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No end in sight for Major League Baseball lockout

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

For the first time in more than two decades, Major League Baseball is dealing with a work stoppage. Last night the league's collective bargaining agreement between players and owners expired without a new deal in place. If the two sides cannot reach a new agreement by mid-February, spring training could be in jeopardy. Starting the regular season on time could be in jeopardy. For more on this, let's bring in Chelsea Janes, national baseball writer for The Washington Post. Hello again.

CHELSEA JANES: Hi. How are you?

KELLY: I am well. Thank you. I'm a little confused here because we're in the off season, right? There haven't been any games since the Atlanta Braves. My team won the World Series last month. What does it mean to have a work stoppage when it's the off season anyway?

JANES: What it means is that players can't sign with new teams. Teams can't trade players. Basically anything having to do with players switching teams, getting new contracts has to stop. And any players who were using team facilities or working with trainers or whatever it was can no longer do so. So the teams can't have contact with the players. Players can't have contact with teams. And everything sort of just freezes.

KELLY: And I mentioned this is a work stoppage. This is not a strike. That means this is something that the owners called.

JANES: Exactly. This is not a strike like what we saw in 1994, the last time that baseball lost time to labor negotiations. This is a lockout. The two sides do not have a new agreement to govern sort of their operations for the foreseeable future. And absent that agreement, the owner said, we are not going to let you kind of do any of your daily business until we have that agreement, until we know the rules we're playing by. And therefore, the players will not get paid and won't be able to work out of facilities until a deal is agreed to.

KELLY: What are they fighting over?

JANES: Generally speaking, you know, money, obviously. And the money involved is so vast. It's millions. It's billions in many cases, but not for everybody. There are players at the bottom of the MLB spectrum for whom the numbers are a little bit more reasonable, and these negotiations can really sort of be life-altering.

But I think broadly speaking, the MLB owners - they want to protect their profits. They don't want to put a ton of the revenue they make back into players. They don't want to have to be told, here's how much money you have to spend on your team, and here's how much you can keep. And the players say, we're creating the product. We're creating the value. Give us more. And how exactly that happens, where exactly they build mechanisms to get the players more money or incentivize teams to spend money - that's what they're trying to hash out. And it's pretty contentious.

KELLY: They're fighting over money. Can you give me any more specifics in terms of - I mean, it's not just the money, right?

JANES: Right. I think it is the way that the teams have control over when players can make money. So, for example, the way the system is set up now, young players are stuck with these minimum salaries even if they're the best players in the game. And a lot of teams are looking at players and saying, why would I pay an experienced veteran player to give me the same production as a cheaper, younger player? And so more of these teams are relying on younger players, and those players are not getting paid commensurate with the value they've provided. And I think for the union, that's a huge problem because not only does it cost those players what they believe is their perceived value, but it makes it harder for older guys to get jobs because they're the more expensive option.

KELLY: They're more expensive. Yeah.

JANES: Exactly.

KELLY: They have fewer years left.

JANES: Exactly. So the goal is just to incentivize competitiveness to make all 30 teams say, we want that one extra guy who will help us win. And then they feel like that can even out a little bit.

KELLY: So what are you watching for as you try to gauge what might break this logjam?

JANES: I think as we get closer to spring training, you'll start to see both sides make some concessions. I think that MLB is willing to do that. I think that the players union will be willing to do that once it gets to a point where, you know, some of these guys are facing losing salaries for a time. But at this point, there's just a lot of ill will. There's a lot of kind of public griping and sniping. And as of now, everybody seems to be kind of holding their ground and act like they're going to get their way no matter what.

KELLY: It sounds like you are clearly in the camp of hoping that one way or the other, this sorts itself out (laughter). You get down to Florida for spring training on time.

JANES: Absolutely. And I think anyone who sort of, you know, has a vested interest in the future of the game would be pretty frustrated to see these guys sort of not be able to pull things together. At this point, I think it's something people are eager to see happen. Everyone's sort of renewed in their appreciation of sports after COVID, and it would just be a kind of a nauseating time to let money on this scale sort of get in the way.

KELLY: Chelsea Janes, national baseball writer for The Washington Post. Thank you.

JANES: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF STANTON MOORE TRIO'S "(LATE NIGHT AT THE) MAPLE LEAF") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.