Ben Frederickson: MLB owners, players should agree on one thing — work stoppage in 2022 would be disastrous

ST. LOUIS — A reminder of baseball’s shaky footing surfaced at an unexpected time and place last week.

Just a few questions into the virtual news conference that introduced Nolan Arenado as the Cardinals’ new third baseman, the topic shifted from the likely Hall of Famer’s trade to the fear of a work stoppage potentially grinding baseball to a halt before Arenado’s second season in St. Louis.

Arenado and Cardinals chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. barely had finished their opening statements about the blockbuster deal when Associated Press baseball writer Ronald Blum sounded the sad trombone.

“Hey Nolan,” Blum said, “for you and for Bill, for all of the excitement for the trade and this season, does part of you worry, given the relationship between the parties, that a work stoppage could be likely for spring training next year?”

Holy buzzkill, Blum.

But don’t blame him.

He was covering what should be the biggest story in baseball, and it’s not Arenado to the Cardinals — at least not outside of St. Louis.

With so much attention on what another pandemic-impacted season could look like in 2021, an even bigger threat looming after that season’s end continues to get overlooked. Baseball’s current collective bargaining agreement expires after the 2021 season. That means a new CBA. must be agreed on by MLB owners and players before 2022 spring training can start. Hopefully, a compromise on a new deal eventually makes growing fears about a strike or lockout look anxiety-prone.

But the decaying relationship between team owners and players — one best represented by the tension between MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred and players’ union leader Tony Clark — continues to raise concerns about the 2022 season getting shortened or scrapped altogether.

“MLB work stoppage in 2022 increasingly likely,” read the headline on the article Blum was working on when he appeared in the Cardinals’ Zoom. He cited players’ reluctance to negotiate with owners over a one-month COVID-19-caused delay to 2021 spring training as the latest reason to expect CBA carnage a year from now.

There are other reasons. The list of things players and owners don’t agree on would require a special section’s worth of pages in this newspaper. And even something both sides do agree on — such as wanting the designated hitter in the National League — cannot be figured out because of fears of what else might be included in the compromise, and how that could affect future negotiations. Almost all of the issues can be traced back to either money, or trust, and how the sides view a perceived imbalance of the two.

Stress fractures have been showing for some time now. Hope that the pandemic would force both parties toward the middle seem to have been misplaced. The sides clashed during the negotiation of a single-season agreement for the 2020 season after COVID-19 scrambled the routine. Instead of taking advantage of being the first major American sports league to play some sort of a regular season without a bubble by getting out in front with a nimble plan for 2021, baseball is crossing its fingers and hoping a regular spring training and 162-game season will be achievable.

Why? Because players and owners don’t trust one another to get serious about coming up with a better plan.

The sausage-making of sports never is pretty and rarely entertaining to the common fan. For the most part, clashes between rich players and richer owners are forgiven as long as games are played. But if baseball fights its way into a mangled 2022 season, it will not be forgiven for a very long time. The sport hurt itself with five strikes and three lockouts between 1972 and 1995 before adopting a smarter way. A return to dysfunction in 2022 would be the most damaging of them all.

Imagine this scenario. It’s 2022. God willing, we are through the worst of the pandemic. A historic sports boom is upon us. Fans are rushing back to witness their favorite teams in person, riding high on the euphoria of reembracing the fan experience.

Football players are jumping into fans’ arms after touchdowns. Basketball players are high-fiving spectators courtside after big shots, no masks in sight. Hockey players — you know, the guys who worked out a new CBA during the pandemic — are flipping pucks to kids.

But baseball players are missing. A sport already suffering from declining attendance and diminishing relevancy sits out, twisting a knife into itself.

Until players and owners acknowledge the worst-case scenario, negotiations about 2021 and 2022 are starting from the wrong place.

That’s what made the answers given last week by DeWitt and Arenado so reassuring. The Cardinals’ owner and the Cardinals’ best player seemed to be on the same page.

Said DeWitt: “It’s incumbent on both parties to try to reach a mutually beneficial agreement. I know both parties will make every effort to do that . . . I don’t want to get too deep into the weeds, and the issues, and all of the things that are important to both sides, but historically, MLB and the players’ association have avoided work stoppages for a long, long time, longer than any other professional sport. So, let’s hope that continues through next year.”

Said Arenado: “I hope we don’t have a work stoppage. I hope we are able to play. I think both sides want to play. Especially with the 2020 season, how it got delayed and all of the things going on in our country, it probably would not be very good if we had a stoppage. So I hope we are able to play and we are able to settle those disputes, or whatever they are, and get them done. And I believe we can. There is always agreement there.”

If everyone in baseball can agree on one thing, it’s that a work stoppage in 2022 would be disastrous for all.

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