RONALD BLUM / AP Baseball Writer
Major League Baseball’s acrimonious lockout ended Thursday when a divided players’ association voted to accept management’s offer to salvage a 162-game season that will start April 7.
Owners approved the five-year labor contract with a 30-0 vote, and MLB formally lifted the lockout at 7 p.m. on its 99th day.
“I am genuinely thrilled to say Major League Baseball is back and we’re going to play 162 games,” Commissioner Rob Manfred said. “I want to start by apologizing to our fans. I know the last few months have been difficult.”
MLB’s roster freeze, imposed when the work stoppage began on Dec. 2, was to dissolve immediately, allowing Freddie Freeman, Carlos Correa and more than 100 other free agents to sign contracts.
Training camps in Florida and Arizona will open Friday, and the mandatory reporting date is Sunday. Exhibition games will begin March 17 or 18.
Fans can start making plans to be at Fenway Park, Dodger Stadium and Camden Yards next month. Opening day is being planned a little more than a week behind the original date on March 31.
The deal brings several major changes to the sport — a universal designated hitter, an expanded postseason and measures to disincentivize so-called “tanking.” Most of the labor fight centered on the game’s core economics.
The 184 games canceled by Manfred were instead postponed, with the regular season extended by three days to Oct. 5. Approximately three games per team will be made up as part of doubleheaders.
With pitchers Max Scherzer and Andrew Miller taking prominent roles as union spokesmen, players twice allowed management deadlines pass to salvage the original March 31 opening day, then let this Tuesday’s deadline for a 162-game schedule go by.
After narrowing the economic gap this week, MLB made another offer Thursday afternoon, saying this was the absolute, final, last moment to play 162 games and preserve full salary and service time.
Teams moved toward middle ground between themselves and the players. The union’s executive board approved the offer on a 26-12 vote. a person familiar with the balloting said, speaking to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because no announcement was authorized.
Players’ pictures that had been scrubbed from the league’s website were restored at 7 p.m. sharp. Teams tweeted videos and statements celebrating the lockout’s end and sharing info about buying tickets for the new opening day.
“The deal pushes the game forward,” Yankees pitcher Gerrit Cole, a member of the union’s executive subcommittee, said in an telephone interview with The Associated Press. “It addresses a lot of the things that the players in the game should be focused on: the competitive integrity aspect of it.”
Playoffs will expand from 10 to 12 teams, with two division winners receiving first-round byes and the remaining four teams in a best-of-three wild card round in each league.
The deal allows teams to have advertising on uniforms and helmets for the first time and could lead to a pitch clock and limits on defensive shifts in 2023.
“I love our game,” Manfred said. “Having said that, since I’ve been commissioner, I’ve talked about the need to make changes in some of our rules to enhance the entertainment value of our product for the benefit of our fans. And I think the new agreement opens up an opportunity that we can work with the players to make sure that we can make good rule changes that work for our fans.”
The agreement calls for the luxury tax threshold to rise from $210 million last year to $230 million this season and gradually to $242 million in 2026, a loosening for the biggest spenders such as the Yankees, Mets, Dodgers and Red Sox.
Tax rates remain unchanged at the initial threshold, second and third thresholds. A new fourth threshold, aimed at billionaire New York Mets owner Steve Cohen, has tax rates of 80% for the first offender, 90%, for the second and 110% for the third.
The agreement allows training camps to open Friday in Florida and Arizona, more than three weeks after they were scheduled to on Feb. 16. Players can begin reporting Friday, with training cut to about 28 days rather than the usual 42 for pitchers and catchers.
The minimum salary rises from $570,500 to about $700,000 this year, with $20,000 annual increases.
A new $50 million bonus pool was established for players not yet eligible for arbitration, a way to boost salaries for young stars.
After yet another snag, this time over management’s desire for an international amateur draft, the deal came together Thursday afternoon and capped nearly a year of talks.
Players had fumed for years about the deal that expired Dec. 1, which saw payrolls decline 4% in 2021 compared to the last full season, back to their 2015 level. The union had an ambitious negotiating stance in talks that began last spring, asking for free-agency rights to increase with an age-based backstop and for an expansion of salary arbitration to its level from 1974-86.
In the late stages, the level and rates of the luxury tax, designed as a break on spending, became the key to a deal. Players think that too low of a threshold and too high of a rate acts tantamount to a salary cap, which the union fought off with a 7 1/2-month strike in 1994-95.
Despite hundreds of hours of threats and counter-threats, the sides avoided regular-season games being canceled by labor conflict for the first time since the 1994-95 strike.
The cost, though, was rancor that cast both owners and players as money obsessed. Spring training was disrupted for the third straight year following two exhibition seasons altered by the coronavirus pandemic.
“People can go to the ballpark. That will help,” Cole said. “Maybe some people will go to the ballpark to tell us know how they feel negatively. That’s their right to do as well. I will say that nobody wants it to go this way. And some of the hurdles we’ve had to jump through over the last few weeks have not necessarily been ill will but just due process.”