Hasn’t MLB Learned from its Strike History?

photo: Adam Wainwright (Jeff Curry/USA TODAY Sports)

Players and owners caused serious damage to Major League Baseball with a mid-season strike in 1994. Yet, at least one prominent player is talking in 2019 about a mid-season work stoppage, which unlike 25 years prior, would be mid-contract. Who is worrying about the fans?

Not even the dean of current Major League Baseball players, Bartolo Colon, had reached MLB in 1994. That is a shame, because it appears today’s players do not realize the damage caused to the game by the 1994-1995 strike.

Veteran St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright made national headlines on Friday by expressing his fear that players might walk off the job midway through the season due to discord with ownership over the slow free agent market, among other substantive issues. Though he was not specific, it seems that Wainwright would be expecting the current Collective Bargaining Agreement to be opened up here in 2019.

The players obviously realize they made a mistake with the current CBA, so now they want to strike – in the middle of the deal they negotiated and signed?

What good is a contract that one side refuses to honor? I imagine if it got to that, the courts would have something to say about a strike now.

The current labor deal has almost three more years to run, which offers plenty of time to work on the game’s many issues. But if the players cannot come to an agreement with owners on key matters such as tanking, free agency, salary minimums, arbitration and the like after three years of in-good-faith negotiations, then yes, they would have clear justification to refuse to work when the CBA ends.

But there is no indication that the owners will not negotiate leading up to the next labor agreement. On the other hand, expecting ownership to become so benevolent (or threatened) that they would make major concessions to the players here in 2019 is wildly, unrealistically optimistic.

In reality, odds are pretty high that most of the free agents currently unsigned will have been playing for months with their new teams by mid-season, anyway, which should temporarily cool some of the current heat.

Learning from 1994-1995

There is a precedent that many older folks remember first-hand – when the players went on strike during the 1994 season. However, today’s situation is very different in one key aspect.

The then-current CBA had expired at the end of 1993. In good faith, players opened the 1994 season and competed for more than half a season with no labor agreement in place. With negotiations going nowhere, the players went on strike on August 12. The remainder of that season, including the playoffs and World Series, was cancelled.

The discord carried into 1995, with the owners stopped by the courts from using replacement players as the season was about to begin. The two sides were ordered to play under the terms of the 1993-expired agreement until a new CBA could be completed, which was eventually accomplished.

A shortened 144-game schedule for 1995 followed with the regular players back on the job. Still, owners and players alike were met with a high level of fan anger. Per game attendance dropped 20 percent from 1994 with many fans vowing to never return to the game. It was one of Major League Baseball’s darkest hours – one that should never be repeated.

What to do?

It is important to remember that the 1994 mid-season strike occurred with no labor agreement in place, which is the major difference from 2019. And when all was said and done, what did the 1994-1995 strike accomplish positively?

Baseball – players and owners alike – needs to learn from its collective prior arrogance that its fan base should not be taken for granted.

Assuming the fans will again weather the storm brought on by a strike could be a fatal mistake. In the last quarter century, competition for the sports entertainment dollar and fan attention has grown exponentially. Maybe this time, Slammin’ Sammy and Big Mac won’t burst onto the scene to lure them back three years down the line.

Three more years of escalating rhetoric is bound to make us all tremendously weary. But if the two sides return to the bargaining table sooner, rather than later, perhaps the current strike talk can be silenced. They can get to work on the issues for the future, and in the interim, fans can continue to enjoy the game they love.

February 21 update 

Clark made clear what seemed obvious only to a subset of people, excluding even some members of his own union.

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Brian Walton can be reached via email at brian@thecardinalnation.com. Follow Brian on Twitter.

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