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July 31, 2006

The Ledger Domain

Quietly, Collective Bargaining Begins

by Maury Brown

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Shhh… You hear that? Listen close and you can hear them negotiating. Somewhere, in some room, representatives from the Players Association and MLB are hunkered down, working on the next Collective Bargaining Agreement. There has been hardly a whisper of it as of late, but it is happening.

Last Monday, Commissioner Selig was interviewed on XM 175's Baseball Beat with Charley Steiner. The whole transcript was made available to me through XM 175, and within it, there is this exchange:

Steiner: Toward the end of the year, I think December, the collective bargaining agreement is up?

Selig: That's correct.

Steiner: Um, how would you…

Selig: And they're meeting this morning as we speak.

Steiner: Really?

Selig: Yes.

Steiner: Well, tell us about that. Who? They being...?

Selig: Well, our negotiating team, lead by Bob DuPuy, Rob Manfred and the Players Association's Donald Fehr, Michael Weiner Gene Orza--everybody. I have owners that are involved in the process, Andy MacPhail, Larry Dolan of the Cleveland Indians, and Peter Angelos of Baltimore. So…

Steiner: When did these talks begin? Is this the first day?

Selig: I think they started maybe a couple weeks, a couple months ago and they've been ongoing and will continue to be.

This is a clear change from how the owners and the union behaved in the past. This quiet approach of having the sides stay out of the press is by design. Selig has seen that when you give the owners a forum to speak, nine times out of 10 they say something that sets negotiations back. To prevent that from occurring again, Selig has increased fines from $1 million to $2 million "for speaking to the union or to the news media" about CBA negotiations. So, what are the key areas of discussion, and if the agreement isn't set to expire till mid-December, is there any reason to get excited now? Absolutely.

Without a New Agreement in Place by Aug. 1, Drug Policy Could Revert to 2005 Version

Looking back at the interview exchange with Selig and Steiner, it may not seem like much, but in the context of recent events, it's downright amazing that news has been so thin on the meetings with what is at stake.

After all, there's a clause in the latest drug agreement that may give the Players Association some form of leveragr. Consider this: If there isn't a new labor contract by tomorrow (August 1), the union has until August 15 to unilaterally end the Joint Drug Agreement when the current agreement between the players and management ends on December 19. If for some reason the MLBPA and MLB can't come to an agreement on a new CBA by the 19th of December, and management and labor decide to go forward without a new agreement in place, the drug-testing policy would revert back to the one in place in 2005.

So, Selig's 50 games for a first positive test for PEDs and/or amphetamines? *Poof* Gone. All the posturing by members of Congress that got the deal in the first place? Time to fire up the sound-bite machine again.

One has to wonder just how serious the Players Association would be about exercising the option, however. The outcry from Congress, the media and the public would, most likely, be tremendous. Once again, baseball would place themselves in a position where Congress would threaten to mandate their own testing policy on MLB, which would make the industry look weaker than it has been portrayed by some already. And therein lies the Players Association's conundrum: it's only a leverageable threat if the other side of the table thinks you're serious about pulling the trigger. Otherwise, it's a strawman threat.

Other Bargaining Issues Related to PEDs

On the Joint Drug Agreement, there would certainly seem to be issues that the MLBPA would like addressed within it. One issue that cropped up last year was in relationship to Mariners shortstop, Michael Morse.

Morse was suspended on September 8 of 2005 for 10 days for violation of the MLB drug policy as it pertained to PEDs. The twist was that a strong case was made that Morse was being punished for what, as he said, was an "enormous mistake" he made in 2003.

As Morse said in a press conference, "Back in November 2003 when I was 21 years old, I made an enormous mistake in my life: I took steroids while in the minor leagues.

"My thigh muscle, which I had previously torn, had never healed and I was scared that my career was over. I was desperate and made a terrible mistake which I deeply regret.

"In May 2004, I was punished and suspended, which I deserved, for my mistake. I embarrassed myself, my family and my team. I am responsible for the mistake of taking steroids and the positive result was not due to some over-the-counter supplement, protein shake or tainted test."

Morse then went on to say that the positive test that he had once he was called up to the Mariners was not from further steroid use, but rather a latent positive from his usage in the minors for which he had already been suspended. This was the case made upon grievance through the Players Association to arbitrator Shyam Das, who declined to overturn the suspension. As Michael Weiner, the general counsel for the MLBPA said at the time, "This result is unfair and unfortunate. It punishes Michael Morse again for conduct for which he has already been punished. The PA does not believe the parties ever intended for the Basic Agreement to compel such a harsh result."

In a further statement, Weiner said, "Although he tested positive again in 2005 under the Major League program, it was for the same substance and at an extremely low level, a level which would give Morse no competitive advantage, and the Panel believed that the positive test was a result of Morse's prior use. Nonetheless, the Panel concluded that the Basic Agreement required that Morse be suspended yet again. While we respect the Panel's decision as final and binding, the PA does not believe the parties ever intended for the Basic Agreement to compel such a harsh result."

Morse's case clearly outlines at least one of the areas of the Joint Drug Agreement that the MLBPA may decide needs adjusting. Currently the policy is very cut and dried and does not take into account situations like Morse's.

Moving Forward

Whether through the clause regarding drug testing policy or not, at the very least the parties are meeting, which, if it continues, might bring about a new agreement well in advance of the mid-December deadline. There are other deeper matters that will be addressed, none of which are larger than revenue sharing. I tackel that subject in the next installment of my continuing series on MLB's economic landscape. In the meantime...shhh...did you hear that?

Maury Brown is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Maury's other articles. You can contact Maury by clicking here

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