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As MLB and the players squabble over everything, baseball's fragile labor peace hinges on this winter

Jeff Passan
MLB columnist
Yahoo Sports
Baseball is staring at its greatest threat to labor peace since the 1994 strike. (Getty)

Decades of skepticism, of wariness, of outright distrust seemed to be melting away. For the first half of 2018, officials from Major League Baseball courted the tight-knit group of trainers in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela with a simple pitch: Help us stop steroid use by pre-teen boys, and we’ll give you more access to teams and offer clean dietary supplements and other perks. The proposal was compelling enough that more than two dozen of the trainers who control the talent pipeline that emanates from Latin America agreed to sign up for MLB’s new program, which was set to launch in late June.

This was supposed to be a victory for the league – a noble moral stance fortifying an olive branch extended to a group that long felt mistreated, castigated and villainized by MLB. Even better, the league had consulted with the MLB Players Association and received its blessing to start regulating one of the more unsavory parts of baseball in Latin America: the runup to the July 2 frenzy signing 16-year-olds.

“Before rolling out the program, we met with the union,” deputy commissioner Dan Halem told Yahoo Sports. “And they informed us through senior officials that they were totally supportive of the program.”

Only later did the league realize that the coalition in Latin America supporting the Trainer Partnership Program was fragile – and that the union’s support only went so far, too. As the program’s rollout took place, Leonor Colon, the union’s director of player operations and a central voice in its Latin American relations, sent a text message to a swath of trainers. In the message, which was obtained by Yahoo Sports, Colon, writing in Spanish, said: “We are currently researching and analyzing what MLB has provided to independent trainers. No one should sign or feel pressured to sign, it is not necessary. Once we review it, we will let you know.”

The message stunned officials at the league as well as the union, all of whom saw it as a half-baked attempt to undermine the program. And the fallout since – contention, confusion and minimal clarity on where things go next – is a microcosm of where relations between MLB and the MLBPA stand today. Latin America is one of at least a half-dozen issues where deep fissures exist between the sides. Free agency, on-field play, anti-competitiveness, marketing of players, collection of biometric data – each is a battleground expected to feature prominently as the sides barrel toward the most contentious labor negotiations in a generation.

While the current collective-bargaining agreement doesn’t expire until 2021, baseball is staring at its greatest threat to labor peace since the 1994 strike, according to more than a dozen league and union officials, owners, agents, players and front-office personnel, all of whom spoke to Yahoo Sports on the condition of anonymity because they were forbidden from discussing matters publicly. The sides aren’t yet at war. Commissioner Rob Manfred and MLBPA executive director Tony Clark have met multiple times in recent months, talking about sports gambling and the possibility of MLB officials sitting down with players to discuss on-field issues, sources told Yahoo Sports. The list of grievances on each side grows nevertheless, with the union questioning the league’s motivations after a brutal free-agent market for players last winter and the league frustrated over the mixed messages it believes the union regularly sends – such as Colon’s text to trainers.

Colon, who did not respond to a request for comment, had been perhaps the greatest advocate for the buscones who combated an international draft during the 2016 labor negotiations. The union’s opposition to a draft led to the current system in which international amateur spending is capped, which prompted teams that knew how much they could spend years down the road to strike deals with players as young as 13, which entreated trainers to prepare pre-teens for scouts’ eyes, which incentivized them to inject those children in search of seven-figure signing bonuses with performance-enhancing drugs.

Other attempts to weaken the program, which has since launched and was announced by the league Thursday, have followed. A story in Diario Libre, a Dominican newspaper, anonymously quoted a trainer and member of the union castigating it. The buscon, whom the newspaper said trained several players who received million-dollar bonuses, said the program violates the collective-bargaining agreement – something both league and multiple union officials do not believe is true.

“While we have some concerns about the program,” Clark told Yahoo Sports, “we expect to work through them with MLB.”

For two sides that have trouble agreeing on the color of the sky or the day of the week, how that work manifests itself will drop another tea leaf into a cup already overflowing. Both parties look at the other seeking clues on what’s truly important as they position themselves for negotiations that won’t begin in earnest for well over a year. And yet they know that with a relationship this tenuous, with frustrations high on both sides, the smallest gripes have time to metastasize if ignored.

