On Rob Manfred and the “mistake” of 1994

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“We made the mistake of playing without a collective bargaining agreement in 1994, and it cost our fans and our clubs dearly,” [Rob] Manfred said. “We will not make that same mistake again.”

This line from MLB commissioner Rob Manfred has been bothering me since I first read it in the New York Times, back when this offseason lockout kicked off. It’s just so disingenuous, on a number of levels. Yes, it was a strategic mistake, in a vacuum, for the league to play without a CBA, because it gave the players room to strike when they wanted to — closer to the end of the season, to put the postseason and World Series in doubt and the decision to go forward with those in the hands of the league and owners. To try to say the fans suffered for this mistake, though, and to lump the clubs in with said suffering, implying in the process that it was the players’ decision to strike that “cost” these two groups dearly, is where the bullshit lives. The decision was not made in a vacuum: it was made within the context of its time, and was a calculated choice by the commissioner and owners that they hoped would forever tip the balance of power back in their favor.

There is a reason that the owners did not lock the players out before the 1994 season, and it was not out of the goodness of their hearts nor for the love of the game. The owners had just staged a lockout a few years before, prior to the 1990 season, and it was a spectacular failure, both in terms of policy and the public support for the titular lords of the realm. The owners did not want the lockout to end, as their goals were to reduce the power of free agency and arbitration, and curb the rise of player salaries while simultaneously harming the unity of the union. However, then-commissioner Fay Vincent helped come to terms with the MLBPA to reopen the gates, and he was eventually forced to resign because of it. Milwaukee Brewers’ owner Bud Selig would become the acting commissioner of Major League Baseball, despite being a central figure in the collusion years of the 1980s that the players were so mad about in 1990 — which made communication with the owners during that lockout next to impossible — in the first place. Selig, upset about the collusion scheme not working, upset about the lockout in 1990 not being effective, and upset that the owners were not beloved stewards of the game but considered at fault for yet another dispute with the players, went into 1994 with a very different attitude.

There was no lockout in part because Selig knew that it was going to be a bad look. He knew that, in order to change the perception of the labor disputes in the public and in the media, the players needed to be the ones to initiate the work stoppage. When the time for a strike finally came in August of that year, Selig was giddy about it, according to Jon Pessah’s 2016 history of the Selig era, The Game. This was the moment where he would be able to bring the players to heel, as the fools had walked right into his trap of calling a strike that would result in the World Series being canceled: something the players would be forever blamed for, and just the opportunity the owners needed to break the union for good.

This wasn’t just Selig hoping that everyone would turn on the players, of course. There was room for failure there. No, Selig and the owners knew that they could behave differently during a strike than they could during a lockout, as well. For example, replacement players — scabs — can not be used during a lockout, since the owners initiated that process. During a strike, though? Scabs are assholes who have betrayed their fellow worker, but they aren’t against labor law in this scenario. If the threat of canceling the World Series wasn’t going to be enough to get the players to agree to the terms Selig wanted, then replacement players were going to be the 1995 version of that test.

So, Selig negotiated as if the players had no choice but to accept the salary cap they refused to engage on in bargaining, knowing that the cost of refusal was going to be the cancellation of the World Series, and that would be on the heads of the players. The union stood firm, though, refusing to be bullied by Selig’s tactics, so the acting commissioner decided to go one step further. Well, many steps forward. He unilaterally implemented a salary cap, and brought an end to the practices of arbitration and free agency, too, with the argument for doing so being that the CBA did not guarantee their existence. The union declared every single player a free agent in response, which is what brought out the scabs: the Players Association let MLB know that if the scabs suited up for a single regular season game, that the strike was not going to end.

The real mistake of 1994-1995 is that Selig and the owners overstepped their bounds to the point that Judge Sonia Sotomayor, now a Supreme Court Justice but then a Federal District judge, blamed the league for the strike in her ruling against them. Selig tried to do too much too quickly: it wasn’t just the scheme of trying to get the players to strike by being obstinate in bargaining about the need for a salary cap and the dismantling of free agency and arbitration, but that he coupled that with making unilateral decisions that went against the National Labor Relations Act, and brought in a Federal judge who was only ever going to be able to decide one way on this given everything that went down. Selig learned from this mistake, of course, and began a slower, more calculated, less openly hostile play that would pay off again and again, and eventually culminated in the players basically getting pantsed in the 2016 CBA. Which brings us to today.

If not for the way Manfred said what he said, you could infer that he’s referring to the kind of drama and scheming that Selig introduced as the mistake that won’t be made again. That’s not what he meant, though, not when he presented it in a way where he says it’s the fans and the clubs who suffered because of the decision to not lock out the players, and not when he was Selig’s handpicked successor to the commisionership after years of being Selig’s number one lackey. Manfred is blaming the players of the past in an attempt to justify the decisions of the present, to lend additional strength to the idea that this lockout was a defensive measure instead of an offensive one. And it’s the kind of thing he could probably get away with saying, too, if only there weren’t detailed accounts of the time to write about and contradict what he’s saying and meant to imply.

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