TORONTO – Ross Stripling, the Toronto Blue Jays’ union-player representative, is optimistic by nature and excited about his team’s chances this season. So, he decided to be optimistic about talks ahead of the second MLB-imposed deadline for a new collective bargaining agreement.
Thinking he might have to scramble to get to spring training in a day or two, he called two realtors in the Dunedin, Fla., area to ask about potential rentals. He hit the gym with some extra motivation. And he decided to upgrade his scheduled bullpen into a live batting practice session, just in case he couldn’t get back on the mound for a few days amid the chaos.
“I knew we were kind of far away,” the right-hander said in an interview, “but I wanted to get that in because I thought I would be heading to Florida. And now I feel stupid that I did that because I didn't have to. Personally, I'm not going to take it totally off the throttle, but I'm probably not going to build up as fast as I normally would at this time of year. I'm still going to throw off the mound twice a week, work out, do my normal stuff and stay ready for when that call eventually comes. That's all you can do.”
Such was the range of emotion Tuesday, when commissioner Rob Manfred cancelled the first two series of the 2022 season after nine days of intensive talks failed to end MLB’s lockout of its players. Hopes raised late Monday when the sides made their first real progress of this process during a marathon day of negotiations quickly ebbed the morning after, when it became clear the remaining gap was too wide.
The loss of games made this the industry’s grimmest labour-related day since a players strike led to the cancellation of the 1994 World Series. But it was also more specifically gutting for an aspirational club like the Blue Jays, who missed out on the playoffs by one game last year and are positioned to be a leading contender in the AL East this year.
Instead of packing to join his teammates and beginning the charge back at what might have been expanded playoffs, Stripling was instead left lamenting the owners’ strategic slow-play since the lockout’s Dec. 2 implementation, and their attempts to try and force a deal at the very last minute.
“It was an easy no, man, because, we felt like we were giving them a fair offer and they just didn't budge on it this whole time,” said Stripling. “Since Dallas in December (when the lockout was implemented), they've just hardly budged at all.”
Of all the teams in baseball, the Blue Jays might have had the most to look forward to on opening day.
Their first home series, scheduled for April 4 against the Tampa Bay Rays, would have been a significant one for Blue Jays fans, who have had few occasions to watch their team in person since 2019. The COVID-19 pandemic pushed the club to the Buffalo home of its triple-A affiliate in 2020 and last year’s schedule was split three ways between Dunedin, Buffalo and Toronto.
Even after returning home, capacity was limited at Rogers Centre, and though more tickets would have been sold during the post-season, the team missed the playoffs on the final day of the season.
Put simply, it’s been a while since Blue Jays fans had anything resembling a traditional opening day to celebrate. And the last time it happened the team was on its way to a 95-loss season when Freddy Galvis and Brandon Drury started in a 2-0 loss to Detroit on March 28, 2019.
Now, a different kind of opportunity exists.
In Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette, the Blue Jays have two of the game’s most exciting young players. George Springer, Teoscar Hernandez and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. round out one of the game’s best lineups. A starting rotation featuring Jose Berrios, Kevin Gausman, Alek Manoah, Hyun Jin Ryu and Stripling projects to be among the league’s deepest.
And there’s more: closer Jordan Romano; live arms like Nate Pearson; prospects like Gabriel Moreno. Not to mention whatever comes next. Before MLB implemented the lockout, the Blue Jays were exploring the market for impact position players while pursuing pitchers in trade, according to sources. Even after adding Gausman and Yimi Garcia, they hope to add more.
Objectively speaking, then, the Blue Jays are already one of baseball’s best teams. According to FanGraphs' depth charts, they have the third-highest projected winning percentage in the game, trailing only the Yankees and Dodgers. Subjectively speaking, it’s just a fun group to watch.
In theory, that is.
After Tuesday, no one will be watching the Blue Jays or any other big-league team for the time being. Rogers Centre will remain empty a little longer with no chance of a Berrios shutout or a Guerrero Jr. walk-off any time soon. For Blue Jays players, each game missed cuts into the prime of their careers. And for fans, it’s a missed opportunity to connect with an exceptional core that’s already spent too much time away from home.
