MLB Picks A Great Time For Labor Peace

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It would be wrong to say that I have reveled in the labor pains of the NFL and NBA this year. No one enjoys watching guys in suits posturing instead of guys in uniforms playing games.

But it has been interesting to see how other sports handle difficult times, while baseball moves forward with the renewal of its labor agreement quietly in the background.

NFL owners locked out their players for more than four months before coming to a new 10-year deal in July. The NFL's return was inevitable because football generates so much money that it made no sense to get down to actually canceling games, so the owners just squeezed on the players as long as they could before coming to an agreement.

NBA owners locked out their players on July 1, and the situation here is much more like the 1994-95 baseball strike and the labor impasse that canceled the 2004-05 NHL season. The NBA had already canceled its preseason and the first two weeks of the regular season, with more cancellations said to be imminent. NBA owners say they want a fundamental change in the way the league does business—and by that they mean they want to take back a significant percentage of the revenue that goes to the players.

The specifics of the NBA dispute—and really, any labor dispute—aren't worth getting into here. The point is that for baseball fans who remember the World Series That Wasn't in 1994, and the dread that had come with every negotiation of the Basic Agreement in the years leading up to that, it's a great feeling to have labor and management with a shared view of where the sport is going.

Baseball is so comfortable with the progress of its new labor negotations, in fact, that the big challenge to negotiators this time around was trying to get the deal done before the end of the World Series, to match what was done in 2006.

It seemed unlikely that would happen, but negotiators did say they expected a deal to be done before free agency started, five days after the end of the World Series. That would be more than a month before the current agreement ends on Dec. 11.

No Stumbling Blocks

Selig even talked to the gathered media about the labor negotiations during the National League Championship Series, speaking optimistically about the present and future, while looking back on the long stretch of labor dread.

"The sport, I've often said, was stuck in neutral for 25 years. And that's one of the reasons. It was brutal. It was really brutal. Every two or three years we went back to this," he said. "The fans got tired of all that, got tired of hearing about it. And I don't blame them. So 16 years of labor peace has really, really helped us."

The new agreement is expected to be a five-year extension, as it was in 2006. Players Association executive director Michael Weiner and MLB executive vice president Rob Manfred are the chief negotiators.

"Both sides understand where we are in the contract. There is no lack of urgency," Weiner told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Though negotiations were taking place daily, there was no rhetoric, no daily news about how the negotiations were going or even which issues were being discussed. Everyone concerned agrees that's a good thing.

For the little bit of information that had been trickling out, however, people on both sides said they saw no big stumbling blocks to getting a deal done.

The most interesting issues for Baseball America readers relate to the draft. While Selig continued to talk about the importance of specific bonus slots for draft picks, the union was not likely to sign off on that, and most sources said MLB did not feel strongly enough about it to hold up a deal. So we could see other tweaks, such as an earlier signing deadline, to try to limit bonus inflation. The possibility of an international draft remains on the table as well.

Beyond draft issues, possible realignment into two 15-team leagues has been discussed, as well as the addition of another wild-card qualifier for both leagues. Those two things will likely be linked, and probably would not go into effect until the 2013 season. Testing for human growth hormone could also be a part of the new agreement.

More than anything else, though, baseball's leaders recognize that the current economic system has worked well for both sides and is not in need of an overhaul, and that getting a deal done and continuing the game's growth and momentum is more important than holding up the negotiations to squeeze every possible penny out of a deal.

It has practical implications—if free agency continued after the current deal expires, the luxury tax would go away—but the more important issue is keeping the trains rolling after another good season and postseason.

Because as baseball fans learned at the end of the 20th century and the fans of other sports have learned in the 21st, nothing makes you feel worse about a sport than not watching it.