Wojo: 50-game baseball season? Don’t even bother

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Detroit – It began as a public-health crisis, as the coronavirus spread. And now, as only the arrogant oafs that run baseball can do, it’s also a raging public-relations crisis.

A final, final, we-mean-it-this-time announcement is expected Monday from Commissioner Rob Manfred, and he has the authority to implement a season of 50-ish games. And I say this with more disgust than sadness: Why bother?

Rob Manfred declared last week “100 percent” baseball would be played, and it's looking like he'll opt for a 50-game season.

If it’s 50 games or nothing, I say nothing. If it’s a barren 16-month stretch between major-league games, or some little-league schedule where a team with a 24-26 record could make the playoffs, I vote barren. There’s too much going on in this country, too much racial strife and uncertainty, too much still unknown about the disease, to waste our time figuring out how to get rich owners and players paid.

Only baseball, with its sordid history of owner-player distrust and outright disdain, can turn legitimate, complex questions of health and safety during a pandemic into a pig-trough fight over money. Only baseball, the sport that involves the least amount of player-to-player contact and is held in wide-open stadiums better suited to mitigation, could be so royally stubborn and myopic.

Like much of America these days, rather than listen and compromise, both sides dug in and won’t budge. The owners look worse because amid baseball’s supposed economic concerns, their revenue has continued to set records. So why not take the financial hit for one shortened season?

But sorry, the players are awful at playing the victim, brandishing their own brand of obstinance and divisiveness. They talk about the health danger as if they’re being asked to man the hospital frontlines. Baseball responded with a 67-page safety protocol that some players found stringent.

Methods of distraction

Both sides have used the cover of the coronavirus to distract from their financial motives. They’ve floated ridiculous proposals, variously offering between 48 and 114 games. MLPA chief Tony Clark either misread or purposely misled when he claimed they already agreed in March that players would receive full prorated salaries. Documentation shows that agreement was contingent on fans in the stands, and because that won’t happen, at least not at first, it’s not an actual agreement.

The last supposed flurry came Saturday night, when the players association summarily dismissed the owner’s offer of a 72-game schedule with 70% of prorated salaries guaranteed. That percentage could rise to 83% if a full postseason is played. But the players aren’t moving from their demand for full prorated salaries, and Clark concluded his response with this: “It unfortunately appears that further dialogue with the league would be futile. It’s time to get back to work. Tell us when and where.”

MLB could miss a huge opportunity to capture sports-starved fans.

How about 2021, in spring training. Sadly, how many fans would really care at this stage?

It’s all so obnoxiously disingenuous. Manfred declared last week “100 percent” baseball would be played, and he can institute the agreement from March 26 for around 50 games. Players could refuse to play, or file a grievance, or pout and go through the motions in a season without much validity anyhow.

Both sides make offers that sound different, but never stray far from the money issue. Players offered to extend the season beyond 100 games to make it more legitimate, and would participate in extra activities during TV broadcasts to push interest and revenue. But the owners claim they’ll lose $640,000 for every game without fans, so their stance hasn’t changed – if you want full per-game pay, we need fewer games. At this late stage, to me, at least 72 games would be a worthwhile season, but they claim the numbers don’t add up.

Of course, this is all predicated on the owners telling the truth about their finances and the players telling the truth about their motives. It would be amusing if it wasn’t so insulting that both sides wrap themselves in “the nation needs us back” cloak. For the jobs, sure. To fulfill TV contracts, OK. To honor the great game and reward the great fans? Oh please, although I suppose it could be interesting to witness a short, tight pennant race, and perhaps see the Tigers’ young talent stir up some promise.

But in case baseball hasn’t noticed, the nation is roiled in racial and social unrest, and it’s not a great time to wage a nasty battle that will only get nastier. The CBA expires after the 2021 season and players feel they got duped in the last deal. The average player salary -- $4.4 million – has remained flat for five years, while overall revenue has risen.

Foolishness and gluttony

Owners suggested a 50-50 revenue split for this season, shared risk and all, right? Except players view that as the latest attempt to institute a salary cap, a prelude to next year’s talks. That sounds nefarious, but before you weep for the players, understand it’s the only of the four major pro sports without a cap, and they’ve benefited tremendously.

The optics are just horrid, all the way around. It was reported over the weekend that MLB and Turner Sports reached a $1-billion deal for the network to continue broadcasting the playoffs. Even the proposed start dates and end dates for a shortened season are controversial. The players’ push for more games would produce a more-worthy champion and fulfill more broadcast obligations. But then the regular season wouldn’t end until October, with the World Series in November.

No way, say the owners, who want the regular season finished by Sept. 27. They don’t want to play deep into the fall because of fear of a second wave of COVID-19 and the risk of the playoffs – the big money-maker – getting canceled. A fair concern, but I doubt it’s their primary one. Not only do they want fewer games to save money, they don’t want to be playing in November when football and the election would dominate the audience.

Somehow the NBA and NHL are piecing together deals, although they’ve hit snags too. Same with the NFL and college football. But baseball was going to be first up, the summer as its stage, a huge opportunity to a captive audience.

Most of that opportunity already is lost, whether they play or not. Some high-paid stars might sit out, considering it not worth the risk for one-third of their regular salary. Fans can’t flock to the stadiums anyhow, and as soon as football starts, interest in baseball will shrink.

The easy mantra for years has been to suggest baseball is dying, but then revenue rises, along with fancy new ballparks. During times of strife in the game, there’s initial outrage, followed by apathy, followed by renewed hope. As long as the foolishness and gluttony continue, baseball will get exactly what it deserves – no sympathy, all apathy.

Twitter: @bobwojnowski