1996 Winter Meetings: The Year That Brought Labor Peace

This article was written by Nelson ‘Chip’ Greene

This article was published in the


Baseball's Business: The Winter Meetings: 1958-2016In 1996, for the first time in three years, major-league baseball played a full 162-game season.

Few pennant chases in the game’s history had ever matched the drama brought by the final pitch of the last complete campaign, when the Toronto Blue Jays’ Joe Carter crushed a dramatic three-run home run against the Philadelphia Phillies’ Mitch Williams in the bottom of the ninth inning of the 1993 World Series, to deliver Toronto’s second consecutive world championship.

But even as Carter’s heroics were still reverberating throughout the sport, storm clouds of rancor and mistrust were forming which would lead to one of the most ignominious events in baseball history – the only cancellation of a World Series in the game’s annals.[1]

Volumes have been written about the 1994 baseball strike and its aftermath; the reader will find nothing new here. What’s significant for the purposes of this essay, however, is to recall that the cancellation of the strike in the spring of 1995 and the subsequent shortened regular season failed to bring about labor peace. After all, the owners hadn’t gotten what they wanted, namely a salary cap, and they’d been denied in their efforts to field replacement players. Therefore, while  the owners’ resentment still simmered, the 1995 season was played without a new collective-bargaining agreement, and the games simply resumed under the old contract, which had expired at the end of 1993.

In 1996, the game finally returned to normal … to a degree. On the field the New York Yankees won their first pennant in 15 years, but on the business side, nothing had changed, with the season again having been played without a new CBA. And as the offseason commenced, many owners, still agitated, proposed to prolong the labor dispute until the institution of a salary cap. Eventually a majority of the owners realized that it was better to negotiate a new agreement than to continue to play under the old one.[2] Thus, with the conclusion of the playing season, the two sides returned to the bargaining table and tried once again to hammer out something that was agreeable to both sides.

Nothing that took place during that offseason – not a blockbuster trade, a spectacular free agent signing, or even a rookie phenom in the winter leagues – could possibly have been as important to the game’s long-term health as a new CBA. Yet at first it appeared negotiations were going to proceed as they had over the previous four years: intransigence that would result in both sides leaving the table. But then, finally, came a glimmer of good news: In the first week of November, Randy Levine, the owners’ chief negotiator, and Don Fehr of the players union announced they had finally reached a tentative agreement. Levine took it to the owners … and they summarily rejected it, citing their dissatisfaction with a few of the provisions.[3]  Levine and Fehr steadfastly returned to discussions.

It took several more weeks, but ultimately a deal was done. After four years of acrimony, name-calling, and alienation of the fans, the owners agreed on November 27, in Chicago, to a revised deal, “contingent on resolution of several minor issues,”[4] notably, how to divvy up $2.5 million in postseason bonus money and agreeing upon the qualification dates for 14 players who would gain their rights to free agency. Now, all that remained was for the players to ratify the agreement at their executive-board meeting, to be held in Dorado, Puerto Rico. It would be up to the Players Executive Council to bring an end to the labor dispute.[5]

On December 5, after several last-minute changes to the agreement, and by a unanimous vote, the Major League Baseball Players Association ratified the agreement.[6] With the lengthy ordeal finally resolved, the principals in the negotiations were each, quite naturally, relieved. “With this unfortunate period behind us,” proclaimed an exhausted Fehr, from Puerto Rico, “my fellow players and I can once again focus on the game on the field. We are confident that baseball’s best days lie ahead.”[7]

Likewise, Levine, expressed gratification with the agreement, noting the efforts of all those involved in the process. “I want to congratulate Don Fehr, the other lawyers and the players on this new contract. It was a lot of hard work by people. Now the owners and players have a chance to work in a real partnership. And that’s good for baseball.”[8]

Lastly, acting Commissioner Bud Selig offered a thankful but cautionary sentiment as well, noting, “One has to be satisfied that we’ve made progress. But there is much to be done. The concerns people have about the game are legitimate. When you think back to everything that has happened, this deal reflects a lot of the activity and hopes by both sides. Now it’s up to us all to move forward.”[9] (Reportedly, Fehr believed that the best way to move forward would be without Selig. At least one newspaper reported that “Fehr called on Selig to resign as quickly as possible to allow for a permanent successor.”[10] Little could Fehr have realized that by the time Selig finally left the game in January 2015, Fehr would already be four years into his tenure as executive director of the NHL Players Association, and he would also lead those players into a work stoppage.)

