x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Good vibrations replace strained relations in MLB

Twenty years ago, the idea of peace between baseball owners and players was unthinkable. Now, a desire to reach agreement on a labour contract is the envy of North American sports.

Bud Selig, the Major League Baseball commissioner, centre, shares a joke with Joe Torre, the Los Angeles Dodgers manager, left, and Hank Aaron before a baseball game between the Milwaukee Brewers and the Dodgers at the start of last season. Morry Gash / AP Photo
Bud Selig, the Major League Baseball commissioner, centre, shares a joke with Joe Torre, the Los Angeles Dodgers manager, left, and Hank Aaron before a baseball game between the Milwaukee Brewers and the Dodgers at the start of last season. Morry Gash / AP Photo

As the 2011 Major League Baseball season dawns, the current labour agreement between players and owners enters its final few months.

Not long ago, that would have been enough to produce anxiety, if not outright panic. The game's troubled labour history would have virtually guaranteed a work stoppage, replete with endless legal wrangling and public name-calling between the two sides.

For 25 years, beginning in the early 1970s and lasting until just over a decade ago, strife was the norm in baseball and interruptions in the schedule were the rule rather than the exception. From 1972 until 2002, every time the previous agreement expired, either a strike or lockout took place.

America's pastime was fabulously popular, which, paradoxically, led to a poisonous relationship between players and owners, each determined to grab the bigger piece of the game's soaring profits.

Now, however, instead of unease, there is a confidence that a deal will be worked out, probably ahead of the December deadline.

Baseball's truce, in fact, is now the model for professional sports leagues, a thought that would have been laughable 20 years ago.

But with the NFL already in a lockout and similar scenarios feared in the near future for both the NBA and NHL, baseball has come full circle, from the poster child for labour unrest to a living, breathing example of how labour and management can work together for the betterment of an industry.

To be sure, baseball has suffered a significant dip in popularity since it became the first of the four major North American sports to have a job action - a 12-day strike in 1972. While television ratings skyrocket for the NFL and other entities, baseball's showcase events draw good, but hardly stunning, numbers.

Still, the game grossed more than US$7 billion (Dh25.7bn) in 2010 and while attendance has been stagnant the past two seasons due to a souring economy, the financial state of the game is mostly robust.

Already, Major League Baseball and the MLB Players' Association (MLBPA) have held one negotiating session, which Bud Selig, the commissioner, described as having gone "very well". Both sides are hopeful of similar sessions leading to a new agreement, quite a contrast from the recent past. "When I think back at my early years in baseball,'' Selig told MLB.com recently, "and the public posturing that went on - owners ripping owners, owners ripping the union, the union fighting back, the commissioner in the middle. We stopped all that, too. I'm proud of that. It helps to have a constructive process and that's what we're going to continue to try to do."

"There's no question that the game and everybody associated with it has benefited from what we've been able to achieve in labour relations," said Michael Weiner, the executive director of the MLBPA.

"Because of all the fights, I think everybody on both sides has a healthy respect for the process and hopefully we can continue to build on that."

That is not to suggest that there are not a myriad of issues to resolve.

Players are concerned that some small-market teams have failed to invest their revenue sharing income back into the product on the field, creating a two-tier economic system within baseball that threatens to drag salaries down.

Other matters sure to be discussed are the nature of the regular season schedule, a possible expansion of the play-off format and improvements to the players' pensions. The introduction of an international draft is also another potential bargaining point.

No longer do the two sides battle over the merits of a salary cap - baseball remains the one sport of the four without one - which fuelled so many of the past work stoppages. Drug testing, once reviled, is now an accepted part of the landscape as baseball attempts to further cleanse itself from the scourge of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs).

And, in sharp contrast to the 1970s, '80s and '90s, a basic trust exists between the sides. The same sport which 20 years ago saw the owners forced to pay $270 million in damages because of salary collusion now enjoys a relatively harmonious coexistence between those who own the teams and those who play for them.

Surely, the same cannot be said in football, where a basic lack of faith exists on the part of the players. They wonder why NFL owners use the word partnership, but are steadfast in their refusal to open their books. Owners maintain that their profit margins are down, but will not offer documented proof.

The players see the proposed 18-game schedule as a means for the owners to gain additional inventory for television, while serving as a health risk to the rank-and-file.

At a time when the game has never been more dangerous or more popular - the last two Super Bowls are the two most watched television programmes in American history - players are somehow being asked for givebacks.

The NBA faces a potential labour Armageddon after next season, with David Stern, the commissioner, on record as saying the league must find a way to trim more than $750m in annual player salary costs, a reduction of one-third the amount now spent.

Finally, the NHL, which endured the most recent labour disaster when it lost an entire season in 2004/05, shows no signs of having learnt its lesson. As if to show its unity and determination, the NHL Players' Association recently hired Donald Fehr - baseball's chief labour architect through many of its wars with ownership - to direct its negotiating strategy and serve as its face.

Baseball has more good than bad to celebrate. Though it cannot claim top-to-bottom parity the way the NFL might on a year-to-year basis, MLB's competitive balance produced seven different National League champions in the span of eight years. Since 2001, only one team - the Boston Red Sox - has won more than one championship.

(Compare that to the NBA and NFL. The former seems guaranteed to have either the Los Angeles Lakers or Boston Celtics - or both - in the NBA Finals, where the NFL has awarded the majority of its titles in the last decade to either the Pittsburgh Steelers or the New England Patriots).

Slow to intercept the growth of PEDs until seven years ago, baseball's drug policy is now among the most comprehensive and stringent. Its players generally behave without nasty public incidents, The gun violence that has dogged the NFL and NBA is virtually non-existent in baseball.

Of course, no sport, no industry, is without some problems and potential stumbling blocks exist for baseball, too.

The precarious financial state of the New York Mets and Los Angeles Dodgers, two big-market franchises, is worrying. So too are the future of both the Tampa Bay Rays and Oakland A's, two resourceful clubs whose futures are in doubt due to below-par facilities and the inability to land financing for replacement ballparks.

The game needs to market itself better to younger fans, who tend to find the game's leisurely pace as, well, boring.

These are issues that Selig would like resolved before his term expires at the end of 2012 and he heads to retirement. Selig is particularly mindful of his legacy.

Though late to address the issue, Selig gained positive marks for his stance on drug-testing, forcing the union to comply, twice through reopening the labour agreement mid-term, an unprecedented concession on the part of the Players' Association.

Selig is further credited with improving the game's bottom-line, expanding its foreign reach through showcases such as the World Baseball Classic and introducing improved competitive balance.

But nothing would enhance Selig more than to preside over yet another peaceful labour negotiation, one which results in positive tweaks of the game's structure while leading to still more revenue streams.

The continued labour peace would follow Selig into retirement, the stalemates that pockmarked his early years in office a distant memory.

Though a certain amount of public posturing exists (Selig warned: "It's very early,'' when talking about the era of good feeling that exists), there is a calm which surrounds the talks and the prospect of an evenly bargained agreement.

"There's a deal that can be made here," said one high-ranking baseball executive on the prospect of the coming talks.

"I get the sense that both sides recognise that and are going to act accordingly. No one's taking anything for granted, because there's no deal in place, and until one is, you never know what's going to happen.

"But I don't anticipate this being too difficult. I think we'll get a deal. And believe me, that's not something I would have said in the past."

 

sports@thenational.ae