IT’S EASY TO FORGET, just one year later, how narrowly Major League Baseball avoided catastrophe. The league’s lockout of the players was approaching its 100th day. The doomsday clock for missing regular-season games was ticking ever louder. Players were annoyed. Owners were cranky. Fans were demoralized. The sport was self-immolating.

On March 9, 2022, when commissioner Rob Manfred postponed a second week of regular-season games, panic set in across the sport. This was the moment they feared. They’d weathered proposals dismissed with eyerolls, the implementation of the game’s first work stoppage in a quarter-century, a 43-day pause with zero substantive discussions, a weeklong bargaining session in Florida that ended with no deal, the cancellation of Opening Day — posturing, preening, politicking, all the maneuvers to set up this moment: the point of no return.

Baseball wasn’t just flirting with disaster. This was outright courtship. Conversations in recent weeks with more than two dozen people across the sport, from league and club officials to union and player leaders, illustrated how close baseball came to a labor fight that could have rivaled the 1994 player strike as the worst in the game’s history.

“A lot closer than people may realize,” one league official said.

“Too close,” a player leader concurred.

One day after Manfred’s announcement, over the objection of eight union executive board members who voted not to accept the league’s final proposal, the rank-and-file overwhelmingly said yes to a deal and no to chaos, even though the parameters of the agreement did not overhaul baseball’s core economics, a move many in the game — players and owners both — believe necessary. This was evolution, not revolution.

And this new deal has already had demonstrable effects on the forthcoming 2023 season. This offseason, teams guaranteed more money to free agents than ever before. The way front offices approach roster-building and fielding competitive squads has changed for the better. The most obvious shifts are taking shape on the field, where rules instituted in the collective bargaining agreement will single-handedly overhaul the game more than anything in generations.

Baseball finds itself at a seminal moment in its history — specifically because of that deal made last March 10. It’s not just a new season that starts March 30. It’s a new game.

FOR ALL OF the focus on baseball’s economics during negotiations, the deal hinged on something that seemed far from the most glaring obstacle at the time: the ability to change the game’s rules with 45 days’ notice. Already, the league possessed similar powers: As long as he gave the union one year’s notice, Manfred could implement any on-field rules changes. He’d done it in 2020 with the three-batter minimum for relief pitchers. What Manfred sought for the 2023 season, though, was something altogether different.

The league was seeking to stymie a growing perception that the game was slow and boring. Its clearest priority: institute a pitch clock that would cut down on game times and hasten the pace. They also focused on banning extreme shifts and limiting pickoff moves, hoping to restore singles and stolen bases, two elements of the game that had disappeared in recent years. Since 2007, singles have fallen by 13.3% and stolen bases by 15%. Attendance has also dropped 18.8% from the all-time high set in 2007. The health of the sport depended on reengaging its fanbase, and owners believed any further loss of market share threatened their multibillion-dollar enterprise.

Manfred implementing such drastic changes under the former rules would have resulted in a deluge of criticism from the players, who had already shown a willingness to use social media as a cudgel during negotiations. The effectiveness of their Blame Rob campaign had turned this into his league’s lockout, and the players could make sure these new rules — the ones that flew in the face of a century and a half of baseball — would be his as well.

During the nine days of negotiations in Jupiter, Florida, the league, which in July had proposed forming a joint committee with players to discuss new rules, recycled the idea. The players were asking for meaningful economic change, and the league wanted something of more substance and value in return. A shortened window to implement rules — and bargained buy-in from the players — offered just that.

Doomsday nigh, the players took an open-minded approach to the rules. The average player salary had shrunk the previous year, and if accepting the on-field changes brought them the economic gains they sought, it was a transaction they were happy to make. Particularly when the sides agreed to the joint committee MLB had proposed, which would serve to fine-tune any changes made.

It wasn’t clear at the time, with the parties digging in for a fight and refusing to give ground, just how vital rules changes were to MLB. The truth, sources said, is that without the Major League Baseball Players Association’s consent, any potential deal would have fallen apart. When the players agreed to a 14-second pitch clock with the bases empty and 19 seconds with runners on — something that would be amended to 15 and 20 seconds, respectively — along with the shift ban, limiting pickoffs to two per plate appearance and giving umpires discretion to restart the clock if necessary, the negotiations changed.

What did the union get in return? The long-awaited return of a representative free agent market.

EVERY COLLECTIVE BARGAINING AGREEMENT forces the sides to make bets. The league, heartened by the minor league testing that saw game times decrease by 25 minutes, pushed its $11 billion-a-year stack of chips in on the pitch clock. The union placed its bets on economic issues that it believed would enrich players and simultaneously make the game better.

The canniest came in late January, when MLB sought a fourth tier of penalties under the competitive-balance tax, a luxury tax that penalizes high-spending teams both monetarily and through the loss of draft capital. Owners fearful of Steve Cohen, the New York Mets’ swashbuckling new steward and the sport’s richest man, wanted to stem his spending with another level of taxation above the three that had been instituted in the previous basic agreement. The union, loath to add to a system it already considered excessive, nevertheless agreed to what has become known as the Steve Cohen Tax.