Distrust from last summer’s slow free-agent market lingers

Until last winter, the animus between MLB and the MLBPA never amounted to much more than behind-the-scenes sniping. The league was used to negotiating with lawyers like former executive directors Don Fehr and Michael Weiner, and it found the style employed by Clark, a longtime major league player, off-putting and difficult. The union saw MLB as arrogant and disingenuous, less of a partner and more of an adversary, perpetually patronizing. Though these feelings did not get in the way of the basic agreement struck Nov. 30, 2016, the deal prefaced the great free-agent freeze of 2017-18.

Tony Clark, executive director of the Major League Players Association, answers questions at a news conference in Phoenix. Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred is defending teams’ reluctance to sign free agents last offseason and says union head Tony Clark has not responded to a pair of invitations to have a broad discussion about players’ concerns and changes in the way the game is played. (AP Photo)

The union spent months trying to unpack last offseason to better understand it. No clear, definitive evidence of collusion among teams revealed itself, which was mystifying, because this was a market unlike any other collusion-free hot-stove season in the 42 years of free agency. Even as signs of lower spending appeared the previous winter, nothing foretold such a distinct shift in priorities.

First the market was slow, and then it didn’t pick up, and when it did the offers were far less than players anticipated, and by the time spring training rolled around, dozens were still jobless, wondering what happened to the fulcrum of the MLBPA’s existence: free agency. Players saw free agency, and the large contracts that typically accompanied it, as almost an inalienable right. And considering they’d agreed to restrict money given to domestic amateurs and cap money paid to international amateurs, where else were teams going to spend but free agency?

“I’m still surprised they say they didn’t see it coming,” one general manager said. ” ‘Moneyball’ came out in 2003. It’s been 15 years. I’m surprised it took this long, honestly. And to not be ready for it? They don’t have anybody to blame but themselves.”

The best players’ markets were limited. The interest in lesser players was often nonexistent. Those older than 30 felt it the worst, and with a number of teams either practicing sudden austerity or simply not spending on major league free agents, the depressed free-agent market became the story of the winter.

“I never want to go through that again,” said one player who went into the winter seeking a multiyear contract and settled for a one-year deal like so many others who will add to the glut of this offseason. What once looked like a historic class suddenly has become exceptionally top-heavy, with 26-year-olds Bryce Harper` and Manny Machado primed to reap record deals. The only other 20-somethings of note in the class: starters Patrick Corbin and Nathan Eovaldi, and relievers Kelvin Herrera and Jeurys Familia.

With behemoths like the New York Yankees, Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants primed to dip beneath the competitive-balance tax threshold and reset the so-called luxury-tax rate at a far lower number, in theory they should be more active this winter. If the union has a plan, that might be it: Trust the market will rebound because more teams will participate, and be realistic about the shifting dynamics of how teams regard age. There is no way to artificially induce owners to spend more on players. The key, one official said, is to know which teams value what and pitch clients accordingly. In some cases, that could mean a rush of early deals for players panicked by last winter. Atlanta catcher Tyler Flowers skipped free agency altogether, signing a one-year extension with a club option this week.

“Players have been approached, are being approached and will likely continue to be approached,” Clark said. “When they are, they will make the decisions they need to make based on all the information they have been provided.”

Some agents fear this is simply another area in which the union needs to dig in – to save perhaps the last irrational market in the game from falling prey to the manifest rationality practiced by front offices. It’s a tricky fight, with teams and ownership groups emboldened by what they felt was a particularly successful 2017-18 offseason. And the next step, one owner said, could be for clubs to push even harder to sign players to long-term extensions well before they hit free agency.

“Teams have a persuasive argument to the players and agents that wasn’t so persuasive in the recent past,” he said. “Guys with two, three, four years of service time – if they got through arbitration, they were going to score a huge victory in free agency. But if free agency is more vulnerable now, why take the risk? That’s what teams should do.”

Players’ anger over last winter germinates from this line of thinking – that every incremental win for teams inspires them to take more control of the riches permeating a game that now generates $10 billion-plus a year in revenue. The union has taken a harder-line tack publicly this season, filing a grievance against the Miami Marlins, Oakland A’s, Pittsburgh Pirates and Tampa Bay Rays for improper expenditure of revenue-sharing money. And though dissatisfaction with union leadership was palpable among small groups of players over the winter, Clark vowed this winter would be different.

He has sought counsel from agents more this season than in any of his previous five as executive director, and it led Clark to bolster his legal staff by hiring veteran litigator Bruce Meyer as the union’s lead negotiator. Meyer’s background doesn’t exactly dovetail with the traditional grievance-heavy approach of the MLBPA; along with high-powered partners Jeffrey Kessler and Jim Quinn, Meyer was a go-to outside counsel when sports unions sought to sue leagues.

