Detroit — They’re not going to screw this up, are they? They’re going to do the right thing and find a way, right?
Against a national backdrop of disease, despair and destruction, baseball’s problems seem trivial. Oh, there are legitimate issues of health and economics, and like most massive businesses in America, baseball is important, beyond the outcome of the games.
But let’s not be naïve and suggest its return could help heal a broken country (cue patriotic music). Let’s be realistic and say its continued absence would irreparably damage a broken sport.
The next week might be the most crucial period of negotiations in baseball history. Most reasonable people believe MLB owners and players still will reach an agreement to play this summer, and I truly hope they do. And yet, as the calendar flips to June and more relevant battles are waged elsewhere, those who own the teams and those who play the games are locked in a disgusting struggle over who should make the most millions, or lose the fewest millions.
Under horrible, unforeseen circumstances, baseball has been granted a huge opportunity, and also a huge responsibility. The nation’s current unrest adds pressure to get this right. If it’s the first major sport to return, it can grab the most attention, depending on whether the NBA and NHL conduct their playoffs. The audience would be rapt, although watching from home. And here’s a little secret baseball doesn’t like to admit: Part of its enduring appeal is that it owns the summer, generally unopposed by other leagues. If baseball cedes control of that great asset — to other sports, celebrity golf matches, ESPN documentaries — it may never get it back.
Clock is ticking
To hold a season that could run anywhere from 50 games to 114 depending on the latest proposals, they’ll probably need to have an agreement by mid-June. Each side has mockingly dismissed the other’s proposals, although, in high-stakes negotiations, it’s always darkest before the deal.
There’s simply too much at stake to think the season will be canceled by ego and distrust, right? The toll of such dim-witted stubbornness would be incalculable, and consider this: Baseball might find fans don’t care enough to get livid anymore.
If they don’t play, it’ll be 18 months between actual games, from the 2019 World Series won by the Washington Nationals over the tainted Asterisks, to the spring of 2021. I’ve never doubted baseball’s ability to bounce back from anything, including the cancellation of the 1994 World Series and a steroids scandal that wrecked the record book.
But this would be a stain so deep, only the diehard fans might forgive. Other jobs are at stake too, although in the expected absence of fans, there won’t be nearly as many stadium workers. It’s about two factions trying to satisfy their own self-interests, and this is where you’re required to jump in and pick who to blame — greedy owners or selfish players?!
Choosing sides and dismissing dissent apparently is how we roll these days. I will not be that simplistic.
Both sides are either lying or hiding their true concerns. When leaders — commissioner Rob Manfred and union chief Tony Clark — clash ideologically, it’s often because they struggle to deliver a concise, noninflammatory message.
At first, players such as Tampa Bay’s Blake Snell sounded the safety alarms — “For me to take a pay cut is not happening, because the risk is through the roof.” And yes, if the season can’t be played because health officials deem it dangerous with the coronavirus still lurking, we’d understand.
So then owners tried to address that concern with their 67-page safety proposal, from rampant testing right down to discouraging the time-honored tradition of spitting. Both sides want us to believe this is as much about safety as economics, but I doubt it. Think about this. Of the four major sports, baseball has the least physical contact. And yet the NBA, NHL, NFL and college football are making plans to play, as long as the virus cooperates.
Baseball is different because it’s not resuming a paused season but trying to start a new one, and has a history of rancorous impasses. It’s the only sport without a salary cap, and the expiration of the collective-bargaining agreement looms in 2021. So for the owners, hey, here’s an opportunity to float revenue-sharing ideas. For the players, hey, here’s an opportunity to wonder where the revenue is going, and why has the average salary remained flat for four years, stuck at a stinking $4.4 million?
Both sides are disingenuous, playing hardball at a time no one in America has any patience for it. They spy an opportunity to address the long-term economics in the midst of a short-term crisis. You even see it with some owners’ crude attempts to dismantle the minor leagues. To his credit, Tigers owner Chris Ilitch continues to pay minor-leaguers their $400 weekly stipend, with no immediate plans to change.
Perhaps both sides are emboldened by the game’s natural survival instincts. But be careful. Most polls show baseball has slipped way behind football and even basketball in popularity.
Major-league attendance fell for the sixth time in seven years, down to 68.5 million from a high of 79.5 million in 2007. Revenues are mostly healthy — $10.7 billion annually — but TV viewership isn’t. Local ratings do well, but the Nationals-Asterisks seven-game clash was the least-watched World Series in five years.
It’s still a big enough sandbox (or sandlot) for everybody, yet owners and players fight over every toy. First, the owners played dirty and offered a revised proposal of an 82-game schedule with significant pay cuts, not the pro-rated scale they’d agreed to. It seemed designed to elicit a negative response, and the players dutifully complied.
They reacted as if they’d be paid in canned goods, and feigned shock the owners would renege on their March agreement. Oh, but then documents emerged confirming the agreement would be reworked if stadiums were empty. Owners claim every game played without fans costs them $640,000. But they should take the bigger financial risk as players take the bigger health risk, correct?
Then came the players’ dishonest retort — we already took a 50-percent pay cut! They’ve duped a lot of people with that claim, even though they were to be paid the exact same amount for every game played. Do they really consider it a pay cut to not draw a salary for 80 games that aren’t played?
Then the owners tossed another doozy, suggesting much-larger cuts for the highest-paid players, and minimal reductions for the lower-paid. It essentially pitted the stars against the average players, and no one bought it. The union countered with a 114-game plan to generate more money. The owners lobbed back a 50-game schedule to save money. Negotiations usually are needlessly nasty, but these are laughable.
Just like every debate in America, each side chooses numbers and anecdotes of convenience, and views compromise as a sign of weakness. The truth is, baseball’s leaders already look weak and whiny. The virus rightly scared them, but the sad thing is, money negotiations scare them more. Either figure out a way to play under reasonable safety and financial conditions, or toss another chunk of the game’s reputation in the trash.