MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

Extended labor peace a credit to Selig

Justice: Extended labor peace a credit to Selig

Extended labor peace a credit to Selig
Baseball fans now take labor peace for granted, and that's how it should be.

They ought to accept that players and owners will work together to make their sport better. It just makes sense, doesn't it?

Since it began happening in baseball, our sport has had a remarkable transformation in terms of attendance, competitive balance, ballpark construction, revenues, etc.

In fact, an entire generation of fans probably has no clue that baseball was once the blueprint for owners and players seemingly intent on killing a good thing.

Many of these fans are too young to remember that between 1972 and 1995, labor disputes cost baseball 1,736 regular-season games and the 1994 World Series.

As bad as that sounds, it actually was worse. Those work stoppages were preceded by months of news coverage focused more on how the two sides would divide up an incomprehensibly large pile of money instead of the sport itself.

Fans just couldn't get their minds around it. Ballparks are where we go to escape the real world. Suddenly, it seemed like their game was being hijacked.

The thing we should have learned about baseball in those years is that it can survive almost anything, but that's another story.

Anyway, baseball's tough history of labor relations changed forever in 2002. Not coincidentally, that's when the sport began a dramatic period of growth.

Commissioner Bud Selig's amazing legacy will include all those new ballparks, record-setting attendance, Interleague Play, Wild Card berths, MLB.com, on and on.

Every future Commissioner in every sport will have his accomplishments measured against the things Selig did with baseball.

But none of it happens without labor peace. The funny thing is, his most remarkable accomplishment is one almost no one talks about anymore. But it's the backdrop against which all the other good stuff has happened.

The players deserve a world of credit, too, because several of them rode to the rescue when it looked like the 2002 agreement might fall apart, and the sport might be shut down again.

It was Selig who got the owners to speak with one voice. It was Selig who decided baseball people needed to be doing baseball negotiations.

Previously, the sport had brought in outside labor experts, and they simply didn't speak the language of the sport. When Rob Manfred sat across from union leaders in 2002, he was a baseball guy doing baseball negotiations.

And Selig's fingerprints were on everything. Baseball's 16-year labor peace has come about, in part, because he insisted the lines of communication remain open.

At some of the darkest hours, he simply would invite baseball union chief Donald Fehr to take a walk.

Away from the tension of the bargaining room, the two men exchanged ideas on drug testing, revenue sharing and other hot-button issues.

What they mainly did was build an uneasy relationship in a sport in which owners and players frequently despised one another.

Now the two sides are so committed to working together that the completion of a new labor agreement isn't even big news.

Since 2002, they've agreed on a whole range of issues, including drug testing and international initiatives.

And everyone has benefited. During Selig's 19 years in charge, annual revenues have risen from $1.5 billion to $7.5 billion.

There are still disagreements, frequently strong disagreements. Manfred and union chief Michael Weiner had several tough sessions regarding the First-Year Player Draft and Selig's desire to install mechanisms to continue to attempt to even the playing field between the big-market and small-market clubs.

Neither side came close to getting everything it wanted, but in the end, they got a deal, and because they did, the games will be played and the sport will grow and everyone will benefit.

Baseball fans barely have labor news in their vocabularies anymore, and isn't that a beautiful thing?

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.