rather unfriendly battles were being waged between the game's players and owners at the time. And I'll always remember the 8 1/2-by-11-inch sheet of paper taped to the ticket window, informing passersby that, well, there were no tickets to sell because of the player strike. It was a simple little sign and an overwhelmingly sad sight to a kid who still romanticized all that the game entailed. When the strike had officially been announced that August, I cried, because it effectively meant the end of a trip my dad and I had planned to watch some late-summer games. The truth is, I tried to swipe that sign right off the Wrigley window as my own way of preserving the memory of the moment. Alas, a nearby policeman took note and immediately told me to put it back. Baseball had truly ceased to be a stable of souvenirs. I'm remembering this now, because I'm thinking about all the 13-year-old baseball fans who have never seen the sport in such a sullied state. I've seen the '94 labor impasse referred to as "the strike to end all strikes," and here's hoping that's the case. Because in the two decades prior to that point, MLB had not gone more than five years without some sort of work stoppage. What we have now is peace between players and owners that would have seemed impossible in '94. It's peace that resulted in Tuesday's collective bargaining agreement announcement -- the conclusion of negotiations led by Commissioner Bud Selig and Rob Manfred for the owners and Michael Weiner for the players that, when held relative to the rancor that delayed the start of training camp in the NFL and currently divides the NBA, were remarkable in their efficiency. By the time this CBA concludes on Dec. 1, 2016, MLB will have enjoyed 21 years of labor peace, and our first step in analyzing this agreement and its implications ought to be to reflect on the magnitude of that achievement, first and foremost. Will that be the ultimate legacy for Selig, who has made public his plans to step down after 2012? Well, labor peace is an expectation of fans, but, as we've seen in this and other sports, it's not at all easy to pull off. No matter your feelings on Wild Cards or Interleague Play, you must agree that important lessons were learned from the hard reality that was a World Series-less 1994 -- for Selig and so many others. And the game's stability, popularity and competitive balance have grown by leaps and bounds in the years since. As far as the nitty gritty details that comprise this CBA, it is clear that both sides made some notable concessions on the road to a handshake. And while said concessions might only be talking points for so-called "inside baseball" enthusiasts at present, they'll undoubtedly have implications down the line. The extent of those implications, particularly with regard to the acquisition of amateur talent, will be intriguing to track. In the immediate, with the expansion of the Wild Card format and the Astros' move to the American League having both been covered at length upon their announcement at last week's General Mangers Meetings, what will generate major headlines is the initiation of blood testing for human growth hormone, an expansion of MLB's efforts to rid the game of illegal performance-enhancing drugs. This is the first provision in North American sports that allows a league to draw blood samples from its players to test for HGH. Players will be tested in the spring and subjected to random tests in the winter. But tests will only be issued "for reasonable cause" during the season, and the manner in which those decisions are made will determine how invasive and effective the policy ultimately becomes. Like the lost World Series, the steroid scandal seems to have brought owners and players closer together. Both black marks have brought about changes for the better, because both sides realized they had to work together to repair what was ailing the game. The game has undoubtedly grown in its global reach, as well as the manner in which fans track and digest it, day in and day out. And its technological advances are extending to the field, where instant replay continues to be adopted incrementally. The new CBA calls for its use on fair or foul calls down the line as well as trapped balls in the outfield, and this is a necessary expansion, subject to discussions with the umpire's union, of the use of replay on disputed home-run decisions. There are many other components to the agreement, from the rightly reactionary (after so many stars opted out of heading to Phoenix this year, participation in the All-Star Game will be mandatory, sans injury or permission from the Commissioner's Office) to the culturally correct (players cannot use chewing tobacco during interviews or appearances and cannot carry tobacco tins in their uniforms). Rookies will make more money, and more players will attain "Super 2" status in salary arbitration each year, and these are obvious perks afforded to the players. But while all of the above are important pieces of the picture, the impact on amateur talent and its acquisition will probably be the primary point by which this CBA is remembered. For one, the Draft compensation rules that have sometimes affected players' free-agent market values has been completely reworked, so that signing teams lose a prominent Draft pick only if they offer a salary equal to the average of the top 125-paid players in the game. Also, teams will be penalized -- either by money alone or by money and future Draft picks -- for overspending, in aggregate, on Draft bonuses. This undoubtedly harms small-market clubs who would willingly spend well over the slot recommendations in the Draft as a means to reel in top talent and build for the future. They can still do so with a player here or there, but that will impact the amount of money they have to spend on other picks. Some of this hit might be offset by the lottery system that will be initiated after the first and second rounds, wherein small-market and low-revenue teams will be given extra Draft selections. International players under the age of 23 are going to be considered on the same basis for tax purposes as the stateside talent, with teams getting a specific "signing-bonus pool," based on reverse order of the standings. Eventually, teams will have the ability to trade away their international money to other teams if they have no intention of using it. This is all a likely gateway to an eventual international Draft. All told, this will serve to limit the signing-bonus dollars an amateur athlete can expect to obtain when he becomes a professional ballplayer. Already, this has led some in the industry to speculate what that could mean for the elite two-sport athlete trying to choose a career path. Only time will tell how prominent and how permanent these elements are. It is entirely possible that this will lead to future discussion about and future changes to the Draft and signing system. The labor agreement could prove to be a starting point, in that regard. But for now, what we need to understand and appreciate about this CBA is this: Even with some truly impactful issues on the table, for players and teams alike, an agreement was reached without acrimony and without the slightest threat of a work stoppage. That's something the 13-year-old inside of us ought to appreciate.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.