Analysis

White Sox: Growing Labor Unrest Threatens a Repeat of 1994 that Wasn’t

The year was 1994, The Chicago White Sox sat at 67-46, good for first place in the American League Central. Led by a prolific offense featuring future Hall of Famer, Frank Thomas in the midst of his second consecutive MVP season, Julio Franco having a career year, and a young Robin Ventura stealing the hearts of fans with his glove and bat. The Sox were also bolstered by a rotation that featured reigning Cy Young Award winner Jack McDowell and a slew of promising young arms. The White Sox appeared ready to put the pain of past failures behind them, and make a run at the championship that had eluded the franchise for almost 80 years at that point.

Then on August 12, 1994, the players followed through with their threat and walked off the field. The rest of the season and postseason was cancelled, and the Sox were once again left wondering, what if?

What kind of numbers would Frank Thomas have finished with? He was on pace for 55 home runs, hitting .353 on the season. Would the White Sox have held off the Indians and won the division? Would the White Sox have finally win it all? All of those questions went unanswered.

The 1994 players strike is one of the ugliest scars in Baseball’s history. It was a perfect storm of owner greed and player distrust. A collusion scandal among the owners 10 years prior that had resulted in prized free agents being frozen out, had left an ugly, deeply seeded distrust in the owners on the players side. The owners did nothing to repair the relationship in 1994 when they refused to make a pension and benefits payment that they owed the players. The owners also proposed a vast revamp of the economic system of baseball that would see player salaries slashed nearly across the board, as well as implement a salary cap. The players were never going to accept the terms the owners had proposed, and walked off the job.

Fast forward to 2018 and the White Sox seemed positioned for another promising contention window. A fully replenished farm system is beginning to produce tangible results, and excitement for the future builds by the day, but a slow offseason has begun to sow the seeds of labor unrest once again, and once again the Sox stand to be one of the teams most hurt by a potential work stoppage.

The issues currently present in baseball are eerily similar to the ones that led to the 1994 work stoppage. Teams are hanging onto their money more than ever, despite a revenue sharing system that sees each team bring in millions of dollars simply for existing. Top free agents such as Eric Hosmer and J.D. Martinez are struggling to find work with just nine days until spring training begins.

Perhaps the biggest reason for this current free agent freeze is a fundamental shift in how teams think champions are built. The days where teams like New York and Boston simply outspent everyone and won appear to be over. Recent champions like the Astros, Cubs and Royals all committed to bottoming out and developing from within. An approach centered around scouting and player development, rather than spending. The White Sox have also adopted a similar approach and appear close to reaping the same benefits of those that did it before them.

Baseball’s current service time system is one of the main reasons teams are capable of being so successful with the rebuild approach. Teams are granted six full years of control on every player that comes up to their major league team from their minor league system. With the average age of a rookie in baseball being 24-years old, most players are not hitting the open market until they are 30-years old. The league has been trending younger since 2012, partially due to teams opting for the full rebuild. Despite the lucrative revenue sharing system that baseball has in place, teams are less willing to spend now more than ever. Teams are no longer willing to spend premium money for players who’s best years are likely behind them. Players have begun to feel the owners are once again colluding to keep prices down.

Super agent Scott Boras has called this trend a “noncompetitive cancer”. Another influential agent, Brodie Van Wagenen released a scathing letter to teams pleading that teams resume paying and celebrating the players, while also citing the economic growth and profitability of most teams in the league. These comments are falling on deaf ears, and the situation appears to be coming to a head. Baseball appears headed towards another ugly work dispute for reasons very similar to those that led to the disaster that was the 1994 season.

It is clear that baseball is headed towards another economic restructuring and it will likely be a big one. Service time is likely to be knocked down to three or four years, in turn owners will likely demand a salary cap be implemented. The salary cap issue in baseball was present in 1994 as well. Players balked at the demand back then and it was one of the key issues that led to the stoppage. With more money on the line than ever, and teams receiving money from the league, tensions are at an all time high as players feel they are no longer getting their due. The gap in how teams value players and how players value themselves has never been larger. Despite baseball’s relative labor peace compared to other leagues (Every other major league has experienced a work stoppage since baseball’s last one in 1994) this one feels different.

With so many of the same issues present that were present in 1994, and the White Sox poised to contend again very soon, this situation feels eerily similar to the one in 1994. A painful thought for Sox fans. With the current collective bargaining agreement set to expire in 2021, the threat of a work stoppage once again goes hand in hand with the White Sox contention window for this current rebuild. The White Sox once again stand to lose more than other teams if a work stoppage occurs in the coming years. It is impossible to say what changes will be made when the next collective bargaining agreement is negotiated, but many of the hopes the White Sox have for the future rely on the system functioning similarly to the way it has since 1994, but with players increasing unhappiness with the current system it appears headed for a drastic revamp. The parallels begin to become to much to ignore.

A lost season or half season would cost the Sox valuable development time for their bounty of young players, if not another precious year of contention like in 1994. A restructuring of baseball’s service time system would also see the Sox stand to have players hitting the free agent market well before they had planned. The Sox could see nearly three years cut off the exclusive time they have with their players, as well as a potential salary cap limiting their ability to spend on their own players when they become free agents. Not to mention increased difficulty adding vital pieces through free agency in the latter stages of the rebuild. 

1994 was painful for baseball fans everywhere, but particularly for White Sox fans. A potential work stoppage in the future would be no different. The ugly fantasy inches closer to a painful reality as each day passes with star players sitting at home waiting for teams to call. With nearly a quarter of teams right now dedicating themselves to the same process that has produced the last three World Series Champions, player frustration and resentment grows. No one knows what will happen with this latest unrest, but many signs currently point in the direction of it getting ugly. This is an outcome everyone would like to avoid, but especially the White Sox.

The ghosts of the title that never was for the White Sox in 1994 are reawakening. The last thing the Sox want is for those ghosts to have company, but the threat looms larger by the day. 

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2 replies »

  1. Let’s call it for what it is, Hosmer, Martinez, Darvish and Arrieta are holding the market up because they think they are going to get the overinflated contract, and I hate to say it but their egos are getting in the way. Bottom line is the general managers have figured the agents out and analytics tell a different story than what the agents are selling but 90 to 100 free agents can thank 4 or 5 for why they don’t have contracts because everyone is waiting for them and they think the organizations are gonna buckle and give out the albatross contract. Sorry Those days are long gone

  2. Owners are finally wising up. Analytics are the worst thing that ever happened to Boras and the other cry babies. This whole controversy is the confluence of whining agents, sympathetic reporters and bad contracts of the past.

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