Major League Baseball is back, but the problems that sparked its lockout weren’t solved one bit

Minute Maid Park in Houston. AP


Baseball is back. For some of you, that’s already enough. Others will follow in the next 72 hours, as the transaction bonanza that began just before Major League Baseball locked out its players — remember that $1.4 billion in signings on Dec. 1 alone? — goes meteoric.

Even those of us, myself included, maintaining some level of grump have to admit relief. By the sides forging a new collective bargaining agreement on Thursday, there will be a full 2022 season, and no new battleground over player pay and service time in a shortened one. That absolutely would’ve developed as it did in 2020, and led to so much more ugly in what was already an orgy of it.


MLB attendance dropped nearly 14 percent from its 2007 peak to 2019. For as much fan bluster as there was this offseason, actual missed games would’ve meant actual damage in a sport that can’t afford any. We’ve likely been spared much, if not all, of that.

That, however, will just about conclude our praise in this space. Because what did we really get out of these 99 days? Marginal fixes when we needed monumental ones. Baseball, yes, but with the same issues of tanking and service-time manipulation it had before.

With the same issues of player spending not growing as league revenues are.

With the same rich teams using the competitive-balance tax threshold as a cap on spending, and the same poor teams pocketing as much of their revenue-sharing money as possible.

We got all but a promise that, five years from now, we’ll do the same damn thing again. Because while we got the classic agreement that neither side is entirely happy with, its also a small step in a large chasm.

“We got a deal,” Tom Verducci said on MLB Network Thursday. “We need a partnership.”

The player vote is telling. The eight-member Players’ Association executive board, all names you know and high earners, were unanimously against the deal. The 30 team representatives, voting in line with the majority on their teams, were 26-4 for it.


(The owner vote was unanimous.)

Most, as that makes clear, will do better in this deal. The league’s minimum salary, which a majority of MLB players make, jumps more than 20 percent in 2022 to $700,000. (It rose just 5 percent in the 2017 CBA.) There’s a new merit-based, $50-million-per-year pool for the best players yet to reach arbitration.

That was enough to agree in 2022. History says players won’t think it is come 2026.

There’s an eagerness to spin that executive council vote, with five of its members represented by super agent Scott Boras, as proof he was pulling the strings and that said council is out of touch. I doubt that; it’s just too easy a narrative.

I think it speaks to those eight players having deeper pockets to live off through a stoppage. And knowledge of how much more there was to gain.

The CBT has never risen more in an agreement — $20 million to $230M this year, and up to $244 million in 2026. It’s still just more than doubled since its 2003 beginnings in an era league revenues have nearly tripled. And though overall player payroll has also about doubled, the median MLB salary is down 30 percent since 2015.)

Yes, revenues aren’t profits. Yes, MLB lost money in 2020. It certainly didn’t in 2021, and it certainly won’t going forward.


We are already seeing the seeds of the next CBA fight as this one percolates out. The players agreed to let teams sell ad patches on helmets and jerseys, another revenue stream that will magically not trickle down. And that 20 percent bump in the minimum salary?

New streaming deals with Apple and NBC Sports signed this week mean national TV money is 26 percent higher annually in MLB’s current set of contracts than its previous one.

Before we even account for revenue-sharing checks to the league’s small fries, before a single ticket or tamale or temporary tattoo is sold, every team in the league will get about $115 million between its share of that national money and its own local TV deal.

The median payroll last season? About $135 million. Ten teams spent less than $100M. The Marlins barely spent $60M, and the Orioles, Cleveland, and the Pirates didn’t even do that. I’m sure an NBA-style lottery is gonna fix that right up.

So while the lower class under no real obligation to spend with any greater urgency than before, the upper crust has a slightly higher bar to stay under. Why, with a tax structure slightly more punitive than the prior deal, would we think the big-market teams are going to treat it any differently?

“From the beginning, the [competitive-balance] tax wasn’t just a backdoor to a [salary] cap,” pioneering baseball union leader Marvin Miller told the Globe in 2005. “It was a front door.”

And means baseball has the spending cap without the spending floor and the direct tie to league revenues that makes it palatable. Some strongest union in pro sports you’ve got there.


Miller’s comments came in the latter days of the NHL’s 2004-05 labor conflict. In many ways, said fight was nothing like the baseball one. The players were the ones riding high, having won prior CBAs to the point salary expenditures were a reported 75 percent of NHL revenues. (Baseball’s are closer to 40. The NBA and NFL, with their cap systems, are roughly 50-50.)

That the owners were actually, truly losing money makes their hard line on a salary cap a lot easier to understand. The NHLPA, led by longtime boss Bob Goodenow, resisted as they always had from the start of negotiations in January 2003 to mid-February 2005 — the moment before the decision to cancel the season.

“What moved the process forward, shattering the philosophical logjam that has cost the players some $1 billion in lost wages?” Kevin Paul Dupont wrote in the Globe. “By a number of accounts, it was the back-channel maneuverings of a few player agents and rank-and-file players, who applied heat to Goodenow to abandon the ‘no-cap’ stance.”

That they still lost the season, and it took six more months to iron out a deal, is a story for another day. And while it’s easy to view that heat as the players simply being the ones to blink, consider where it’s led. A healthier sport for both players and owners. Not to mention fans.

That decision to relent on the salary cap was, intended or not, the start of that partnership Verducci spoke of Thursday. One that the NBA and NFL, which released its 2022 cap number days ago to zero acrimony, have in spades.


Baseball’s owners and players didn’t forge a partnership this week. They kicked the can down the road five years. They set the stage for future arguments.

In 2005, the NHL solved its problem of the Rangers spending four times as much as the Penguins. Baseball didn’t even attempt to solve theirs these past 99 days.

During those six months to finish their deal, NHL owners and players sat across the table and studied the actual financial figures. Baseball’s owners wouldn’t truly open their books to anyone short of a subpoena.

Goodenow, who made NHL players countless extra millions in the years leading up to the 2005 agreement, resigned with years left on his contract soon after it. He simply wasn’t the right guy for the times anymore.

Baseball needs that reckoning. They spent 99 days not getting it. Which means in five years time, we’ll have to watch them ugly around again.

At least we’ll get five more years of baseball before then.


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