1996 Baseball Winter Meetings: Labor Peace and, Finally, a Complete Season

This article was written by Nelson ‘Chip’ Greene

Editor’s note: This article is an excerpt from an upcoming SABR book on the history of baseball’s Winter Meetings by the Business of Baseball Research Committee. For more information on the Business of Baseball Committee, click here.

 

In 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 Blue Jays’ Joe Carter crushed a dramatic three-run home run against the Phillies’ Mitch Williams in the bottom of the ninth inning of the 1993 World Series, to deliver Toronto’s second consecutive world championship.

On the heels of one of the game’s signature round-trippers, however, when Carter’s heroics still reverberated throughout the sport, came perhaps the most ignominious period baseball had ever known. For even as Carter’s blast sailed over the left-field wall at Toronto’s Skydome, the rancor and mistrust which would result in the only cancellation of a World Series in baseball’s annals, were already forming.

Following the 1994 baseball strike and its aftermath, the owners hadn’t gotten what they wanted — namely, a salary cap — and they had been denied in their efforts to field replacement players. As the owners’ resentment still simmered, the 1995 season was played (with a delayed start and a 144-game schedule) without a new collective bargaining agreement. Instead, the games resumed under the old agreement, which had expired at the end of 1993.

In 1996, the game finally returned to normal … to a degree. While on the field the New York Yankees won their first pennant in 18 years, on the business side, little had changed. The season had again 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, however, the owners realized that it was better to negotiate a new agreement than to continue to play under the old one1; and thus, following the season, the two sides returned to the bargaining table and tried once again to hammer out an agreement which both sides could live with.

Nothing that took place during that offseason — not a blockbuster trade, a spectacular free agent signing, or 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 past four years: business as usual that would result in both sides leaving the table. Then, finally, a glimmer of good news: In the first week of November, Randy Levine, the owners’ chief negotiator, and Don Fehr, for the players, announced that they had finally reached an agreement. Levine took it to the owners … and they summarily rejected it, citing their dissatisfaction with a few of the provisions. So 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;”2 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 free agent rights. Now, all that remained was for the players to ratify the agreement at their upcoming annual 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.

On December 5, after several last-minute changes to the agreement, and by a unanimous vote, the Major League Players Association ratified the agreement. 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.”3

Likewise, Levine, too, 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.”4

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.”5 (Reportedly, Fehr believed that the best way to move forward would be without Selig, as the press noted, “Fehr called on Selig to resign as quickly as possible to allow for a permanent successor.”6 Little could Fehr have realized that by the time Selig finally left the game in 2015, Fehr would already be four years into his tenure as Executive Director of the NHL Players Association, where he would lead those players into a work stoppage, too.)

The 1994 major-league baseball work stoppage had been the eighth in 23 seasons. While there was nothing to prohibit future stoppages, 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 June 12, 1997, on an experimental basis, baseball would introduce interleague play when four National League West 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 version it was stipulated that if the owners agreed to a limit of up to 16 games per team in 1997, the players then agreed to extend play into the 1998 season as well. During interleague games the lineups would be configured according to the rules of the home team: the designated hitter would be used in American League parks, and pitchers would bat when the National League was 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% luxury tax was imposed on the portion of payrolls which exceeded a proscribed amount. (In what was seen by his fellow owners as the epitome of hypocrisy, on November 19, as the work stoppage continued, Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf had signed power-hitting free-agent Albert Belle to a five-year, $55 million contract, which drew the ire of many of Reinsdorf’s fellow owners. That kind of excessive 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% to 60%, 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. There was one provision, though, which added 14 free agents to those who had already filed. Those 14, which included such well-known players as Jimmy Key, Alex Fernandez and Moises Alou, were given credit for service time during the 75 regular season days that were cancelled due to the strike. That made each of them free agents. In addition, then, to Albert Belle’s earlier signing by the White Sox, Key left the Yankees and signed with the Orioles for two years, $7.8 million; and both Fernandez, five years, $35 million; and Alou, five years, $25 million, signed with the Marlins. Much to the chagrin of the owners, the player’s 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 Baseball Leagues, the minor-league association, got underway with their 95th annual winter meetings (scheduled to run through December 10). Initially, in keeping with the prohibition instituted following the 1992 meeting by acting commissioner, no major-league participation was expected. However, after aggressive lobbying of Selig 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 explained about his reversal. “It’s only if they want to.”7 Despite the ruling, though, at least 15 teams advised their general managers wouldn’t be sending any representatives. Only the Orioles, Red Sox, Pirates, and Blue Jays confirmed they would be in attendance.

With major-league representatives few and far between, all eyes were on the conduction of minor-league business. In all, 219 teams, representing 19 minor leagues, converged on the Hynes Center that week. One hundred fifty-five of those, members of 15 different leagues, were affiliated with a major-league club. With the Professional Baseball Agreement scheduled to expire following the 1997 season, “movement [was] under way to put all 219 teams under the major league umbrella.”8

Minor-league business was booming. As the major-league labor turmoil engulfed the past three seasons, negatively impacting attendance, in 1996, the minors had drawn 33 million fans, the highest 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 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. The new teams would begin play in 1999.

If, as the press suggested prior to the event, the lack of major-league participation had made the “Winter Meetings just not what they used to be,”9 still in all, the NABL gathering had undoubtedly been a rousing success.

*****

One final meeting took place following the 1996 season; some important business remained to be completed. 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 would begin play in 1998. 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, and Tampa Bay, the American. 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 8-6 to reject the plan, thereby threatening to block the league assignments. That decision set off a lengthy round of debates.

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 region of the country. That raised concerns among some AL teams that they would have to play additional games outside their own time zone, a prospect which would “cause early and late TV starts that would decrease ratings and revenue.”10

As the talks progressed, AL owners repeatedly broke away and huddled among themselves. 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; the same schedule for each league’s Central teams; and for each NL West team to play a two-game home-and-home series against each AL West team. 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.

Moreover, 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. It was 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 Thursday, the New York Yankees, Toronto Blue Jays, and Anaheim Angels, among the eight teams who had voted no, changed their votes; later that afternoon, the Chicago White Sox, Seattle Mariners, and Oakland A’s also voiced their approval. 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, which 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 team to be forced to switch leagues against their will. The committee agreed to report back to the group by June 30, with the owners casting a vote by September 30.

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

If 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, although to-date, Milwaukee Brewers’ owner Bud Selig had been 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 topics of discussion. Reportedly, Selig wasn’t interested. Perhaps the other owners could change his mind.

CHIP GREENE is a management consultant who lives in Waynesboro, Pennsylvania. He is a regular contributor to SABR publications, a lifelong Baltimore Orioles fan, and a SABR member since 2006.

 

Notes

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

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid.

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

7 Lawrence (Kansas) Journal World, December 3, 1996.

8 Larry Whiteside.

9 Associated Press, The Daily Herald Suburban (Chicago), December 1, 1996.

10 Associated Press,Burlington (Iowa) Hawkeye, January 17, 1997.

© SABR. All Rights Reserved