Seeking remedies in court would be seen as a declaration of war. It’s not as though the trumpets are exactly silent now, with the grievance against the four teams, two others by Chicago Cubs star Kris Bryant and Philadelphia Phillies third baseman Maikel Franco over service-time manipulation, and others that have not been made public. They’re all part of a larger story about the relationship between MLB and the MLBPA that blossomed out of necessity, thrived with mutual respect, started to degrade and finds itself at a seminal place today.

Chasm growing between MLB, union on key issues

What worries so many on both sides is the parties’ seeming inability to make a deal these days. It’s not just the contention over the Trainer Partnership Program. It’s the five-year group-licensing deal worth upward of $50 million a season they were negotiating with MLB Advanced Media, the league’s Internet arm, to use players’ images and likenesses for marketing, multiple sources familiar with the talks told Yahoo Sports. Not only would the staggering sum have served as perfect work-stoppage insurance, it would’ve impelled the league to better sell players to the public.

Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred stands with trophy before the MLB Home Run Derby, at Nationals Park, Monday, July 16, 2018 in Washington. The 89th MLB baseball All-Star Game will be played Tuesday. (AP)

The deal fell apart soon after the departure of MLBAM CEO Bob Bowman, who was forced out after years of abusive workplace behavior. One union official said Bowman’s exit scuttled the deal. One MLB official and an agent familiar with the negotiations said the union’s hardline negotiating posture often complicates potential deals and, in this case, torpedoed it during talks after Bowman’s removal.

Similarly, the sides are currently at an impasse over a proposed deal to loosen restrictions on players’ shoes, according to sources. The union is suggesting the parties try to monetize the deal, whereas MLB is more comfortable not trying to commercialize the endeavor and simply allowing players to be more fashion-conscious with their footwear, sources said.

It’s not just a distrust between the sides. It’s a philosophical dissimilarity, a chasm that’s growing, not shrinking. It’s players, still livid about last winter, looking past whatever internal squabbles there might be and trying to take a long view of the game – and their place in it. Organizations are more willing than ever to upend how the game has been played for decades, and the Tampa Bay Rays’ strategy of using a relief pitcher in the first inning could very easily serve as a salary suppressant.

“It’s really smart, but it’s also really bad for baseball,” Diamondbacks pitcher Zack Greinke, who emerged over the winter as a prominent labor-relations voice among players, told Bleacher Report. “It’s just a sideshow. There’s always ways to get a little advantage, but the main problem I have with it is you do it that way, then you’ll end up never paying any player what he’s worth because you’re not going to have guys starting, you’re not going to have guys throwing innings.

“You just keep shuffling guys in and out constantly so nobody will ever get paid. Someone’s going to make the money, either the owners or the players. You keep doing it that way, the players won’t make any money.”

Determining when to emphasize money has proven a difficult balancing act for the MLBPA. Player data – from everything teams glean using super-slow-motion cameras to biometric data they gather on amateurs via Perfect Game’s high school showcases or the Cape Cod League – can be immensely valuable, and clubs crave it more than ever. Especially because it’s free.

“The analytics have always been there and aren’t going anywhere,” Clark said. “I’m not saying they should. They’ve gotten more intricate and more detailed, which I understand. The questions become how is it affecting the game now and how might it affect the game moving forward.”

It’s an important question, one that goes well beyond labor relations and to the heart of a game that looks less and less like what it did even five years ago. Strikeouts are up. Balls in play are down. Game time remains too long. MLB is considering unilaterally implementing a pitch clock, though before doing that, the league wants to have substantive conversations with players to show it’s willing to listen to their concerns.

“We’re happy to sit down with players,” said Halem, the deputy commissioner, “and discuss with them any and all concerns we have with them on the way the game is played on the field and work with them on any solutions that satisfy all our constituents.”

If nothing else, the optics would be good: MLB and the MLBPA, their relationship at its most fragile point in years, willing to meet for the good of the game. It wouldn’t eliminate the text message, the blown deals, the spite – the impasses that right now define the most important relationship in baseball. It could serve as a reminder that the parties have far more to lose in labor disputes than they do to gain.

Or it may just be another thing to add to the list. For MLB, another blow-off by the union. For the MLBPA, another offer in bad faith by the league. And for baseball writ large, a precursor to the most important winter in years, one that may determine whether peace can be salvaged or war is an inevitability.

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