The 1994 strike had been the eighth in 23 seasons. While there was nothing to prohibit future labor actions, the ratification of the new CBA at least precluded any through the year 2000. It also ushered in a radical change on the field, which would take place the following season. Beginning on June 12, 1997, baseball would introduce interleague play on an experimental basis when four National League West Division teams would visit four American League West parks. In the initial version of the CBA, the deal allowed for interleague play only in 1997. However, in the final ratified version, it was stipulated that if the owners agreed to a limit of up to 16 games per team in 1997, the players would then agree to extend interleague play into the 1998 season as well.[11] During interleague games the lineups would be configured according to the rules of the home team, meaning that the designated hitter would be used in American League parks, and pitchers would bat when the National League club was at home. If the owners wanted to expand the schedule beyond 16 games in 1998, though, they would have to allow the designated hitter in all interleague games. 

If the introduction of interleague play was going to produce a new look on the field, most of the CBA’s other provisions were undoubtedly written in sentences that contained numerous dollar signs. In an effort to address the payroll disparity by increasing revenue-sharing among all teams, the high-revenue teams agreed to forfeit a higher percentage of the profits they generated from local broadcast and ticket money. Also, a 35 percent luxury tax was imposed on the portion of payrolls that exceeded $51 million for the five teams spending the most on players.[12] (In what was seen by his fellow owners as the epitome of hypocrisy, on November 19, before an agreement was reached, Jerry Reinsdorf of the Chicago White Sox, one of the owners most opposed to the players union, signed power-hitting free-agent outfielder Albert Belle to a five-year, $55 million contract, which drew the ire of many of Reinsdorf’s fellow owners. That size contract, they railed, was just the type of salary they were trying to eliminate.) In a corresponding gesture by the players, they agreed to reduce their share of money awarded from the first three games of each first-round playoff series from 80 percent to 60 percent, the difference to be deposited into an escrow account. Their minimum salary, however, would increase from $109,000 to $150,000 in 1997.

By the time the CBA was ratified, the free-agent filing period had ended. One provision, though, added 14 free agents to those who had already filed. Those 14, who included such well-known players as left-handed pitcher Jimmy Key, right-hander Alex Fernandez and outfielder Moises Alou, were given credit for service time during the 75 regular-season days that were canceled by the strike, an action that made each one a free agent. And all three went on to sign rich new contracts. Key left the Yankees for a two-year, $7.8 million deal with the Orioles, while Fernandez and Alou signed with Miami. Fernandez got $35 million over five years to leave the White Sox, and Alou agreed to leave Montreal for $25 million over five years.[13] Much to the chagrin of the owners, the players’ salaries just kept climbing.  

While in the fall of 1996 the CBA ratification in Puerto Rico grabbed the lion’s share of the headlines, there was still other baseball business taking place. On Friday, December 6, at Boston’s Hynes Convention Center, the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, the minor-league association, began their 95th annual winter meetings (which ran through December 10). Initially, in keeping with the prohibition instituted after the 1992 meeting by acting Commissioner Selig, no major-league participation was expected. However, after aggressive lobbying by Boston Red Sox CEO John Harrington (whose team was co-hosting the event), Selig reversed his decision and allowed major-league general managers to attend the winter meetings. “It’s an individual club decision,” Selig said of his reversal. “It’s only if they want to.”[14] Only the Orioles, Red Sox, Pirates, and Blue Jays confirmed that they would be in attendance.

With major-league representatives few and far between, minor-league business came to the forefront, with 219 clubs, representing 19 minor leagues, converging on the Hynes Center. Of the 219 clubs, 155, members of 15 leagues, were affiliated with a major-league club. With the Professional Baseball Agreement scheduled to expire after the 1997 season, “movement [was] under way to put all 219 teams under the major league umbrella.”[15]

Minor-league business was booming. The labor turmoil of the past three seasons had, understandably, cut into major-league attendance, but in 1996 the minors had drawn 33 million fans, their highest total since 1949, when 448 teams represented 59 cities. Now, as part of a planned Eastern League expansion, several cities sought franchises and arrived in Boston to eagerly present their case. Eventually the finalists were winnowed to Austin, Texas; Lexington, Kentucky; Springfield, Missouri; Springfield, Massachusetts; and Erie, Pennsylvania, and officials chose the latter two to join the Double-A Eastern League, beginning with the 1999 season.[16]

If, as the press suggested before the event, the lack of major-league participation had made the “Winter Meetings just not what they used to be,”[17] the NAPBL gathering had still undoubtedly been a rousing success.