Players were betting that Cohen would be undeterred and continue to spend as much as he desired. And that’s precisely what happened. The Mets are carrying the largest payroll in baseball history at around $370 million, nearly 25% higher than any previous, and are set to pay around $100 million in taxes after a winter in which they guaranteed nearly $500 million to free agents.

The Mets’ spending bonanza had company. Teams guaranteed a record $3.9 billion to free agents over the winter. Though half of that went to nine players, spending increased in the middle class and at the lower end as well. And while it’s important to caution that four years remain on the deal and spending is bound to fluctuate, the rules in the new basic agreement position players far better than the last one did — and hit on a number of goals the union sought at the outset of negotiations.

Beyond the record bump of the CBT’s first threshold from $210 million to $230 million, players with zero to three years of service time saw the minimum salary jump from $570,500 to $700,000 in the first year of the deal and $720,000 this year — with a $50 million supplemental bonus pool to reward the highest-performing ones. The implementation of a draft lottery for the first six picks discouraged tanking and should do so even more in future seasons, when habitually bad teams are disqualified from the lottery.

The union’s desire for teams to end service-time manipulation landed on an elegant solution: If a rookie-eligible player among the game’s top 100 prospects finishes in the top two in Rookie of the Year voting, he receives a full year of service, regardless of when he arrived in the big leagues. Baltimore Orioles catcher Adley Rutschman, who didn’t debut until May 21, is set to reach free agency after the 2027 season instead of 2028 because of the prospect promotion incentive. The Seattle Mariners will receive an extra first-round draft pick this year because the American League Rookie of the Year winner, Julio Rodriguez, started the season on the Opening Day roster.

Between the carrot of the draft pick and the stick of extra service, teams no longer have reason to hold back prospects. Of Kiley McDaniel’s top five prospects this year, four — Baltimore’s Gunnar Henderson, Arizona’s Corbin Carroll and Gabriel Moreno, and the Mets’ Francisco Alvarez — debuted last season. The fifth, New York Yankees shortstop Anthony Volpe, has played himself into contention to break camp, too. While it’s true that the prospect promotion incentive would’ve been even more beneficial with the enactment of an international draft — something the union chose not to trade for the removal of the free agent qualifying offer — the anti-tanking measures have a secondary effect: encouraging spending to chase the draft pick and avoid the lottery penalty and free service time.

The pluses for both sides are clear. The eight executive board members and four team player reps who voted against the new agreement believed there was still more to extract from the league, and it’s impossible to say they were wrong. Squeezing the owners could have spawned fissures among the 30. The claims of severe revenue losses from some owners after the COVID-shortened 2020 season would, in theory, only worsen during a work stoppage that would have killed regular-season games and caused missed TV contract payments. But there is value in certainty, and the players embraced it, saving 2022 and setting the stage for the most intriguing baseball season in years.

THE EARLY RETURNS on the pitch clock are in and, at least in spring training games, the timer is doing precisely what MLB hoped it would. An increase in national TV ratings during spring training speaks to fan interest in the clock. The average game length is down 25 minutes while scoring is up. The games are almost jarring in their speed and crispness. Inside the game, the clock is almost universally well-liked. Plenty of players have nits to pick — and changes so central to the game always should be iterated and optimized.

Especially when, even with the changes — the rules, the money, the successful expansion of the playoffs from 10 to 12 teams — everything in baseball isn’t all rainbows and gummy bears. The specter of another labor war — one that doesn’t conclude with relative contentment on both sides — persists. And though plenty can happen in four years to fix that, likewise, plenty can happen to exacerbate it.

Behind-the-scenes bargaining on the first deal for the newly formed minor league union continues to go on without an agreement, and the closer it gets to Opening Day without one, the likelier it is that discussions devolve into the familiar antagonism. Though people on both sides believe the core business of local television rights is strong, the failure of Diamond Sports Group — which owns 14 regional sports networks that carry games and is expected to file for bankruptcy — could inflict short-term financial pain on some teams and be used by owners to rationalize curtailed spending.

In June 2022, well before the Mets blew past the top threshold and the San Diego Padres started acting like a big-market team, MLB established its Economic Reform Committee that, according to the league, formed to address payroll disparity across the sport. In public comments this spring, several owners bemoaned the near-$400 million chasm between the Mets and the Oakland Athletics, whose CBT payroll this year is about $75 million.

MLBPA executive director Tony Clark saw the Economic Reform Committee as something else: a pretext to MLB pursuing a salary cap in the next collective bargaining agreement. A not-insignificant number of owners fully embrace the idea. Clark’s comments on the matter served as a warning shot to the league: If reform includes a cap, don’t bother. Whether this is enough to set up another stare down between the two sides in 2026 remains to be seen.

In the meantime, fans can watch something far more appealing: games. They got 162 of them crammed into 2022, and for the first time since 2019, MLB’s season will go on as regularly scheduled. Catastrophe avoided, self-immolation doused, disaster averted, baseball is here on strength of a collective bargaining agreement whose birthday, at least for now, is indeed happy. Without 2022, the baseball of 2023 — the sort that could help return the sport to its glory days — wouldn’t exist.

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