New deal shows MLB learned lesson

BY Ken Rosenthal • November 17, 2011

If the cancellation of the 1994 World Series is part of Bud Selig’s legacy, then the lesson he learned is an even more important part.

Baseball’s new five-year collective-bargaining agreement is a tribute not just to the commissioner, but also to the players and owners who recognized that enough was enough.

The deal is done and will be announced Monday, according to sources. It will ensure labor peace for 21 straight years, an almost unimaginable triumph for a sport that endured eight work stoppages from 1972 to ’95.

MLB — not the NFL, not the NHL and certainly not the warring NBA — is now the model for labor relations in professional sports.

It might be Selig’s proudest accomplishment.

In the bad old days, the distrust between the sides and the utter level of contempt were palpable. And the greed was appalling.

“It’s just a few hundred folks trying to figure out how to divide nearly $2 billion,” President Bill Clinton said while the players were on strike in February 1995. “They ought to be able to figure that out.”

Just 15 years later, baseball revenue was $7 billion. Those few hundred folks have figured out how to divide it quite nicely, thank you very much.

The new agreement will not be perfect; several GMs already are livid over the new restraints on draft spending. Other details, including the creation of two additional wild-card playoff berths, also are certain to spark debate. But while reasonable people can disagree over parts of the deal, the players and owners at least understand that no issue is big enough to bring down the entire sport.

So much has changed since the days when the owners pushed clumsily for a salary cap, or something close to it, driving a wedge between the two sides.

The union, created by the single-minded vision of Marvin Miller, was unyielding. The owners, meanwhile, were divided between big markets and small, creating additional problems.

As it turned out, the owners never got a cap, unlike their brethren in other professional sports leagues. But together with the union, they created greater parity by adopting revenue sharing and a luxury tax.

Again, the system isn’t perfect — baseball’s reliance on local revenues makes parity more difficult to attain than in the NFL, which slices its whopping national television money into equal parts for all teams.

Still, the past two baseball negotiations were completed with virtually no rancor. Credit for this one must go to Rob Manfred, baseball’s top labor attorney, and Michael Weiner, Donald Fehr’s successor as the head of the union.

For years, the owners trotted out negotiators who were no match for their union counterparts. Donald Fehr, the head of the union, and Gene Orza, his top assistant, were brilliant. But they often came off as arrogant, commanding the moral high ground — and telling you all about it.

Manfred and Weiner are almost the opposites of the predecessors; Manfred is a shrewd dealmaker, while Weiner has virtually no ego. They also are almost the opposites of each other; Manfred is direct and intense, while Weiner is easygoing, a guy who prefers to wear jeans. Yet somehow the two developed a mutual respect, communicating several times a day, negotiating with decency and fairness.

The two men didn’t achieve their goal of completing a deal by the World Series, as Manfred and Fehr did in 2006. Who cares? The deal was completed well before the expiration of the current contract on Dec. 11. Throughout the negotiations, the threat of a strike or lockout was practically nonexistent.

Everyone acted like adults.

No wonder Selig was in a terrific mood even before news of the agreement broke Thursday, announcing the additional wild cards, the completion of the Astros’ sale and the creation of two 15-team leagues for 2013.

As the commissioner spoke to reporters after the meetings of general managers and owners in Milwaukee, he knew the best was yet to come.

Selig always will be criticized for cancelling the ’94 World Series, and for presiding over the steroid era that peaked in the years that followed. His critics suggest that he willfully ignored the use of performance-enhancing drugs as the increased slugging — as epitomized by the ’98 home-run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa — helped restore the sport’s popularity.

I wouldn’t go that far; Selig was negligent, just as the union and media were negligent, but no one operated with any grand plan. The game mostly has recovered from the excesses of the steroid era, with help from the strict testing program that Selig helped implement. And now, with another labor agreement, the days of fear and loathing between the players and owners — the bad old days — seem so long ago.

Give Selig credit. Give Manfred and Weiner credit. Give ’em all credit.

Everyone learned.

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