Games lost to labor-related work stoppages are nothing new in the Expansion Era. While there is a generation of fans who have only known relative labor peace, Toronto baseball supporters have had to deal with some interesting fallout from previous owner lockouts and player strikes.
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We get it…the majority of Blue Jays fans have had their fill of news and articles about CBA negotiations, owners’ arrogance, and players’ whining. It would be more fun to discuss Spring Training phenoms, bullpen battles and other roster minutiae. But an age old truth is “those who have failed to learn from the mistakes of history are doomed to repeat them.” So let’s take a look back at a few of the most contentious labor disputes since the Blue Jays came into existence to see if we can learn a thing or two about how the current lockout could affect the 2022 season. On the field and off.
1981- Split Season, Late Promise
The sad point of the 1981 Players’ Strike, which began on June 12th and ended July 31st, is that a lone sticking point neither side would negotiate caused an extended mid-season work stoppage. With the lion’s share of CBA details agreed upon and finalized, the issue of draft pick compensation cost fans 713 games of baseball. Forty one years later, the issue remains unresolved for the players, though MLB Negotiators have agreed to eliminate all draft pick compensation under a new CBA. The strike resulted in the first split season in Modern Baseball history (the National League did play a split season in 1892, but that was due to foolhardy decision making). Teams did not play an equal amount of games; games played ranged from 103 to 111. It could be argued 1981 presented the first expanded playoffs since divisional play began in 1969. The first half divisional winners played the second half leaders for chance to move on the League Championship Series.
How Did the 1981 Strike Affect the Blue Jays
It really had no affect on the fortunes of a young Jays squad. Stars such as George Bell, Jesse Barfield and Lloyd Moseby were given more regular at bats by manager Bobby Mattick and Dave Stieb firmly established himself as the staff ace. But those things were going to happen anyway. Toronto struggled in the first half, going 16-42 (.276 winning percentage) and came out of the gates strong during the second half. The young Jays posted 21-27 mark and while they finished last, they were within 7 1/2 games of first. The only result of the strike for Toronto was its influence on the decision of Mattick to resign after the season to go back to the player development work he loved.
Given that Toronto was emerging from the struggles of the expansion, it is not surprising the impact at the gate was minimal.
SEASON ATTENDANCE AVERAGE +/- %
1980 1,400,327 17,288 –
1981 755,083 14,247 -46.1
1982 1,275,978 15,753 69.1
The primary reason for the decrease in total attendance during the strike year is the fact they Blue Jays only had 37 home games, the fewest in Major League Baseball. As detailed above, an irregular number of games were played by teams in 1981-primarily because of early season postponements. It does not seem as though Toronto baseball fans were moved to stay away from Exhibition Stadium because of the labor discord. Increasing attendance figures in 1983 (1,930,415/23,332 per game average) coincided with improving on field performances under Bobby Cox.
1990 Lockout- Signal of Things to Come
The 1990 Lockout, instituted by owners on February 15th, has many similarities to the current owner lockout scenario. The labor stand-off wiped out the Spring Training slate and while the season did not begin until April 9th, the owners did extend the regular season by 3 days to ensure all teams would play 162 games. The signing of a 4-year, $1.5 billion television deal had the MLBPA in search of increased share of the windfalls. Both sides had also fortified their war chests to help their constituents weather the storm. The owners set aside $170 million and secured an additional $130 million line of credit while the MLBPA targeted $70 million of licensing and royalty income for player assistance programs.
The owners proposed 48% in revenue sharing of gate receipts and all local and national broadcast revenues to pay escalating player salaries. BUT… a salary cap would be imposed on each team along the guidelines of the NBA model. Teams could not offer extensions or sign additional free agents once they reached the salary cap threshold. MLB also proposed a pay-for-performance salary scale for players with less than 6 years of service time, based on a statistical evaluation system by position. Sound familiar? It should-pay-for-performance is similar to the pre-arbitration pool monies to be used to pay younger players. But MLBPA Executive Director Don Fehr did not view it favorably then and was steadfastly opposed to any mode of salary cap.
How Did the 1990 Lockout Affect the Blue Jays?
It could be argued the absence of real Spring Training put Toronto at a significant disadvantage in 1990. Afterall it was the first full spring training Cito Gaston and his staff would put his team through. But the Blue Jays led the AL East for the majority of the season and led the division by 1 1/2 games with 8 games to play. The lack of Spring Training was not the cause of the club losing 6 of those remaining games and finishing 2 games back of the Boston Red Sox. The team did not make any late signings or trades after the lockout ended-a situation the 2022 Jays will not be facing with more than 200 available free agents.
