The clock is ticking as baseball heads toward a lockout

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IRVING, Texas — The future of sport unfolds here in the conference rooms of a luxury hotel.

On Monday and Tuesday, Major League Baseball officials and a handful of team owners met with players and player unions at the Four Seasons Resort and Club Dallas in Las Colinas. Monday’s meeting lasted a few hours, while Tuesday’s sessions were in both the morning and afternoon.

The clock is ticking. Wednesday at 11:59 p.m. Easter, baseball’s foundation — the five-year collective bargaining agreement between the owners of the 30 MLB teams and the players — ends. The document governs everything from season length to roster sizes to domestic violence policies to the economic fabric of the sport.

The economic structure has been the biggest bottleneck for years and will remain so as the parties negotiate. MLB officials and the seven club owners who make up the league’s labor policy committee came to Texas to negotiate directly with the players during the union’s annual off-season board meetings. But if no deal can be struck by the expiration of the CBA, a lockout that would freeze the entire sport threatens.

MLB has had no work stoppages since the strike that ended the 1994 season, canceled that year’s World Series, and bled into the following season. Players subsequently successfully prevented the implementation of a salary cap, but the episode was detrimental to the sport. Since then, peace has reigned and baseball has grown into an $11 billion-a-year industry, with superstar players continually breaking records for contract size.

However, since the last CBA closed for the 2017 season, the union and players have become increasingly vocal about what they see as flaws in the system. That agreement is seen as further tilting the balance sheet in favor of owners, with changes such as tougher limits on international spending and tougher penalties for higher payrolls.

Players want a range of improvements, including getting younger players (who are cheaper and more trusted) compensated more quickly in their careers, allowing players to choose salary arbitrage and free choice more quickly, and forcing teams to be more competitive through spending requirements .

Owners, on the other hand, believe that MLB players have the best deal in professional sports and point to off-season spending on free-agents as a point in that argument. MLB has also said it wants to improve the competitive balance between teams, but has proposed ways to do that other than the union. Some of the proposals, some of which have been rejected, include: changes to the amateur draft order that could help prevent refueling, a salary cap for clubs and a lower tax threshold for luxury, overhaul of the salary arbitration system, free choice based on age and expansion of the play-offs, which would bring in more revenue.

At this year’s World Series, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred and Tony Clark, the executive director of the MLB Players Association, publicly expressed some optimism that a deal will be reached before the deadline.

But hostility and mistrust between owners and players has grown over the years. It came to a head last year during bitter negotiations over the resumption of the 2020 season, which had been suspended during spring training due to the coronavirus pandemic. The parties bickered for months and made sharp statements.

This year was different, as both groups pledged to learn from last summer’s lessons and negotiated largely out of the public eye. However, players have been more determined than in the past. Last year’s dispute brought them together and forced some of them to pay more attention to the economics of their sport. There are many negotiating hurdles and fraught labor relations that must be overcome on Wednesday.

At owners’ meetings in Chicago in mid-November, Manfred argued that an off-season work stoppage was more pleasant than one that hurts the season.

“I can’t believe there is a single fan in the world who doesn’t understand that an off-season lockout that advances the process is different from a labor dispute that costs games,” he told reporters at the time. He later added: “We understand, I understand, time becomes an issue.”

If a new deal is not reached late Wednesday night, MLB owners can immediately use a hammer: a lockout that freezes all transactions. If that happened, team leaders wouldn’t be allowed to talk to players, make major-league signings, or trade trades.

While exclusions have occurred in these types of cases in the four major North American men’s professional sports leagues, they are not a requirement. Should MLB and the union make progress in their negotiations in the dwindling hours, the owners could temporarily hold off on announcing a lockout.

On Tuesday morning, MLB officials and owners such as Hal Steinbrenner of the Yankees, Mark Attanasio of the Milwaukee Brewers and John Henry of the Boston Red Sox emerged after more than 30 minutes after a meeting in which they heard a proposal from the union. They retired to their hotel to talk, but returned to the players’ hotel in the afternoon.

In a large conference room, union officials and a contingent of players (an estimated 60 were in town for the union meetings) spent more than 30 minutes with MLB officials and the owners.

Each party then broke down into their own meeting rooms. At one point, St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Andrew Miller, a top union representative, and Bruce Meyer, the union’s chief negotiator, ran off with Dick Monfort, the owner of the Colorado Rockies and the chairman of the league’s labor committee. , and Dan Halem, MLB’s chief negotiator.

After nearly an hour, the groups split up. MLB officials and the owners got into their cars to leave, as the players returned to their rooms. What happens next is in their collective hands.

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