When Major League Baseball games ended on August 12, 1994 – the last time the sport had a work stoppage – the late Hall of Fame outfielder Tony Gwynn was beating .394 and possibly trying to be the first player to hit 0.400 in a season since Ted Williams; the Montreal Expos led the National League East with a roster that included future Hall of Fame members Pedro Martinez and Larry Walker; and the Yankees’ Don Mattingly was perhaps heading for his first playoffs.
But these and other baseball stories became a footnote after a players’ strike wiped out the rest of season 94, including the cancellation of the World Series. The strike continued into 1995, and in the fallout, players blamed greedy owners and their chief bargaining agent, Richard Ravitch, while owners continued to complain about the need for a salary cap. Fans have singled out millionaires fighting billionaires.
It wasn’t until four years later, when a big home run chase was waged to eclipse Roger Maris’ one-season record that the sport began to emerge from ignominy (even though this home battle run between hitters Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa was ultimately ruled corrupt as McGwire would admit to having used performance enhancing drugs throughout his career and Sosa still carries suspicion of using PED).
As time is running out on the current collective bargaining agreement between Baseball Ownership and the Players Association, and a potential lockout looming on December 1, another work stoppage may torpedo a sport that has struggled in recent years to appeal to younger fans, whose interest has shifted to the NFL and NBA.
But former baseball commissioner Fay Vincent – who had already resigned as commissioner in the 1994-95 strike – says the American hobby hasn’t suffered too much in the long run, and he points out the value of team franchises now as a benchmark for the overall financial health of the sport.
“The value of teams has increased enormously,” says Vincent. “Now you see investors and hedge funds wanting to own a sports franchise. There is no doubt that a lot of damage was done to baseball in 1994. The strike was a very bad event. But all was not catastrophic. You look at the sale of the Mets (for $ 2.4 billion to Steve Cohen) last year, we’re at an all-time high in terms of franchise value. If the Yankees sold today, the team would likely be worth $ 8 billion. (Forbes valued the Yankees at $ 5.25 billion earlier this year).
While players are expected to fight over issues like the manipulation of duty time and against any proposal suggesting a salary cap, Vincent believes the union should consider a more aggressive strategy from players trying to become franchise players.
Vincent says he used to speak with the late Players Association executive director Michael Weiner – who died in 2013 – about ways in which MLB players could become more involved in the economic structure beyond the traditional wage compensation.
“I told (Weiner) that the players have to develop their ownership position, because that’s where the money is,” says Vincent. “No player owns a piece from any team.”
If a lockout occurs and no new CBAs are finalized before the start of the 2022 season, fans are unlikely to care much beyond how many regular season games will be taken off the table. due to a work stoppage. There wouldn’t be much sympathy for MLB owners, even after franchises suffered a major financial blow in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season.
Although Vincent did not speculate on the bargaining strengths of Rob Manfred and Deputy Commissioner Dan Halem or current union executive director Tony Clark and his chief lieutenant Bruce Meyer, Vincent cited Manfred’s treatment the Houston Astros’ illegal electronic sign theft case. as “an incredible setback” for the commissioner’s office.
“Letting the guys get away with it was a huge mistake,” said Vincent. “When there is cheating in the game, you have to go after the people who did it. Manfred did not have the courage to sue the union, because he would have been fighting on every corner, and Manfred did not want to (throw) the owners’ money into endless litigation, that was absurd.
After an MLB investigation revealed that the Astros had cheated throughout the 2017 playoffs, including their run for the World Series championship, the only discipline imposed on Manfred was a one-year suspension for then manager AJ Hinch and team general manager Jeff Luhnow. Astros players received immunity in exchange for testimony.
“To do nothing was indefensible,” said Vincent. “The union bluffed Manfred and he made a terrible mistake.”
As for union negotiations, Vincent says baseball, like any business, will change over time.
“Sport has changed enormously,” says Vincent. “The question is, are these owners and stakeholders ready to create an environment that will protect their business and their constituents? “