Baseball comes to its senses, making peace and avoiding chaos

ByJayson Stark ESPN logo
Thursday, December 1, 2016

Once upon a time in baseball, it wouldn't have ended like this. And that, of course, is because, for close to 25 years, labor negotiations in baseball never ended like this.

With peace. With stability. With a sport that has now gone so long without a work stoppage that the three other major professional sports in this land have combined for six of them since the last time a labor war erupted in baseball. How surreal is that?

So even though the labor agreement of 2016 went down almost a week after Thanksgiving, this, my friends, was something to be thankful for. Peace is good. But more than that, peace is essential.

As someone who has covered a few of those messy baseball work stoppages of yesteryear, I'd be happy to hop up on the stand and testify. Whatever was gained on the inside from those strikes or those lockouts, it wasn't enough to undo the damage it caused on the outside.

Baseball will never, ever be the same after the strike that wiped out the 1994 World Series. It will never regain the place it held in the American soul because of that strike. So no matter how vehemently people inside the game might want to defend the stands that they took back then, the truth is that in the big picture, only one good thing ever came of that strike.

The people who run this sport got the memo: Peace is good. And they learned that they should never go down that ugly, self-destructive road again. And they haven't.

They've now made it through 21 consecutive years of labor peace since the strike of 1994-95. And thanks to the deal they made Wednesday night, we know they're about to make it through five more. Hallelujah.

As you look over the details of that deal today, could it possibly be more obvious that there was never an issue in the 2016 labor talks that was worth blowing up a $10 billion industry over? Never.

Over the qualifying offer for a select group of free agents? Over containing spending on 18-year-old amateur players who happened to be born outside the United States? Over luxury-tax thresholds or tax rates? How did this sport ever drive itself to the brink of a lockout over issues like that? Incredible.

We still have a lot to learn about the specifics of this new labor deal. So we can't fully judge the complete scope of everything that was agreed to yet. But the highlights that did leak out were fascinating, all right. Here are some quick reactions:

We'd been led to believe that owners were willing to shred the entire system that required teams to forfeit a draft pick if they signed an elite free agent (i.e., one who received and rejected a qualifying offer). Turned out we were dead wrong. Those teams no longer have to lose their first-round pick. And that's a significant achievement for the players' union. But teams will still forfeit at least one pick for signing one of those players. And if they're a team with a payroll that rises above the luxury-tax threshold, it will cost two picks -- second- and fifth-round picks. And that's still a big deal.

"Are a second- and fifth-round pick more valuable than a No. 1 pick? Of course not," one agent said Wednesday evening. "But are they comparable? Certainly."

We also knew that as the two sides headed toward the wire, the luxury tax -- or competitive balance tax, if you're a fan of legalese -- was a major issue. Well, now we know why. Under previous versions of the luxury tax, the highest tax rate a team could pay was 50 percent, no matter how many times its payroll went beyond the tax threshold. But not anymore.

If the Dodgers don't get their 2017 payroll under $235 million, it appears as if their tax rate would rise to an astounding 92 (yes, ninety-two) percent as a third-time offender subject to a 50 percent tax plus a 42 percent "surtax" for being $40 million over the threshold. Wow. Two different agents used the term "soft cap" on Wednesday night to describe the effect of a rate that high. But no matter what you call it, it's the strongest deterrent to spending to ever appear in a baseball labor agreement. There's no debate about that.

The union fought for months against the owners' push to institute an international draft -- and ultimately won that fight. Instead, the two sides agreed to a hard cap on total annual spending for foreign-born amateur players, of about $5 million for every team. With no exceptions. And no flexibility to go above that amount.

So the days of a Yoan Moncada raking in $31.5 million are over. As are the days of teams like the Dodgers blowing through their international bonus pool and then spending whatever they chose because they didn't mind the penalties. So it will take a while before we completely grasp the effect of this change on teams and players alike. But one thing to file away is this: It's the first time the union has ever agreed to any sort of hard cap in any area. Interesting.

The players did come away with a couple of scheduling concessions that they'd made a major priority in these negotiations. Starting in 2018, the season will start four days earlier, so that four extra off days can be included in the schedule. And there are new provisions requiring more teams to play day games when one or both teams face long flights after the game.

In a sport that is now paying more than a half-billion dollars a year to players on the disabled list, these are more important elements of this agreement than you might think. If the primary cause of injury is fatigue, it makes sense for everyone to do what they can to combat as much fatigue as possible.

There is so much more to sift through when the details get announced. So there will be more surprises and more changes, many of them subtle, some of them not so subtle. And only then will we know how all the pieces of this puzzle fit together.

But I've covered enough labor talks in my day to know that most of you don't care about any of that. You only care about one thing:

Did they get this frigging deal done or not?

Well, ladies and gentlemen, the deal got done. Woo-hoo. The hot stove can keep on burning. The trade rumors can keep on flowing. The game can keep on growing. And that, in the end, is what had to happen. Any other outcome would have been an embarrassment. Not to mention a disaster.

Once upon a time in baseball, it wouldn't have ended this way. So thank heaven we don't live in that time anymore. Thank heaven we live in this time -- because no matter who emerges from this agreement unhappy about how this deal affects them -- peace always beats the alternative. And never more than right now.

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