MLB faces potential lost games, ‘deep harm’ as lockout drags on

MLB has set Monday as the deadline to reach a labor deal and preserve a full season.

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Cactus League games were scheduled to begin on Saturday, but instead Sloan Park remains empty as the MLB lockout continues.

Cactus League games were scheduled to begin on Saturday, but instead Sloan Park remains empty as the MLB lockout continues.

John Antonoff/Sun-Times

MESA, Ariz. — Doug Glanville remembers the confusion caused when Major League Baseball sought a salary cap in 1994 and the players moved to strike.

Glanville went on to build a nine-year major-league career, serving as a team representative to the MLB Players Association for much of it and eventually joining the union’s executive subcommittee.

During the 1994-95 strike, however, Glanville was a Cubs prospect. He was on their 40-man roster but still waiting to make his big-league debut.

‘‘The communication took awhile to get up to speed,’’ Glanville said, citing the technology of the time. ‘‘And, obviously, I was just a minor-league guy trying to get there and just had to navigate. I knew that I was going to have to sit out, even if I hadn’t been a big-league player.’’

Though technology has improved, a similar sense of uncertainty looms this spring.

Cactus League games were scheduled to begin Saturday, with the Cubs and White Sox each hosting spring-training openers at their respective ballparks in Arizona. Instead, the only action at the clubs’ Mesa and Glendale facilities is prospect minicamp. And MLB regular-season games remain in jeopardy as the deadline for a new labor deal approaches Monday.

After four days of little progress, commissioner Rob Manfred joined talks Friday, the 86th day of the work stoppage.

‘‘As long as they don’t miss games, fans will probably still maintain that balance with, ‘OK, I guess they got it done,’ ’’ Glanville said by telephone Friday. ‘‘They start getting deeper into the season, I think that’s going to create, as Manfred said, deep harm.’’

He was referring to Manfred’s comments in a news conference two weeks ago at the owners meetings in Orlando, Florida.

‘‘I see missing games as a disastrous outcome for this industry,” Manfred said at the time, ‘‘and we’re committed to making an agreement in an effort to avoid that.’’

That agreement is still nowhere close.

This week, with MLB and the union meeting every day in Florida, originally was billed as an opportunity for progress. But optimism quickly soured.

MLB already reportedly had circled Feb. 28 as the deadline to reach an agreement and start the regular season on time. By Wednesday, it was doubling down. An MLB spokesperson told reporters: ‘‘Missed games are missed games. Salary will not be paid for those games.’’

Several players took to social media to criticize MLB’s pressure play.

‘‘Let’s just get this straight,’’ Cardinals pitcher Jack Flaherty posted to Twitter. ‘‘We are currently being locked out . . . they did not meet with us for a month once this lockout was instituted . . . now we are being threatened that games will be missed if we don’t make a deal by Monday.’’

As of late Friday afternoon, a gulf remained between the sides on core economic issues, including the competitive balance tax, the prearbitration bonus pool and minimum salaries. Only a surprise leap can bridge the gap by Monday.

‘‘Resolve is going to be tested,’’ Glanville said. ‘‘There are players that have had entire careers without labor stoppage. . . . So it’s natural for the owners to go: ‘Hmm, how tough are these guys? They haven’t really gone through this. They’ve never missed paychecks by their own decisions or for a cause.’ ’’

Glanville still hasn’t given up hope that a resolution can be reached without forfeiting regular-season games.

‘‘I’m not feeling like, ‘Oh, it’s over,’ ’’ Glanville said. ‘‘If they just keep locking themselves in a room and make movement, at some point that deadline will be in your face, then it’s going to be like, ‘OK, what’s the real issue here?’ That will be very telling to see. How quickly do you want to get things done?’’

In other words, such moments will illuminate the issues each side cares about most. But if neither side makes a bold move, there’s no telling how long negotiations will last.

