MESA, Ariz. — The pop of leather and the crack of wood reverberated through Bell Bank Park, a sprawling sports and entertainment facility outfitted with turf baseball fields and an expansive weight room. Professional baseball players, somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 of them, threw bullpen sessions and took batting practice there on Tuesday, another critical day in an ongoing labor dispute that has delayed spring training and threatened the 2022 season.
Major League Baseball declared Tuesday the deadline to play a full 162-game season and thus pay players for a full year of work. This came eight days after a league-imposed deadline to play Opening Day as scheduled and 97 days after the expiration of a previous collective bargaining agreement, which triggered the owner-imposed lockout.
The strategy of using deadlines to trigger action was not lost on players.
“It’s an interesting concept,” Chicago White Sox closer Liam Hendriks said. “It’s been frustrating from a player’s point of view.”
Hendriks, among a handful of alternate union reps on his team, wore a black cap and a black T-shirt emblazoned with the MLB Players’ Association logo. The MLBPA opened the camp shortly after talks broke down in Jupiter, Florida, last week to give players a place to train while the lockout persisted. Close to 80 of them have put their names on the list of interested participants, and an increasing number of them have continued to filter in over the past handful of days.
Mitch Haniger of the Seattle Mariners, Austin Slater of the San Francisco Giants, Kyle Hendricks of the Chicago Cubs and Brusdar Graterol and Blake Treinen of the Los Angeles Dodgers were among the major leaguers in attendance. (Trevor Bauer, who spent the last four months of the 2022 season on the restricted list while fighting sexual assault charges, made a brief appearance and left without speaking to the media.)
The union and the league have been engaged in talks ever since the two sides left Jupiter, an encouraging sign for those who wondered if the postponement of Opening Day might trigger a lag in bargaining. The two sides met face to face in New York for about 20 minutes on Tuesday but were expected to continue negotiating throughout the night. There was optimism throughout the industry after reports surfaced that the owners had agreed to an increase in the competitive balance tax threshold, but Slater, the Giants’ player rep, was staying even keel.
“I’ve just told myself not to get too hopeful,” he said. “We’re letting them negotiate. I want a deal to get done. I hope the owners want a deal to get done. As players, we’re just sticking to our points. We want something that’s an equitable share of the pie. And that’s all we’re asking for right now. Hopefully there’s some movement today. If not, we’re willing to stand until there is.”
Players have backed off initial requests for earlier free agency, automatic arbitration after two years of service time and a decrease in revenue sharing. The gap now, at least with regard to core economics, revolves around minimum salaries, the competitive balance tax and the amount of money that will fund a new player pool that will provide additional compensation to players who are not yet arbitration-eligible.
As the process has moved forward and the two sides have inched closer, the league has imposed deadlines for the cancellation of games with the thought that players will need a minimum of four weeks to get ready for the regular season. But players and union leaders are wary of the league using those deadlines to pressure them into a deal they’re not comfortable with, an idea presented by Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Ross Stripling when he told Sportsnet.ca that the league was trying to “sneak things through us” while negotiating into the wee hours of the morning on March 1.
“I don’t understand why it’s taken so long to get to a point where we’re somewhat close,” Hendriks said. “We’re close, and then certain things are just thrown in there in the end just to try and beat us. And I think Ross Stripling said it best — we’re being treated as kind of those dumb jocks.”
The league canceled the first two series of the regular season after the two sides failed to reach an agreement early last week and have threatened to cancel another week of games if Tuesday doesn’t produce a new CBA. Commissioner Rob Manfred initially declared that the lost games could not be made up, but the league has since softened on that stance, stating that players can be in spring training camps as early as Friday and that the six or seven lost games can be made up with off-days and doubleheaders.
Players have remained firm on their desire to accrue a full season’s worth of pay and service time regardless of the schedule, tying those demands to their approval of expanded playoffs. But the longer these negotiations persist, the trickier that component will become.
“You feel for the fans,” Treinen said. “I’ve been a fan longer than I’ve been a player. I put myself in their shoes. And I know people can judge and say the money factor from both sides, but we want fans in the stands and we want this season to happen because we miss them. Fans are what makes baseball great. We’re just trying to do right for those ahead of us.”
The owners and the players have slowly bridged the gap with regards to minimum salaries and the player pool, but the CBT, which has in many ways acted like a salary cap in recent years, remains the biggest divider. The league finally made a move in that area, agreeing to place it at $228 million in 2022 and get it up to $238 million in 2026. But the players want it at $238 million in 2022 and up to $263 million by 2026. And it was only two days ago that an MLB official bemoaned the MLBPA’s counteroffer, saying they “went backwards” on some issues and that the two sides were “deadlocked.”
“I hate to try to predict the future,” Slater said when asked if he believes the latest deadline will produce a new CBA. “Every time I’ve thought we were close, we weren’t. But I do think players are solid in where they stand and we’re all on the same page that we’re not asking for the moon. We’re just asking for a fair deal. And that’s something guys have been able to rally around.
“I do think that hopefully both sides see a point where there’s a breaking point where both sides lose as much as they’re going to gain. It’s hard to say what that point is, but I think players in general all are together in that we’re willing to see how long we can last, and if we can’t get a fair deal across the table.”