*****

Since some very important business remained to be completed, one final meeting took place after the 1996 season. On March 9, 1995, in West Palm Beach, Florida, the owners had voted unanimously to make the Arizona Diamondbacks and Tampa Bay Devil Rays the 14th and 15th expansion teams in major-league history. The two teams were slated to begin play in 1998 and now, as the owners met in Scottsdale, Arizona, during the second week of January 1997, it was time to decide which league each team would join.

The process turned out to be more difficult than was probably expected. Coming into the meetings, the anticipated plan was for Arizona to join the National League, with Tampa Bay going to the American. And on Tuesday, January 14, the ruling executive council voted to recommend that plan. However, as a preliminary to the council’s official vote, in a straw poll taken the next evening, the American League owners surprisingly voted 8 to 6 to reject the proposal, threatening to block the league assignments. That decision set off a lengthy round of debates.[18]

The following day, the owners met jointly for nine hours. As the proceedings got underway, the reason for the AL’s negative vote soon became clear. If Tampa Bay joined the American League, it was noted, the Devil Rays would be the only team in the Southeast. That raised concerns among some AL teams that they would have to play additional games outside their own time zone, a prospect that would “cause early and late TV starts that would decrease ratings and revenue.”[19]

As the talks progressed, AL owners repeatedly broke away and huddled. With interleague play scheduled to begin in 1997, some teams suggested that the proposed interleague schedule might be modified for 1998. Currently, that schedule called for each NL East team to play three games against each AL East team; each league’s Central Division teams to do the same; and for NL and AL West teams to play a two-game home-and-home series. Once the expansion teams joined, it was further suggested, the NL East teams might play either the AL Central or West; the NL Central could play either the AL East or West; and the NL West might play the AL East or Central.[20]

It was also suggested that more interleague games might be designated in each time zone, resulting in annual games between, for example, the New York Mets and Yankees, the Chicago Cubs and White Sox, the San Francisco Bay-area teams, and other natural rivalries. This called for scheduling creativity, which had never before been an option.

In short order, the AL owners who had vetoed the earlier proposal came around to endorse the plan. Early on Thursday the Yankees, Blue Jays, and Anaheim Angels – among the eight clubs that had voted originally no – changed their votes; later that afternoon, the Chicago White Sox, Seattle Mariners, and Oakland A’s also voiced their approval.[21] The impetus for those teams to change their votes had been an agreement among the owners to establish a committee, to be chaired by Red Sox CEO John Harrington, that would examine realignment and the schedule format for 1998. Potentially, a recommendation could be made for some teams to switch leagues, too, although the league constitutions prohibited any club from being forced to switch leagues against its will. The committee agreed to report back to the group by June 30, with the owners casting a vote by September 30.[22]

In the end, with 11 votes in each league needed to approve the league assignments for the two new teams, the National League voted 14 to 0 to put Tampa Bay in the American League and Arizona in the National League. The AL vote was 12 to 2, as Kansas City and Texas remained in opposition.  In 1998, major-league baseball would, for the first time, have 30 teams.

While the fate of the expansion teams had absorbed much of the owners’ time that week in January, the meetings had also produced one other notable discussion. In September 1992, the owners had forced the resignation of Commissioner Fay Vincent. Since then, the sport had been without a permanent commissioner, with Milwaukee Brewers’ owner Bud Selig serving as the acting commissioner. So as the meetings began on Tuesday night, January 15, the search for a replacement commissioner had been one of the main items on the agenda. Selig reportedly wasn’t interested. Perhaps the other owners could change his mind. 

Notes    

[1] There was no postseason series in 1904, but this was not a cancellation. The first of what we now know as the World Series was played in 1903 between the Boston Americans and Pittsburgh Pirates, by agreement between the two pennant-winners. The Americans won the American League pennant again in 1904, but the New York Giants, who won in the National League, refused to play them in a postseason series.

[2] Larry Whiteside, “Players’ Ratification Brings Baseball Peace,” Boston Globe, December 6, 1996: E7.

[3] Ronald Blum, Associated Press, The Capital (Annapolis, Maryland), December 6, 1996.

[4] Whiteside.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Associated Press, The Capital (Annapolis, Maryland), December 6, 1996.

[7] Whiteside.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Blum.

[11] Whiteside.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Blum.

[14] Associated Press, Lawrence (Kansas) Journal World, December 3, 1996.

[15] Whiteside.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Associated Press, Daily Herald Suburban (Chicago), December 1, 1996.

[18] Associated Press, Burlington (Iowa) Hawkeye, January 17, 1997.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Associated Press, Joplin (Missouri) Globe, January 17, 1997.

[22] Ibid.

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