Baseball fans, can you feel it? The chilly early April air hitting your skin? The faint yet striking crack of the bat? The gasps of the crowd as a ball goes 400+ feet? The overpriced fries and hot dogs that you will no doubt shell out for?
Yes, baby, it is time for Opening Day! Every year, millions of people around the nation turn on their TVs and drive to stadiums to indulge in that first day of games.
Yet, this year stands out among the many others, due in part to the fact that this season was not guaranteed to start again a mere 99 days ago. The road to the 2022 season was wrought with labor conflicts, rule changes and most importantly: conflicts about money.
For some backstory, every few years or so, the Major League Baseball (MLB) administration, various team owners and the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) come together to sign a particularly important contract. This is known as the collective bargaining agreement, a 130+ page document that outlines things like minimum salaries for players, free agency rules and much more. The end of the 2021 season coincided with the expiration of the previous agreement signed in 2016, which meant that arduous negotiations were to follow before signing the next agreement.
Various tensions already existed between owners and their players that made it obvious both parties would not come to the negotiation table happy. Some team owners found savvy ways to avoid giving players big money contracts, such as limiting their time on the field.
The MLB also decided to cut approximately 40 minor league teams from their system, cutting off pay and resources from aspiring players. On the side of MLB and the various team owners, free agent contracts for players were skyrocketing, with some players even inking out $300+ million over the course of a decade. Players also asked for restrictions on the still-controversial practice of tanking and player demotion, demands that would have been unbelievable just a decade ago.
In turn, the MLB administration, as well as its commissioner Rob Manfred, seemed to side with the owners during the negotiation process. This should come as no surprise as Manfred’s position is voted on and approved by a group of team owners.
Manfred ordered the owners to lockout their teams to gain more leverage during the contract negotiations. During a lockout, teams are forbidden from contacting other teams or any of their own players. This means that paychecks do not go out, practices and training stop and team doctors cannot meet with injured players to suggest treatment. For the first time in over 25 years, baseball came to a screeching halt.
Beginning on Dec. 2, 2021, the MLB and MLBPA were officially in negotiations, though no formal agreement reached the table until around the 43rd day. Major talking points included the things discussed previously, as well as some unprecedented rule changes. Pitchers are traditionally meant to take plate appearances with position players, even though they are statistically the worst batting position in the league.
To counter this, the American League, beginning in 1973, allowed teams to let another person bat for their pitcher, known as a designated hitter. For years, the National League was resistant to introducing a designated hitter, but the prospect of a new agreement opened avenues for players to advocate for universal use.
The days blended together as the world waited for a resolution and both sides used the media to fire potshots at the other. Finally, after 99 days and one canceled week of the regular season later, a brand new agreement was signed. Things such as the universal designated hitter rule and an expanded playoffs format were agreed to and put into effect for the 2022 season.
Minimum salary increased from $570,500 to $775,000 for players. A draft lottery was implemented for the top six selections and structured to avoid tanking. Owners won the right to place more advertisements on team uniforms during games.
However, the MLB administration got the most notable piece of the pie, obtaining authority and a 45-day window to implement rule changes for next season. These potential changes include a ban on defensive shifts, larger bases being installed and the addition of a pitch clock for timing pitchers.
Despite the labor disputes, administration colluding and behind-the-curtain dealings, the MLB season officially started on April 7. As we all hunker down and prepare for the 161 days of baseball that await us, it is good to be thankful that negotiations concluded this close to Opening Day and that the season will continue as planned.
The last MLB lockout resulted in canceling the 1994 World Series after losing the majority of the 1994 season to fierce negotiations. This new agreement admittedly does not address all the current issues in the game and kicks the ball further down the road for future players to deal with.
Nevertheless, millions of baseball fans this year are thankful that the game that they grew up enjoying is once again being played across the nation.