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Lockout looms as Major League Baseball contract is set to expire

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

The collective bargaining agreement between Major League Baseball players and team owners is set to expire at 11:59 p.m. tonight. Now, if the two sides don't reach an agreement today, MLB will be hit with a lockout, its first labor stoppage in decades. And, of course, we're months away from the start of the baseball season. But a halt could affect offseason free agent signings and other kinds of dealmaking. Stephanie Apstein of Sports Illustrated is here to explain the deadlock. So, Stephanie, why is baseball possibly locking out the players for the first time in over 30 years?

STEPHANIE APSTEIN: Basically, the answer is money. Everybody wants more of it for themselves. So the players feel that - the owners would like to redistribute the money in the system. They're willing to give the younger players more money at the expense of older players. And the players would just like to inject more money into the system overall.

MARTINEZ: What's the biggest sticking point for the players and for the owners?

APSTEIN: I think the biggest issue is how we handle when players get paid. In the past - well, historically, you've been under team control for your first six years. And you're basically underpaid for that period. And then, as you sign as a free agent, you get paid in part for your past performance. So teams would sign you and pay you a lot of money knowing that they're not getting your full - your prime years, necessarily. But in the past, say, decade, general managers have realized that that's not a very efficient way to do business. And so they have started not paying those guys that amount of money. They've realized that they can get that production from younger, cheaper players. And so it means that guys who used to get underpaid when they were young and overpaid when they were old are now just getting underpaid when they're young, and then that's it. And so the players would like to reform the system. But the system is kind of working for the owners.

MARTINEZ: Yeah. I guess for owners in markets that are smaller, their argument is that, well, we need to keep control of these younger players for a longer amount of time before a big team like the Dodgers or Yankees throws all kinds of money at them and we lose them.

APSTEIN: That's exactly their argument. They don't - these are not - except for the Braves, these are not publicly traded companies. So we can't see the books. But that is the argument that they make.

MARTINEZ: Is Major League Baseball or the players' union drawing a line in the sand on any particular issue, something that they absolutely have to have?

APSTEIN: No. I don't think there's one issue necessarily that will decide it. It's sort of a compilation of problems. And then the other issue is that in the past two collective bargaining agreements, the players gave up a lot and didn't get a lot in return. So they're trying to claw back some of those losses. But they don't have a ton to give, which is why you end up with this kind of a standoff.

MARTINEZ: Now, the last few days, Stephanie, I've noticed a lot of signings - or at least a lot of players agreeing to big deals...

APSTEIN: Yeah.

MARTINEZ: ...Before tonight's deadline. Is that by design, they want to make sure that these things are done and over with before possibly being locked out?

APSTEIN: Yeah. I think a lot of players - we don't know how long a lockout is going to go. I think both sides would be pretty crazy to lose games over this. But this could be months. And a lot of players, because they're human beings, would like to know where they're going to live next year. A lot of teams are not exactly sure how the compensation structure is going to work in the new CBA. And so they would like to get out in front of it by making - by just getting some clarity.

MARTINEZ: One last thing really quick, only because I really liked when the National League had the DH for my fantasy baseball league purposes. Is - when they make a deal quickly, could that be a thing where, finally, the DH is in both leagues?

APSTEIN: Yeah. I think that's a good - that's good for everybody. It's better ratings when people hit home runs. And it's better for the players to create these other positions. So I think, in the end, you're going to see the universal DH.

MARTINEZ: Yeah. Pitchers can't hit anyway.

APSTEIN: For better or for worse.

MARTINEZ: That's Stephanie Apstein of Sports Illustrated. Thank you very much.

APSTEIN: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF STAGE KIDS' "WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.