With the MLB owners’ lockout leading to the cancellation of the opening week of the 2022 season, anxious baseball fans are asking the same question: “What’s next?”
Because Nostradamus wasn’t a baseball fan, we only can speculate about how and when the stalemate will end.
Based on 28 years covering baseball labor disputes, here’s an inside look at what we can expect in the coming weeks and months as MLB owners and the players union slug it out behind closed doors.
March 28: Negotiations hit a snag when owners make a surprise proposal to bring in ghost negotiators. This proves to be a curveball the players union clearly did not expect. In the long and sordid history of baseball’s labor disputes, no one had ever brought in a ghost negotiator, much less knew what one was.
According to an MLB memorandum found crumpled into a ball in a recyclable bin outside Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, Fla., a ghost negotiator would not be physically present in the room during talks, nor would he or she be named. In fact, neither side would know anything about the opposing side’s ghost negotiator except that said negotiator would no longer be living, as dictated by his or her ghost status.
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The owners believe the mere presence of ghost negotiators hovering over the talks will accelerate the negotiation process that has threatened to drag on into the late spring. “Hovering is always conducive to getting things done,” said an MLB spokesman who asked not to be named.
The spokesman points to the initial furor over the use of “ghost runners” in extra innings, a rule created during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season to speed up games and alleviate the pressure on managers to overtax their bullpens. Ghost runners became an accepted part of the game, he says, even as no one lifted a finger to earn his way on base.
March 30: After the late gambit by owners, union leaders and players huddle together to determine whether there was such a thing as a ghost negotiator, and if so, whether that ghost would be more likely to side with the players or the owners. Would the ghost of Marvin Miller even be willing to intervene? And would fans stand for such a drastic change after decades of reading about face-to-face bickering between representatives for the owners and players?
March 31: Players make a counteroffer, proposing owners employ ghost arbitrators in all minor-league disputes for one season on an experimental basis, effectively tabling the proposal until the 2023 season.
April 1: After a Zoom call attended by all 30 players representatives and Liam Hendricks’s tarot card reader, Rubi Rios, the players reject the ghost negotiator proposal as a “clear attempt at trying to break the union.” Four more weeks of games are canceled, and talks are shelved until May 1.
May 1: Frustrated by the lack of urgency, the players union threatens to bring Chicago Cubs pitcher Marcus Stroman into the talks in a last-gasp attempt to force the owners to the table or face “the wrath of @STR0.”
The owners respond by leaking a report to MLB Network revealing former Commissioner Bud Selig has agreed to come out of retirement for one day to officially cancel the season if not deal is reached by July 4th. Cooler heads prevail, and neither side follows through on its threat.
May 25: After the sides finally come to an agreement on the competitive balance tax (CBT), a new sticking point arises: What to name it in the new agreement. The owners prefer to keep the status quo, explaining the reason for the tax is to prevent large-market teams from outspending the smaller-market teams, thus creating a competitive imbalance on the field. The players prefer to rename it the Post-Traumatic Salary Disorder Tax (PTSDT), explaining it depresses players salaries by acting as a de facto cap.
May 27: The union backs off its proposal and agrees to keep the name competitive balance tax if the owners agree to bring reporter Ken Rosenthal back to MLB Network after he was let go for reporting objectively on Major League Baseball. Commissioner Rob Manfred enters talks for the first time in weeks.
June 15: Former Philadelphia Phillies outfielder Lenny Dykstra offers to cross the line and break the lockout, just as he threatened to cross the line during the players strike in 1995. A players union spokesman concedes he has no idea how Dykstra got past security and into the meeting.
June 28: Owners propose a March Madness-style playoff format with all 30 teams involved and agree to a union proposal that division-winning teams are to be awarded a “ghost win” in the first round — a one-game advantage over wild-card teams in a best-of-three series.
The players union’s counterproposal calls for a 16-team playoff format in which division winners are awarded a “ghost series win” in their first-round matchups, advancing to the next round without playing a game.
July 1: The sides agree to all economic issues and a 12-team playoff format without ghost wins. The five-year collective bargaining agreement is signed, and players begin reporting to “summer camp” for three weeks of training before the shortened, 60-game season.
July 24: Two years after the start of the pandemic-delayed 2020 season, the 2022 season arrives with near-empty ballparks from coast to coast. The ghosting of baseball begins.