When did you seriously get worried about the possibility of not having a baseball season?
Was it Dec. 2, when commissioner Rob Manfred instituted a lockout and froze his own sport? Maybe New Year’s Day, which traditionally serves as the six-week warning for the approach of spring training?
Or how about the time the first 15-hour negotiating session, down at the vacant Grapefruit League home of the Marlins and Cardinals, stretched until 2:30 a.m. before collapsing that same March 1 afternoon? Or a week later, after a 16-hour marathon, lasting until 3 a.m., proved futile on March 8?
Ultimately, it took 99 days to revive baseball this winter, and six MLB-issued deadlines that threatened to cancel (not postpone) regular season games. In other words, everyone feels lucky we finally made it to Opening Day.
This wasn’t easy. Remember, all eight members of the union’s executive committee, the highest-ranking players, voted against the final proposal that was presented by the owners. Fortunately, for those of us who wanted baseball this summer, that offer was still approved by the team reps, delivering a 26-12 majority.
So what does all this mean for the sport? Bottom line, at least they’re going to be playing it in 2022. We never had any guarantees regarding that. And if some of the hard-liners had their way -- on both sides -- we might still be camped outside Manhattan office towers waiting for negotiating updates.
Instead, the owners and players reached an agreement that in some ways feels like an uneasy truce. Going forward, some players still refuse to appear on MLB Network, feeling their side was misrepresented by why they believe to be the league’s propaganda arm. Perhaps those hard feelings will fade in the coming months when there is more distance from the bitter negotiations. But it’s difficult to ever envision a friction-free relationship between management and the players. They’ll settle for detente in keeping this $11-billion industry operating again.
“This was a long, hard labor fight against a powerful adversary committed to maintaining the status quo or making it worse for players,” union lead negotiator Bruce Meyer said upon the new CBA’s completion. “Players were incredibly engaged, involved, educated and interested -- not just in themselves, but in protecting their teammates and future generations of players ... They remained unified throughout in the face of every pressure tactic in the book.”
The players again were able to fend off a salary cap, more or less, by getting the CBT’s minimum payroll threshold up to $230 million and adding a fourth rung $60 million above the base, or $290 million for 2022 -- otherwise known as the “Steve Cohen Tax.”
And really, this was all about the money, as much as the discussions veered off into other directions. But that’s not to say there won’t be a concrete on-field changes to the game ahead, including this season, with the implementation of the universal DH and the return of the “ghost runner” to decide extra innings.
Adding the DH to the National League is a move that was picking up momentum over the past decade, and now that it’s here, any players previously not in favor seem to now be on board. Even Jacob deGrom, a career .204 hitter with three homers and 29 RBIs in 383 at-bats, admitted that he was probably better off not swinging a bat anymore, as the activity likely contributed to his flurry of injuries in 2021. Pitchers just don’t spend enough time preparing for that specific physical strain, and it’s not a smart risk to take with one of the sport’s most expensive commodities.
“I know quite a bit of pitchers that really struggled in the box,” said Gerrit Cole, a member of the union’s executive subcommittee. “So the health and safety aspect of it, I think the clubs are more comfortable with, most of the pitchers are more comfortable with. Look, it’s not my favorite thing, but the positives outweigh the negatives.”
Despite the raging debate, the DH is probably one of the least intrusive rules on tap. Both leagues already went to the DH for the pandemic-shortened season in 2020. It’s the next round of experimental measures that could make more of a drastic impact -- and that’s a positive thing, as far as Manfred is concerned. The pitch clock, larger bases, banning the shift and automated strike zones are all on the list, and MLB was able to get a clause in the new CBA that allows for only 45 days to take effect, once the rule is reviewed/approved by a group that includes six league reps, four active players and one umpire.
“I love our game,” Manfred said shortly after the CBA was ratified by the owners on March 10. “Having said that, since I’ve been commissioner, I’ve talked about the need to make changes in some of our rules to enhance the entertainment value of our product for the benefit of our fans. I think the new agreement opens an opportunity to work with the players to make sure that we make good rule changes.”
Some of those changes will be in effect as soon as 2023, and more are likely to follow. For baseball, a sport steeped in tradition that prides itself on evolving at a glacial pace, any tweak, however small, is considered radical. And by that standard, the state of the game has never been more in flux, trying to adapt to a society that is getting more difficult to keep up with by the day.
David Lennon's 2022 MLB predictions
AL: Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Blue Jays
NL: Juan Soto, Nationals
CY YOUNG AWARD
AL: Robbie Ray, Mariners
NL: Walker Buehler, Dodgers
HOME RUN LEADER
AL: Giancarlo Stanton, Yankees
NL: Matt Olson, Atlanta
AL: Tim Anderson, White Sox
NL: Trea Turner, Dodgers
AL: Robbie Ray, Mariners
NL: Walker Buehler, Dodgers
AL: Dylan Cease, White Sox
NL: Corbin Burnes, Brewers
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
AL: Bobby Witt Jr., Royals
NL: Oneil Cruz, Pirates
AL: Justin Verlander, Astros
NL: Clint Frazier, Cubs
MANAGER OF THE YEAR
AL: Charlie Montoyo, Blue Jays
NL: Buck Showalter, Mets
GAMES THEY’LL WIN