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What's at stake in the MLB lockout

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, HOST:

Earlier this week, the collective bargaining agreement between Major League Baseball and its players union expired. That resulted in pro baseball's first work stoppage in a generation. Not to put too fine a point on it, the owners of all 30 teams locked out their own players. Now, this is the offseason, so there's a couple of months before baseball's to be played. Yet the two sides are clashing, especially over whether to give players some more money early in their careers. If no agreement is reached by the start of training camp next February, part or all of the 2022 season could be in jeopardy.

To learn more, we called in Doug Glanville to pinch hit. He played nine seasons in the MLB for the Cubs, the Phillies and the Rangers, and he was a player union representative during his big league days. Doug Glanville is now a baseball analyst for Marquee Sports Network and ESPN. We started our conversation talking about one of the main conflicts right now, which focuses on something called service time. That refers to the time a player has spent on a major league team's roster.

DOUG GLANVILLE: From the time you get to the major leagues, the clock starts ticking. And the big milestone is Year 3. Once you play through that three-year period. then you go to arbitration. And what happens is then you can submit a number and say, I'm worth X compared to my peers, compared to people with equal service time. And then the team will submit another number saying, no, you're worth this other number. And then, you know, an arbitrator will decide.

Sometimes you settle before that. So that moment is when you go from this minimum salary, which is still significant in larger society - it's 575,000 - to this big bump up in arbitration. So service time is significant because you can see how artificially you can keep that three-year mark down. And there's a discomfort between how much control they have and being able to manipulate it to make sure you're under that arbitration number, that three-year mark.

FOLKENFLIK: How does it feel like as a player if you think a team is manipulating the rules to try to keep down how much you have to be paid?

GLANVILLE: Frustrating. Frustrating. And, you know, the big story that was the circle about manipulation was Kris Bryant. He was - he formerly played for the Chicago Cubs. And he had a phenomenal spring training. He was a top prospect, a third baseman. And there is a - clear evidence that this guy was a major league player. He was ready.

But they sent him down. The Cubs kept him in Triple-A, in the minor leagues for about - whatever days they needed, 30 days. That one month that he was down in the minor leagues and not clocked - you know, sort of counting the clock at the major league level, kept him from being able to get to arbitration.

And so the argument was - from the team is saying, well, hey, you know, this is a great player. Of course you want another year of control. For you fans, you get to keep Kris Bryant another year. But the player feels like you're pushing their payday back an entire year just because you were a day or two short of this threshold. And so that's a lot of power, and that creates a lot of concern for the players.

FOLKENFLIK: I think a lot of fans might look at circumstances and see stratospheric paydays for big-ticket free agents, higher minimums for rookie ballplayers - new ballplayers - than ever before, even accounting for inflation. What's the problem with the overall big picture of economics in baseball if everybody is getting a decent payday?

GLANVILLE: The challenge is wealth distribution. If you look at it and compare to, say, larger society, what does wealth inequality do? What happens to a society in an eroding middle class? Well, you have this concentration of wealth at the top. And then at the bottom, ownership would say, OK, these players are cheap. And we can just have a bunch of them. And what you can do is use that lower class, so to speak, and upper class to pressure the middle. And then they have to compromise. And so that's where the Major League Baseball Players Association is concerned because there is a middle class that's disappearing. The last collective bargained here five years ago plus. That middle class pool, in terms of the aggregate of their salaries, has gone down significantly.

FOLKENFLIK: Who gets hurt most if negotiations bleed into spring training, if we get to February and the next season gets delayed, shortened or even canceled?

GLANVILLE: Well, probably the game overall because the fans. The fans - I don't know what the appetite is for protracted labor dispute. And the - history has shown that the owners have not done well when it becomes a strike and we start missing games. You can't sell season tickets. All these things start to happen.

Now, the trick this time is that in this 25-plus years of labor peace - I wouldn't say peace is the right word but labor lack of dispute - it's probably worked against the players, quite frankly. I don't think they've had the gains. The distribution of the revenue pool has actually shifted pretty significantly to the owners. So peace has actually worked fairly well for the ownership. Not saying you should encourage going on strike, but they should look through what has - what they've gained over the last 25 years and see if it's matched up to saying peace should be rewarded as opposed to pushing you backwards.

FOLKENFLIK: We've been listening to baseball analyst, former MLB player Doug Glanville. Doug Glanville, thanks so much.

GLANVILLE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.