Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred responds to a question...

Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred responds to a question Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021, during a news conference in Chicago.  Credit: AP/Charles Rex Arbogast

CHICAGO -- Commissioner Rob Manfred didn’t go as far as to say there would be a lockout when the collective bargaining agreement expires at midnight on Dec. 1.

Then again, he certainly didn’t sound all that opposed to one either Thursday when the MLB owners meetings wrapped up at the Four Seasons in Chicago.

With the start of spring training more than two months away, and Opening Day another six weeks beyond that, it’s looking like this winter is shaping up to be the labor battleground everyone anticipated. And time probably won’t be a factor until the regular season is actually threatened.

"Honestly, I can’t believe there’s a single fan in the world who doesn’t understand that an offseason lockout that moves the process forward is different than a labor dispute that costs games," Manfred said.

Based on that comment alone, Manfred’s side apparently views locking out the players -- shutting down the sport, putting a freeze on transactions, etc. -- as a valuable negotiating tool. And when you consider the canyon-sized gap that still exists on a number of economic matters between the owners and the Players Association, it’s probably not logical to believe a new CBA is going to get hammered out inside of these next two weeks.

"We understand that time is becoming an issue," Manfred said. "That’s a challenge. We’ve had challenges with respect to making labor agreements before and we’ve got a pretty good track record of overcoming those challenges."

When it was brought up to Manfred that even the suggestion of a December lockout makes baseball fans think Opening Day in April could be in jeopardy, the commissioner took his finger off the doomsday button.

"The best I can tell you on that is I left a pretty good job with a pretty good future to try to get this industry to the point where we can make deals without labor disputes," Manfred said. "I don’t think there’s anybody who understands any better than I do. From the perspective of the fans, they don’t want a labor dispute, and that’s why our No. 1 priority is to make a deal."

Manfred didn’t join MLB full-time until 1998, when he become one of Bud Selig’s top labor lieutenants, and since the ’94 strike that cancelled the World Series, baseball has enjoyed a mostly peaceful stretch without any interruptions to the season. But the increasingly contentious relationship between the owners and players flared up during their efforts to salvage the pandemic-shortened season of 2020, setting the stage for a more militant approach to the new CBA.

At stake is baseball’s whole economic system, and trying to carve up the revenue from an $11-billion industry, which includes everything from a fair pay-scale for younger players to determining the best threshold for free agency. Despite months of intense negotiations, including Wednesday and another round scheduled for Friday, the tug-of-war over money has the tendency to stretch out until it becomes untenable.

"We’ve been down this path," Manfred said. "I don’t think ’94 worked out too great for anybody. I think when you look at other sports, the pattern has become to control the timing of the labor dispute and try to minimize the prospect of an actual disruption of the season. That’s what it’s about. It’s avoiding doing damage to the season."

The anxiety over a looming lockout seemingly has spurred the market, with Jose Berrios (7 yrs/$131M), Eduardo Rodriguez (5 yrs/$77M), Justin Verlander (1 yr/$25M) and Noah Syndergaard (1 yr/$21M) all signing deals since free agency began. Manfred emphasized that it’s been business as usual for clubs, and the commissioner said that no-decision about a lockout was made this week at the owners meetings.

Stickier baseball on deck?

Amid the labor strife over economic issues, Manfred said that a new, grippier baseball will likely be used for the 2022 season, presumably eliminating the temptation for players to used banned substances like Spider Tack, which was brought to light last season during the MLB crackdown.

"We actually have a couple of options in terms of tackier balls," Manfred said Thursday. "I think there’s going to be some testing done over the winter. I think we’ll be far enough along that I’m hoping for live-game testing in spring training. And we could be in a position to use a new ball next year. Maybe it’s going to be ’23 instead, but we’re continuing to work on the project and have made real progress."

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