25 years later, the 1994 strike is still the MLB owners’ fault

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Twenty five years ago, on August 12, 1994, the last strike in Major League Baseball occurred. It’s unlikely to be the final strike or work stoppage in the league’s history, but there have been 25 years of what some would refer to as “labor peace” since the last one. You should expect to see takes floating around the internet today suggesting that the strike was a bad idea, or that it was a disaster, and maybe even asking who was to blame for the strike, as if it isn’t management pushing the workers into a strike whenever one happens.

After all, we didn’t get to see Tony Gwynn hit .400, or Matt Williams challenge Roger Maris, or the Expos get a chance to win the World Series because of the strike, which apparently are the things we should really care about. Not that the strike kept MLB’s owners from implementing a salary cap, or that a federal judge stepping in at the tail-end of the strike stopped MLB from putting replacement players — scabs — on the field for games that actually counted, which could have destroyed the power of the MLBPA and had much further-reaching, dire consequences for the game than adding another 25 years onto the wait for someone to hit .400 again.

Yes, the ‘94 strike was unfortunate, and it certainly brought collateral damage along with it.* What’s most unfortunate about it, though, is the conditions that caused it to occur in the first place. The owners colluded for three years in the mid-80s, from 1985 through 1987, and were caught in all three years. Furious at the ruling against them, the owners then locked the players out before the 1990 season, as if they had been the ones who were wronged by collusion, and not the players who had $280 million — the agreed-upon punishment payment for the collusion — stolen from them by their bosses.

*It can certainly be argued that baseball in Montreal was already doomed, and the strike was more letting the Expos bleed out from a previous wound than it was the hand that killed them. Montreal was 19th in attendance per game out of 28 teams, and 21st in total attendance, in spite of their exciting young talent and late-season first-place record. Could a World Series victory have helped bring more fans into the fold? Of course! Winning your division and winning the World Series aren’t the same thing, though, and the first does not guarantee the second, hence the bleeding out analogy that starts this aside.

The owners’ goals in 1990? They wanted to institute pay-for-performance contracts, revenue-sharing, and a salary cap. The players, understandably, did not want the first and last of those things: revenue-sharing was more of an internal discussion for the owners to figure out among themselves, basically by convincing Yankees’ owner George Steinbrenner that sharing his profits didn’t make him a communist. The MLBPA escaped the ‘90 lockout without a cap or those awful pay-for-performance deals, but coming to an agreement cost then-commissioner Fay Vincent his job, because he was willing to come to a deal with the players and was also willing to admit that their anger at their bosses was justifiable following years of collusion.

Vincent’s case is a good reminder that the commissioner works for the owners, even if they are presented as above them. His forced resignation is also how Bud Selig came to power as an owner-commissioner, who would always have the owners’ best, conflict-of-interest interests in mind. This was basically their way of saying “never again,” where the “never” referred to playing nice with the union.

So, given all of this, it’s easy to see how things were still tense in ‘94 when the next collective bargaining agreement needed to be negotiated. Revenue-sharing was still on the table, which was fine with the MLBPA, given it would mean more teams to bid on and spend on free agents. The problem came in how to pay for revenue-sharing: the owners making the most money each year wanted a salary cap so they could still pocket plenty despite having to share, and the owners of lesser revenues were on board because they’d get money and keep their competitors from spending more and more than them. The players, as in 1990, were opposed to a cap. So, the union agreed to strike on August 12, assuming the season would be resumed when the strike concluded, as it had following every strike in MLB to that point.

Things were different this time, though, and it goes back to Selig as acting commissioner. No longer was there a commissioner who wanted everyone to get back to work. Selig only wanted the season to resume on his terms, and he was willing to sacrifice the rest of 1994 and beyond if it meant the owners could bring the players to heel in the long run.

Canceling the World Series was supposed to be a trump card that would force the players to see that they were in a hopeless situation where they couldn’t win against a unified ownership. Instead, the players still wouldn’t agree to a salary cap, which caused Selig and the owners to implement one without union approval or agreement. Selig and Co. didn’t just stop there, though: they also eliminated arbitration and free agency without consulting the union in bargaining, arguing that neither was guaranteed by the CBA even though both had previously been bargained into existence and were contained within said CBA.

The union responded by making every single player a free agent, which is kind of an amazing form of “you can’t fire me, I quit,” especially since free agency no longer existed in MLB’s eyes. MLB’s response to this was to have some teams bring on replacement players for spring training, and the MLBPA declared that their strike would not end if the scabs played a regular season game. The two sides remained at an impasse, one caused by MLB refusing to build on the previous CBA: they instead tried to rip up all of the parts they didn’t like, and replace them with ones they did, which is not how bargaining and unions work.

You can see now why Selig wanted to break the union, as it was in his and the other owners’ way, keeping them doing whatever they wanted, just like in the good old days before Marvin Miller showed up in the 60s and ruined everything for them. And yet, people still ask, and will keep asking, whose fault this all was, as if it wasn’t the exclamation point on 10 years of the owners doing everything they could and plenty they could not to fuck with and over the players and their union.

Judge (and current Supreme Court Justice) Sonia Sotomayor believed MLB was the one at fault in the strike, not the union, and she ruled that MLB couldn’t just get unilaterally dispose of collectively bargained facets of the game like arbitration and free agency. She also determined that the two sides would just use the previous CBA while they negotiated a new one, which ended the ‘94 strike on terms the players were satisfied with.

The issues of the ‘94 strike weren’t resolved until before the 1997 season: the MLBPA and MLB played without a new labor agreement in both the 1995 and 1996 campaigns, as the two sides tried to negotiate a new one for a total of three years. There was no salary cap, but this is where the luxury tax came in, and, well, you know how that’s all turned out. Regardless, though, this persisting idea that there is a party to blame outside of ownership for the events of the ‘94 strike is maddening. Yes, media and fans were tired of both sides 25 years ago because they were tired of work stoppages, but there’s only one answer to whose fault they are, and that won’t change no matter how many times they’re revisited.

    • ESPN took a look at how much playing various sports costs these days, and it’s no wonder kids aren’t playing them like they used to.

    • One good thing about the existence of The Players’ Tribune is we get pieces from the athletes themselves on topics like mental health, this one provided by WNBA star Liz Cambage.

    • I respect Frankie de la Cretaz so much and for a number of reasons, and one of those is their fearlessness on which stories they’re pitching and writing. I bring that up now because their latest is on how accused rapist Kobe Bryant shouldn’t get to use women’s sports for his redemption arc.

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