It has been a long time since anyone in a major league uniform talked seriously about going on strike, and there’s a reason for that.
The damage done to the sport during the 1994-95 work stoppage was so great that it forced the players and owners to pursue a full generation of labor peace, but that era of good feelings apparently is nearing an end.
Players are grumbling about the multiyear free-agent slowdown that has left many capable veterans sitting at home well into spring training. The word “strike” has re-entered the baseball vernacular at a time when Major League Baseball already has enough problems keeping its customers satisfied.
So, here’s why all the saber-rattling is just that. Baseball’s collective bargaining agreement runs through the 2021 season, so scattered news reports that there might be a strike this summer are sorely misinformed.
It’s certainly possible that the players could walk out near the end of the agreement three seasons from now, but even that is unlikely. Both sides understand the Cold War concept of mutually assured destruction actually applies here, and everybody is making way too much money to pile all of it up and light it on fire.
What’s happening right now is pretty obvious. The Major League Baseball Players Association got outflanked during the last collective bargaining period and left the owners enough wiggle room in the CBA to get away with this modern-day version of the notorious 1980s free-agent freezeout. The players probably will have to grin and bear it for a couple of years, unless union director Tony Clark can convince the owners to come back to the bargaining table and ease his pain.
In the meantime, it’s important to understand what’s going on and what isn’t.
The owners finally have recognized — without obvious illegal collusion — the folly of spending “stupid money” on anyone except a handful of truly elite players. So, Manny Machado gets $300 million and Bryce Harper gets a 13-year deal worth $330 million, but solid thirtysomething outfielder Adam Jones is still waiting for the phone to ring.
This registers as injustice in 30 spring clubhouses, but is simple logic to the clubs. The growing emphasis on analytics has given teams the proof that it makes more economic sense to accelerate the development of younger, cheaper players, which has skewed the supply-and-demand dynamic sharply in disfavor of the older ones.
That’s why a solid shortstop such as new Oriole Alcides Escobar, who has a Gold Glove, a recent World Series ring and an All-Star appearance, had to sign a minor league contract to get into camp.
Strangely, however, Machado and Harper — who remained unsigned throughout the offseason — have too often been trotted out as the poster boys for the collective outrage that has bubbled up this spring, which makes little sense.
Harper reportedly turned down $300 million from the Washington Nationals before the free-agent market even opened, so he was the one waiting through the winter to get closer to the ridiculous numbers that were being thrown around before the market started to slow a couple of years ago.
Machado could have gotten a seven-year contract worth $30 million per year months ago, but he undoubtedly had bigger stars in his eyes after some people were projecting he and Harper might command as much as $400 million or more.
The rest of the players impacted by all this have more of a legitimate gripe, though it is based on the presumption that their market value is based on what similar players have gotten in the past rather than the value placed on them by the current market.
It’s also based on the strange notion long entertained by the union that the richest veteran players need to be protected from the emergence of too many young players, who also become members of the MLBPA as soon as they arrive on a major league roster.
The union has always operated on the notion that a rising tide lifts all contracts and — through the miracle of salary arbitration rather than free agency — that has largely been true since the courts overturned the ridiculous reserve clause in the 1970s. It took the owners 40 years to figure out a way to slow that roll, but they have succeeded in creating a luxury tax system that has done that to a modest extent.
Obviously, the players aren’t happy about that and they shouldn’t be, but they aren’t going on strike anytime soon. The veteran free agents are starting to show up in camp and the furor will die down by Opening Day.
Cooler heads will eventually work things out, because they can’t afford not to.
Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.
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