It has been 21 years since the last time Major League Baseball and its players union engaged in what has since been considered the labor war to end all labor wars.
The game was shut down for the final months of what had been an exciting 1994 season, and the bitter collective bargaining dispute wiped out the playoffs and World Series, leaving a scar on the sport that has never fully faded away.
Clearly, it was a “never again” moment in baseball history, but enough time apparently has passed to allow both sides to put a happy era of labor peace and economic prosperity at risk as the current collective bargaining agreement comes to an end.
The deadline to reach a new agreement passes at midnight, and there has been talk that the owners could move immediately to stage a lockout that would suspend all offseason activity and likely cancel the major league portion of next week’s winter meetings.
That would be a mistake, but certainly not the disaster that was 1994 or 1981.
There won’t be any official on-field activity until mid-February, so it will be a while before there's any real fear of a work stoppage directly affecting the outcome of the 2017 season. But the provocative decision to go full lockout at the first opportunity would certainly raise the stakes in a dispute that simply doesn’t warrant it.
The 1994-95 labor war was fought over a truly fundamental change in the economic relationship with the players, who would have been seriously disadvantaged by the salary cap that ownership attempted to unilaterally impose after declaring an impasse in the stalled negotiations.
The current negotiations center on no such lightning-rod issue. The players want to abandon the qualifying offer system that they feel has seriously disadvantaged certain free agents. The owners want some changes in the luxury tax system that took the place of their original desire for a hard salary cap, and they want more control over the signing of international free agents.
None of that would be worth shutting down the game during the regular season, and it’s fair to assume that both the owners and players know that. Major League Baseball continues to churn out tremendous profits, and the average major league salary hit $4.4 million last season.
If you are old enough to recall the last real MLB labor hostilities, the fans got so fed up with the “millionaires fighting with billionaires” narrative that they were slow to return to the ballpark after the work stoppage ended and the 1995 season began several weeks late.
Well, consider that the average major league salary in 1994 was about $1.2 million and MLB’s total revenues were about to hit the heady $2 billion mark, then fast forward to 2016, when you can multiply both those numbers by 4½.
For that reason alone, even the hint of a lockout would be foolhardy, and both sides should know that. Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred was a major player in the last big labor war. Union chief Tony Clark made his major league debut during the 1995 season after living through the uncertainty of being a minor league player on the threshold of his major league career.
The players and owners learned from the wreckage of that disastrous showdown and developed a productive relationship that is reflected not only in the economics of the sport but in its increasing global popularity. There’s just no reason to throw that away to force a premature confrontation that only will increase the likelihood of a stalemate that could end up impacting the upcoming season.
There really isn’t a hard deadline. The two sides can – and probably will – agree to continue negotiations and leave the current system in place until they can find common ground on a handful of sticky but not world-shaking points of contention.
The owners don’t appear to be married to the qualifying offer system as it currently exists, though the Orioles seem to like it. And though there is believed to be significant disagreement over luxury tax thresholds and the way international players should be pursued, it’s a lot easier to compromise on monetary issues than principles.
In other words, both sides should stay at the table and hammer this thing out instead of taking a sledge hammer to 21 years of labor peace.
Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog and follow him @Schmuckstop on Twitter.