The Blue Jays, at least based on what parent company Rogers Communications Inc. (which also owns Sportsnet) told investors in its release on Q4 and 2021 results, were expecting a different. outcome.
At the bottom of the penultimate page in Rogers’ 41-page January release, there is a section listing key assumptions behind the company’s full-year guidance for 2022.
Item No. 9 is of note: “No significant sports-related work stoppages or cancellations will occur and the current MLB lockout between the owners and players’ union will be resolved.”
Depending on your definition of significant, that assumption went out the window when Manfred cancelled the regular season’s first week. And it’s also demonstrative of a dynamic largely hidden throughout this process – the divergent interests of the 30 team owners.
While the 2022 season and beyond represents an incredible period of opportunity for a team like the Blue Jays, sacrificing April games, which typically generate the least amount of revenue, is far easier for clubs with less ambition.
An indifference to competition and incentivized tanking is among the issues at play in the CBA, and the divergence in club motivations are also reflected in the owners’ firm stance on the Competitive Balance Tax, or CBT, threshold. The higher that rises, the more motivated clubs can spend on players without penalty, a prospect that threatens inflationary pressure on salaries to the detriment of stingier clubs.
Priorities for the owners in talks have essentially centred around expanded playoffs and keeping costs down. But just as players are being tested with the loss of paycheques, owners must now cope with the loss of revenue and it’s unclear which group is driving Manfred’s approach.
“The owners were torn in some regards,” said Stripling. “There are some teams that really didn't want the CBT to go up. There are some owners that just weren't on the same page, so we're fighting that when they're fighting each other. And we held steadfast on what we believed in. We think it's reasonable.”
As Monday turned into Tuesday and talks continued late into the night, some players got the impression owners were underestimating them.
"It got to be like 12:30 and the fine print of their CBT proposal was stuff we had never seen before,” Stripling said. “They were trying to sneak things through us, it was like they think we're dumb baseball players and we get sleepy after midnight or something. It's like that stupid football quote, they are who we thought they were. They did exactly what we thought they would do. They pushed us to a deadline that they imposed, and then they tried to sneak some shit past us at that deadline and we were ready for it. We've been ready for five years. And then they tried to flip it on us today in PR, saying that we've changed our tone and tried to make it look like it was our fault. That never happened.”
In a public statement released Tuesday, the MLBPA went a step further, describing the lockout as “the culmination of a decades-long attempt by owners to break our player fraternity.” For his part, commissioner Rob Manfred said the league “worked hard to avoid an outcome that’s bad for our fans, bad for our players and bad for our clubs.”
More important than optics now is what comes next.
After more than a week in Jupiter, Fla. the sides will now go their separate ways and attempt to establish their respective strategies. Manfred suggested Tuesday that it’s on the players to make the next move, but all involved will feel financial and public pressure before long.
Under those circumstances, the next steps here are somewhat hard to predict.
"This is the unknown part of it,” Stripling said. “You've got to assume that they feel a ton of pressure by missing games and missing that revenue. A lot of them are big companies that have debt, and they probably rely on the revenue that they get from baseball to pay off some of that debt, all these moving parts, you've got to think missing games pressures a bunch of them. In a perfect world, they lick their wounds go back to New York, both sides, and then start back up in two or three days. I don't see this being like it was after Dallas, where it's six weeks before they talk to each other again. I know we're eager to get back to the table and I'd like to think that they are too. But both sides need to reconvene and figure out the next steps.”
In the interim, limbo, for players, for teams and for fans, all put through the emotional ringer of the sport’s most contentious labour talks in two decades. Damage to the industry will be done. An incredible generation of talent will now have to not only win over new fans, but also win back those that will be lost.
But momentum can change quick. As one lawyer who has negotiated sports CBAs put it, no matter how deadlocked a situation may seem, one breakthrough immediately changes everything.
“Monday, man, it didn't look like we were close, and all of sudden we were kind of close – we weren’t that close, but we were kind of close,” said Stripling in apt summation of a wild two days. “And if that deal would have gone down (Monday) night, we would have had guys packing up and in Florida by Friday. (Monday) night was like a good shock of how quick it'll happen once it happens.”