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  • The San Juan Daily Star

MLB cancels games, delaying start of season

M.L.B. Commissioner Rob Manfred cited the logistical challenges of season-long interleague play in the decision to cancel games rather than reschedule them.

By James Wagner

Major League Baseball canceled the first two series of the 2022 regular season earlier this week after the league and the players’ union failed to reach a new collective bargaining agreement.

After nearly a year of negotiating, including nine straight days of talks between the league and the union in Florida starting Feb. 21, the sides could not come to a new pact by MLB’s self-imposed deadline of 5 p.m. Tuesday in order to begin the 162-game season March 31 as scheduled.

Rob Manfred, the MLB commissioner, announced the cancellations in a news conference Tuesday at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, Florida, where the St. Louis Cardinals and Miami Marlins would usually be having spring training but instead hosted the talks.

“I had hoped against hope I wouldn’t have to have this press conference where I am going to cancel some regular-season games,” Manfred said, adding, “I want to assure our fans that our failure to reach an agreement was not due to a lack of effort by either party.”

These are the first games canceled or postponed because of a work stoppage since the 1994-95 players’ strike, which resulted in the loss of more than 900 games, including the 1994 World Series. That remains the longest work stoppage in baseball history, followed by this one.

“As a former player, as a fan, for our game, today is a sad day,” Tony Clark, the head of the union, said at a news conference held at a hotel in Jupiter later Tuesday. Nearly a dozen players were also in attendance.

Clark added later, “The game has continued to be damaged, and is again damaged today as a result of a lockout that was started by the league, as a result of a deadline that was set by the league and in a climate that has been challenging for us as baseball fans.”

Since the last labor agreement was struck in 2016, players have been vocal about problems they have seen in the game and its economic structure. While the owners of the 30 MLB clubs believe players have a fair system without a hard salary cap, players have been seeking a series of changes, from improving competition to injecting more spending that is commensurate with rising club revenues to paying younger players more earlier in their careers.

Sensing an urgency to start the season on time, the sides came to Florida to negotiate. But when little progress was made last week, the league’s negotiating team told the union that if there was no agreement by Monday, MLB would begin canceling games. MLB reasoned that a minimum of four weeks of spring training — two weeks shorter than normal — was needed before the regular-season opener to avoid a spike in player injuries.

Although the union didn’t agree with MLB’s deadline — there was no requirement to cancel games and it believed that games could have been rescheduled — it was willing to explore every avenue to strike a deal in which a full season could be played. So both sides met and talked again Monday. When some modest progress was made over 16 1/2 hours of talks, MLB extended its deadline until the next evening.

But talks Tuesday didn’t prove fruitful. In fact, they turned more contentious, and the union rejected MLB’s so-called best and final offer within the last hour, after consulting with players. And at a news conference soon after 5 p.m., Manfred announced he was following through on the ultimatum.

The negotiating teams for both sides were expected to return home and pick up talks again at a later, undetermined date. Manfred suggested that, if a deal was struck by as soon as today, spring training couldn’t start until at least March 8. Clark said that if MLB had wanted to keep talking Tuesday, the union would have stayed.

Asked to explain the league’s stance of canceling games rather than rescheduling them, Manfred cited the logistical difficulties of seasonlong interleague play. As for negotiating missed pay and service time for those games, Manfred said, “Our position is that games that are not played, players will not get paid.”

What is already a complicated labor dispute could get more difficult. Players’ paychecks begin when the season does.

Bruce Meyer, the union’s lead negotiator, said that players will be asking for full pay and service time for those missed games, or for the missing games to be rescheduled. “If the league decided unilaterally to pull down games, then to get a deal, players should be compensated for those games,” he said.

MLB brought the sport to a standstill Dec. 2 by locking out the players on the day after the previous five-year labor agreement expired. Manfred said then that he was doing so as a defensive move to protect the 2022 season.

Negotiations dragged into early February, and Manfred, who is employed by the owners but tasked with being a steward of the game, said at that point that losing regular-season games would be “disastrous” for the industry.

On Tuesday, Manfred, who had previously helped negotiate the previous four labor agreements without missing any games, rattled off the list of items that owners had offered to make the deal better for players. He credited the players’ hard work during the talks in Florida in trying to make a deal and offering compromises. But later, he suggested that it was beyond his powers to bridge the gap.

“If it was solely within my ability or the ability of the clubs to get an agreement, we’d have an agreement,” he said. “The tough thing about this process is it takes both parties to make an agreement. I’m really disappointed that we didn’t make an agreement, and I’m really committed to doing everything possible to get one.”

The labor negotiations were not expected to be easy. The past two collective bargaining agreements were viewed as having further tilted the balance of power and economics in the owners’ favor. Realizing that significant changes to the system would be tense and full of brinkmanship, the union has spent years building a rainy-day fund for this very fight against MLB owners, who ran an $11 billion-a-year business before the coronavirus pandemic.

Asked how long they were prepared to miss games for a deal they believed was fair, Andrew Miller, a veteran pitcher who is a top union representative, said Tuesday, “We’re prepared.”

He added later, “We’ve seen this coming in a sense. It’s unfortunate, but this isn’t new to us. This is not shocking. Our communication, our willingness to see each other’s point of views, to find solutions and the fight for what’s right is nothing like I’ve seen before.”

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