It would have been nice if spring training, the sequel, was already underway, wouldn’t it? Sure, we can all agree on that. We’d all love to see big league ballplayers playing intrasquad games, perfecting the spin rate of their curveballs and fine-tuning their launch angles.
But, as we sit here on June 9, Major League Baseball is no closer to an agreement with the player’s union on a plan to start the 2020 season than it was two months ago.
Baseball said they wanted to be the first sport back, but it’s hard to see that happening now. The NBA, which already has played almost an entire season, is close to coming back for its playoffs, as is the NHL, and it’s fair to wonder if NFL training camps will begin before the first official big league baseball game.
We all want the baseball back on the field and, have no fear, unless there is a second wave of COVID-19 that hits the country sooner than anyone expects, there will be a Major League Baseball season in 2020. Will it be 46 games? 70? 82? We’re running out of months here, folks, and TV networks are not going to let the postseason drag deep into November. The days are ticking off the calendar, and every day there isn’t a resolution is another potential day of baseball wiped out. We’re all sick and tired of the rancor between the owners and players, sick and tired of proposal followed counter-proposal, followed by a counter to the counter-proposal, followed by a... you get the idea.
I’d love to wax a 2,000-word soliloquy on the importance of baseball in American culture, how we need it right now, to lay out my Field of Dreams-like speech, but that’s not particularly helpful at this moment. Yes, the gatekeepers of the game, players and owners, are fighting with each other over money, and the average fan doesn’t want to hear about the sausage being made. They just want to stuff their faces full of it.
But sometimes, it’s important to know what’s in your food.
The owners have made three separate proposals to the players that, although dressed in different clothing, essentially guarantees the players about one-third of what their salaries would have been if they had played a full season. The players already have agreed to a salary reduction, essentially a half-season furlough, in which they would only receive payment for games played. That March agreement did not stipulate any additional salary would be given up in the event games were played without fans in the stands. In exchange, the union agreed to allow Major League Baseball, i.e., the owners, to determine the length of the season.
The owners want to re-open that agreement and get the players to take a paycut on top of what is essentially a half-season furlough, and it’s important to understand that, even if the owners were to write in a provision stating that any ties of a salary to a team’s earnings was restricted to 2020, it’s hard to close Pandora’s Box once it’s been opened. That’s why players are reluctant to take the owners at their words on any of this without teams opening up their books and letting the union see exactly how much each team stands to lose this year.
There’s no doubt the owners are going to take a financial hit this season, but the issue is “good faith.” Are the owners negotiating in good faith with the players? Decades of mistrust, and a recent off-season in which many in the union felt clubs were colluding together to keep free agent salaries low (a claim never proven), has muddied the waters. Politics, as always, has its role to play. But it’s clear Major League Baseball’s proposals were never going to move the needle for the union.
It appears as though the owners are dead set against giving players 100% of the prorated salaries, unless it’s for a drastically shortened, 48-50 game season, and it appears as if the players believe the agreement they reached in March assures them of that 100%. If the owners want to re-open that agreement, then the players feel it should be a two-way street, that they should then have a say in how long the season is and when it ends. Owners don’t want that.
It’s as if the owners are speaking German and the players Italian. They’re using totally different languages. The big question is, can anyone translate a deal that both sides can agree to, or will we simply see MLB institute its 48-game schedule, followed by an expanded playoff format that would allow them to get that lucrative TV cash after a season with no in-stadium revenue?
People want the players to compromise, but if they allow themselves to agree to a deal that bases their pay on the performance of a club’s gate receipts, it’s the first step to a salary cap. The MLB Player’s Union is still the last holdout in their steadfast refusal to allow a salary cap, and that’s not changing this year.
The only proposal that makes sense to me is deferring a portion of the player’s pro rata salary. For example, perhaps MLB can guarantee players get 75% of their full prorated salaries this year and then get the other 25% over the next five years. After all, the coronavirus vaccine will be here at some point, likely in time for fans to be back in the stands starting in 2021. Teams will be back in the black again, provided too many fans haven’t been alienated by this process. Under this scenario, the players would still get their 100% salary, but would give owners the benefit of the doubt and allow clubs to give them the rest of their money when times aren’t so tight.
It’s clear baseball has missed its opportunity to take hold of the national spotlight and showcase itself. Had the league considered the long-term benefits of owning the stage and presenting the people with the only live sport in the country for weeks and months, perhaps it could have created new baseball fans that otherwise may have never come to the game.
Think about the ratings for the NFL Draft, a televised event that featured a pro sports commissioner reading names off an index card from the basement of his mansion. How insane would the ratings have been for baseball if they had been able to kick off the season on the 4th of July? How excited would people be for the game if the owners had come to the union with an offer designed to get everyone back on the field as quickly as possible. Heck, the union might have even been willing to give the owners some wiggle room on some things if an offer like that had been presented right away. The long term benefits of having the stage to themselves, the only game in town, might have helped the sport become the National Pasttime once again.
That opportunity appears to be lost now. However, we are going to see baseball this year. It’ll probably be a very short season, but possibly a really exciting one. For 2020 at least, baseball would be a sprint, a season like no other.
We all want to see it because, given how these negotiations have gone, it’s easy to see a longer work stoppage hitting the sport when the Collective Bargaining Agreement expires at the end of next year.
On Episode 389 of Hittin’ Season, Justin Klugh, Liz Roscher and I discussed the ins and outs of MLB’s latest proposal to the union, and on his 28th birthday, talked about Vince Velasquez’ crowning achievement as a Phillie. It may not be what you think!