Discussions soon must shift from, ‘‘What will this lockout mean for this season?’’ to, ‘‘What will this lockout mean for baseball?’’

The answer has layers.

The first includes the implications of the new collective-bargaining agreement itself. Proposals on the table this week addressed tanking and service-time manipulation. Expanded playoffs might be in play. Manfred announced this month that MLB had agreed to a universal designated hitter, so the sides at least agree on something.

Each of those issues could create its own ripple effect, changing the game for generations to come. But with so much still up in the air at the bargaining table, let’s put aside those factors for now and focus on the work stoppage itself.

Another layer.

MLB history doesn’t paint a cheery picture of what might come next. Look at MLB’s last work stoppage, a 232-day strike that wiped out the 1994 postseason and continued into the spring of 1995.

The owners planned to open the 1995 season with replacement players. But before that could happen, future Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, then a federal judge in the Southern District of New York, issued an injunction against MLB, ending the strike.

Fan interest was slow to return. Paid attendance dropped 20% in 1995 from a record-setting pace before the work stoppage the year before (31,256 per game).

When Glanville made his major-league debut in 1996, the sport had recovered some, with a 6% attendance boost from the previous year. But it took until 2006 for MLB to reach and surpass the high set in 1994.

In 2006, of course, baseball was embroiled in a steroid scandal that eventually stretched to Capitol Hill. Record-setting displays of power hitting drew fans to ballparks in droves, and MLB was just starting to crack down on performance-enhancing drugs.

‘‘That’s my fear: You lose fans that don’t come back for X period of time or never,’’ Glanville said. ‘‘They just don’t understand why labor can’t be smoother, and they just lose confidence in the process.’’

The current lockout is far from canceling postseason games, so maybe the fan pushback won’t be as harsh. But the lead-up to this work stoppage, already the second-longest in MLB history, has been taxing.

Return-to-play negotiations in 2020 failed to produce an agreement. Instead, Manfred imposed a 60-game season, which played out in front of empty stadiums because of safety concerns during the COVID-19 pandemic.

No fans meant a lack of stadium jobs. Then, in response to revenue hits, teams across the majors implemented furloughs and layoffs during the shutdown and after the season.

Ballparks gradually returned to full capacity last season, and local health regulations in Arizona and Florida were shaping up to allow for a normal spring training for the first time in two years.

Not so fast.

‘‘One of the most disappointing parts of the entire process is that we have fan bases that deserve better than what we’ve given them over the last few years,’’ Cubs union representative Ian Happ said by telephone this week. ‘‘We’ve had opportunities at different points to be on the right side of timelines.’’

He pointed to 2020, when early return-to-play proposals targeted the first week of July to start the season. A July 4 Opening Day and a chance to, as Happ put it, ‘‘really try to bring the country together’’ seemed to be in play.

Until it wasn’t.

‘‘We had an opportunity right after the Super Bowl [this year] to really turn the attention in a positive light to baseball,’’ Happ said.

Instead, labor talks made slow progress.

This week has made it clear that the relationship between MLB and the union has eroded so much that an equitable agreement might require more heel-digging.

‘‘You just don’t want to get into this protracted [season], which is what happened in 1995,’’ Glanville said. ‘‘And then they’re out there in May or whenever it is, and [fans] are just like, ‘What are you doing?’ ’’

Glanville sees an on-time Opening Day as the best way to inspire confidence in the collective-bargaining process. But even if the 2022 season can’t be fully preserved, there are ways to win back fan interest. They just take time and effort.

‘‘If there’s a moment to try to get the game — and I’ll put it in quotes — ‘right,’ this would be that moment,’’ Glanville said. ‘‘To be watchable, attractive. You want to go for it now.’’

That way, even if MLB cancels games this year, when baseball returns, it will be, as Glanville put it, ‘‘in its best form.’’

Forget the draw of scandal. Let the game itself draw fans back.

‘‘And is that enough?’’ Glanville said. ‘‘And find out. I think you have to do it that way.’’

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