Once again, attendance was not directly impacted by fan resentments over the labor unrest. In fairness, the primary reason for this was 1990 being the first full season being played at the new Sky Dome (now Rogers Centre). Toronto set a new MLB attendance record of 3,885,284, averaging 47,966 fans per game. These numbers steadily increased as the Jays grew more competitive and built back-to-back World Series champion years in 1992-93.
The labor tensions did not seem to translate into decreased fan loyalty, quite amazing given the union friendly market in which they played.
The 1994-95 Strike- Good Times to Bad Mojo
You cannot summarize the impact of the most rancorous labor disruption in sports history in one article. But there is one important result of the 1994-95 strike that Blue Jays fans should remember with pride.
When the owners vowed to play the 1995 with replacement players should the MLBPA not end their strike, only the Baltimore Orioles and the Toronto Blue Jays refused to field a replacement roster. In the case of the Orioles, cantankerous owner Peter Angelos refused to go along with his fellow owners as a protest against ownership hardline negotiations over a salary cap. For the Blue Jays, initially their refusal to use replacement players was based upon a 1992 Ontario law. Bill 40 of the Labor Relations Act stated ” a business cannot bring in replacement workers to replace union workers who are legally on strike.” In essence, this statute would bar the Toronto Blue Jays from playing home games in the Province of Ontario using replacement players. New Toronto GM Gord Ash was at his Ash-iness when he responded to a question about the Jays being able to defend their World Championship in 1995. “I couldn’t even answer that question. I don’t know.”
Ash and Blue Jays ownership did make a powerful statement when Spring Training opened by relieving their manager Cito Gaston and his staff from having to work directly with replacement players. Gaston and major league coaches spent their time with prospects at the minor league complex. Ash tried to convince MLB officials that Grant Field would be a suitable stadium to host Toronto home games. The Blue Jays also did not sign their roster of replacements to the standard contract, though they were required to sign a contract addendum stating they were willing to serve as replacement players. Fortunately the strike ended on April 2nd after an unfair labor practices order was upheld by the National Labor Relations Board, though 232 days on strike led to 948 games and the 1994 World Series being lost to history.
How Did the 1994-95 Strike Affect the Blue Jays
A labor disruption as damaging as the players strike of 1994-95 affects every MLB franchise and its fanbases. But for the Blue Jays, the absence of games distracted its fans from the decline of a 2-time World Series winner into an AL East also-ran. Under orders from ownership to reduce payroll and facing the facts a sub .500 finish in 1994 presented, Ash only made nominal roster additions. Danny Darwin, and Frank Viola were signed as free agents, but both were gone by the end of July. Candy Maldonado returned and David Cone was acquired for Chris Stynes and two minor leaguers. Cone too would leave before season’s end, this time to the Yankees for Marty Janzen and 2 prospects.
The team did see a reduction in attendance over the next 2 seasons, but still Blue Jays fans seemed non-plussed by the affects of the strike. But the decline in total seats sold and per game averages might be an indicator of trouble to come.
YEAR ATTENDANCE AVERAGE +/-%
1994 2,907,933 49,287 -28.3%
1995 2,826,483 39,257 – 2.8%
1996 2,559,573 31,500 – 9.4%
Earlier in this article we put forth the premise that lessons need to be learned in order to avoid mistakes being made again. When it comes to CBA negotiations in professional baseball, lessons don’t seem to reach the incorrigible audiences. What happened in 1981, 1990 and 1994-95 will not play out in 2022 as it did then. However it is important for Blue Jays fans to be aware of setbacks and complications this prolonged lockout may bring. Knowing how things played out before doesn’t take the pain or disappointments away, but it can help prepare you for the worst and help you appreciate things more if things work out better than expected.
*Featured Image Courtesy Of DaveMe Images. Prints Available For Purchase.
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Jersey born, Pittsburgh resident, baseball lifer. Staff Writer jaysfromthecouch.com. Host THE ON FEK CIRCLE on JFtC YouTube Channel. Regular guest on Jays From the couch Radio Podcast. Established WPPJ Rock-a-thon benefit, which has been broadcast annually since 1981 and has raised for than $500,000 for the Early Learning Institute of Pittsburgh. IBWAA member.