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Niyo: Money matters could cook up a bad look for MLB

John Niyo
The Detroit News

They’re busy arguing over pieces of a pie they haven’t even baked yet.

And a quick glance at the recipe Major League Baseball owners conspicuously left on the counter for everyone to see over the weekend makes it clear a pandemic-style version of America’s pastime is going to look different, taste different and maybe even smell different.

In case you missed it, buried in the 67 pages of a “2020 Operations Manual” leaked to the media late last week was an item about discouraging players from showering at the ballpark after games. That’s in addition to a dizzying array of other COVID-19 protocols that’ll be required of all 30 MLB teams if the league hopes to play ball — everything from saliva tests to spitting bans, masks in dugouts and muzzled first-base greetings, reduced travel and no more Uber rides.

Tampa Bay Rays ace Blake Snell said he will not play this season for a reduced salary.

But what shouldn’t be overlooked — and what baseball better not ignore — as the owners and players spend the next week or two squabbling over the season they’re trying to salvage and haggling over the billions of dollars still left in the pantry, is that they’re missing a key ingredient: the fans.

That’s by necessity, due to the novel coronavirus. But it’s only temporary, so long as they recognize it — and act accordingly. Maybe even collegially, for once.

Because although we may be starved for sports here in the U.S., I’m not sure we’ll have the stomach for much more of what we’ve gotten from various stakeholders over the last week or so. And we certainly won’t if it results in baseball balking at an abbreviated 2020 schedule for reasons that have to do with anything other than the very real public health concerns.

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Baseball survived an influenza pandemic a century ago. It weathered World War II in the 1940s. It even found its way back in our good graces — eventually — after a strike wiped out the entire postseason in 1994.

But this time we’ve all got far more pressing concerns, and way less patience for the nonsense, whether it’s a Cy Young winner’s Twitch stream rants or the league commissioner’s funny-money posturing on CNN.

“Whenever there is a discussion about economics, people tend to characterize it publicly as a fight,” MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said in a televised town hall meeting last Thursday. “Personally, I have great confidence we’ll reach an agreement with the players' association, both that it’s safe to come back to work and (that we will) work out the economic issues that need to be resolved.”

Finding common ground

It’s the right thing to say. And probably the smart thing to say as a negotiating tactic for Manfred, who in the next breath was talking about MLB owners staring at losses that “could approach $4 billion” with a half-season schedule played in empty stadiums.

Yet here’s hoping the confidence he expressed is sturdier than the numbers baseball’s owners are trying to sell everyone on right now.

As former MLB president Paul Beeston once bragged, "I can turn a $4 million profit into a $2 million loss and get every national accounting firm to agree with me." And it’s that sort of creative accounting that’s part of the shaky foundation baseball finds itself standing on now, with owners suddenly crying poor after nearly 20 consecutive years of record growth, while players gripe about taking on all the physical risks this summer in addition to a greater share of the financial ones.

As influential agent Scott Boras told WFAN radio last week, “You don’t privatize the gains and socialize the losses.” But that’s part of the ask here, without question.

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The union, as you’d expect, has asked the owners to open their books if they want to renegotiate a deal made back in March, when the shutdown began and players agreed to prorated salaries for 2020. But there’s no chance that’ll happen.

As for whether baseball will this summer, who knows? The likelihood seems to be growing each day, and it’s worth noting that the governors in California, Texas and New York on Monday all effectively green-lighted the idea of sports in stadiums without fans this summer.

The virus will have the final word on all this, but it’s not taking sides in a labor fight. The fans might, though, and they tend to side with the owners in these matters, for a variety of reasons, some of which we’ve already seen — and heard — this month.

For every Sean Doolittle, the Washington Nationals reliever who rationally raised legitimate questions about health and safety last week on social media, there’s probably a half-dozen Blake Snells, if not more. Snell, the Tampa Bay Rays ace, did his union bros no favors with his recent “I’m not playing unless I get mine, okay?” riff that made national headlines.

Put a cap on it

Therein lies one of the many problems facing Tony Clark, the MLB Players Association executive director, who is tasked with distilling the disparate views of 1,200-plus members into one coherent message. Clark, who took his eye off the Moneyball in the last CBA deal in 2016, immediately dismissed the owners’ new revenue-sharing plan last week, calling it a “salary cap.”

It’s not, technically speaking. But it’s a significant step toward one, and with the league’s current CBA set to expire in 2021, it’s easy to see why the union would consider it a non-starter.

It’s also easy to see why that argument will fall on deaf ears right now, as sports fans looking for an escape from our current reality turn to baseball, where hope is supposed to spring eternal and a lot of ancillary jobs are on the line.

As former MLB star and current broadcaster — and would-be MLB owner — Alex Rodriguez said recently, “It is the people’s comfort food and people are starving.”

That's probably a bit much, but sports fans are hungry for something —  or anything, really. NASCAR's weekend ratings only confirmed that. So does the fact ESPN is broadcasting Korean Baseball Organization games this spring. But while the NBA and NHL seem to be working in concert with their players trying to finish their 2019-20 seasons this summer, baseball's wasting time with brushback pitches.

“I just don’t want to see this great game ... people fighting, billionaires fighting with millionaires,” Rodriguez added. “This has nothing to do with the past. This has nothing to do with the (1994-95) strike. This is actually when the owners and players are aligned and we want the same thing. We want to save baseball. We want to play baseball. Players want to play, fans want to watch. At the end of the day, if you don’t play today, you don’t win tomorrow.

“I just urge the players and the owners to think collectively. If there’s $100 in the pie, like the NBA — players take $50, owners take $50. And we give it to the fans.”

Easy for him to say, of course. And the hypocrisy of that 50-50 hot take from Rodriguez, the highest-paid player in MLB history with more than $450 million in career earnings, surely wasn’t lost on today’s players, who’ve seen the average player salary drop the last two years even as the league reported $10.7 billion in revenue in 2019.

They’ve seen owners use the luxury tax as a de facto salary cap, watched teams like the Tigers turn to tanking to turn a profit, and they know their potential to recoup any losses here is far more limited than the billionaires signing the checks.

But they all need to realize some things are more important than the bottom line. Everyone’s health, for starters. But beyond that, there's the game itself. And turning a pandemic into a proxy war for the next labor fight isn't just bad business. It’s insulting.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @JohnNiyo