When you think about it, 1994 feels like a lifetime ago, doesn’t it? The “world wide web” was only 4 years old, Boyz II Men ruled the world, and the Atlanta Braves owned the National League.
Oh yeah, and they stopped playing baseball in August, cancelled the World Series, and forever painted labor negotiations as “millionaires vs. billionaires”. Ya know, that little thing…
So What Happened?
To say this is a broad subject is like saying A Tale of Two Cities is bathroom reading. The issue is nuanced, complicated, and to really, properly explain it, it would require it’s own post entirely. In lieu of that, here’s the core points:
- Both sides hated each other, after it was determined that the owners colluded to avoid signing free agents in the 1988, 1989, and 1990 seasons, in order to artificially suppress player salaries.
- The Owners demanded that smaller market teams get a share of big market teams revenue, and that a unilateral salary cap be imposed, claiming that would avoid disparity.
- The Players Union vehemently opposed the salary cap, claiming it was another way for ownership to keep salaries in check, even while franchise values and revenue continued upward.
- The negotiations were further hampered by the lack of an official commissioner, with Fay Vincent being forced to resign less than two years earlier. Bud Selig was acting commissioner, but failed to get consensus among ownership.
The affects were crippling. The Colorado Rockies were on pace to set the all time attendance record, Tony Gwynn was hitting .394, and Matt Williams was matching Roger Maris’s record setting home run pace. The real casualty, however, was the Montreal Expos. Sitting in first place at the time the players walked out, and poised to take the NL East crown from the mighty Atlanta Braves, the Expos had all the momentum in the world, and seemed to be gaining the trust of their fans, who had endured a lifetime of losing. It wasn’t to be. The team lost several key players in that offseason, and they descended back into mediocrity, and eventually left Montreal for Washington, where they became the Nationals.
The strike of 1994 was a failure on all fronts, so when fans hear quotes like this one from Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainright…
“I think unless something changes, there’s gonna be a strike 100 percent,” Wainwright said. “I don’t think anybody’s hiding that.”
…. eyebrows raise and fists begin to clench. Have (almost) no fear though, because here’s what’s different…
The Social Climate favors the Players, as opposed to No One
In 1994, players salaries were ballooning at an astonishing pace, with the average MLB salary increasing 132% from 1989 to 1994. This put players in the sort of “what are you complaining about?” position when talking about salary. Since the strike, it took nearly 12 years to get the same level of increase, so fans have gradually adjusted to increasing player salaries. This takes away the whole “how much more do you want?” argument that MLB owners leaned on during the previous work stoppage negotiations. This is also the age of the wealth gap, where even though players are making millions, the owners are making billions, and it’s a lot easier to make a villain out of someone you go to their house and never see them.
The Problems Faced are More Clear, and Fixable
The unstoppable force met the Immovable object in the last work stoppage. The Owners pushed an agenda that was contrary to the very core of the players argument, and the entire issue hinged on one clear change that simply wasn’t going to happen. The issues we face here are not a complete tear down, but rather a few repairable pillars. Some examples:
- Remove Draft pick Compensation for Free Agents
- Modify revenue sharing and TV deals
- Change the Minor League pay structure
- Modify how rookie contracts are handled
These are all things that make financial sense, and encourages competition for both sides. Teams can continue to emphasize the draft to cultivate minor league talent while also not handcuffing major league teams (while also maintaining attendance), and for players it allows for a less stressful off season and naturally increases salaries by creating more of a market.
The Internet, and Better Informed Fans
As of the time of this writing, both sides are set to being negotiations in New York. This is good news, first off, because the current CBA is still good until 2021. The other good part of this, is that we know that talks are happening, thanks in large part to the internet, social media, and better informed fans. One of the most discouraging parts of the ’94 strike was the fact that any news or updates came mostly from attorneys with an agenda, or players put in a difficult position. Now, in the age of increased social awareness about issues like wealth disparity, fair working conditions, and overall resentment of corporate ownership, fans not only have more of a stake, but they are also better informed during the process. This creates an increased sense of accountability during negotiations for both sides, and also keeps the fans engaged directly with the parties, as opposed to having to wait on the sidelines to draw their own conclusions.
Overall, things are different now, and despite what some headlines may read, the game doesn’t need “Saving”, there is no “fork in the road”. There needs to be some systemic changes, for sure, but unlike the last time we had a strike, there is no tear down needed, and both sides cannot be so dumb they want to do all of this again….