A Fourth of July Dud: No Baseball this Independence Day

ORLANDO, FL --- As the Fourth of July holiday approaches, thoughts turn to picnics, backyard barbecues, parades, fireworks, watermelon, corn on the cob, hot dogs, beach outings, and baseball.

Well, scratch that last part. For only the second time in the last 147 years there will be no Major League Baseball games played this Independence Day.

That’s sad, because no day screams baseball more than the Fourth of July. Baseball is to this patriotic holiday what NFL games are to Thanksgiving, what college football bowl games are to New Year’s Eve, and what the Indianapolis 500 race is to the Memorial Day weekend. Yet, MLB stadiums around the country will be dark on this date, and not to better see the night’s fireworks displays. The only screams heard will be from frustrated fans saying, “Why isn’t my team playing today?”

The answer, primarily, is because of greed and petty bickering as owners and players childishly quarrel over who’s getting a bigger slice of the $10-billion pie.

It’s sad, because Major League Baseball blew its chance to be the sport to help lead this nation back from this pandemic apocalypse. This was a real opportunity, especially given everything that’s going on in this country, for the league to shine, to provide a much-needed respite from seemingly one crisis after another. Yet, baseball struck out.

If MLB could have returned to play by July 4th weekend – on the holiday weekend so identified with baseball -- as many had hoped, it would have been so symbolic. Who knows, it might even have captured the attention of the younger audience that baseball so desperately needs in order to grow. But, at a time when baseball needed to step up, instead it took two steps back toward irrelevance.

It’s curious and frustrating that the NBA, NHL, MLS, and WNBA all could be playing within weeks – and these are sports whose schedules take them through the months when health experts most worry about a second wave of COVID-19. Yet, MLB – the one acronym that should be playing – dithers. To paraphrase an old saying, while the owners and players fiddle, baseball burns.

The scariest part is that as contentious as these negotiations have been, they’re just a preliminary bout. These talks to save the 2020 season are merely the undercard to the real battle: the death cage match that is the next Collective Bargaining Agreement (the current CBA runs out at the end of the 2021 season).

The consequences of a baseball’s failure to reach an agreement could extend beyond this truncated 2020 season.

Negotiations? What Negotiations?

“Character is the moral strength to do the right thing even when it costs more than you want to pay.” Those are the words of Michael Josephson, author and president of the Joseph and Edna Josephson Institute of Ethics.

Frankly, to this point, I haven’t seen a lot of character from either the owners or the Major League Baseball Players Association -- or a lot of negotiation, either.

By now, the facts are well known: the two sides reached an agreement in March, which calls for the players to be paid pro-rated salaries. But, when it became apparent that most, if not all, of the season would be played without fans – a significant drain on revenues – the owners demand further concessions. Snarky comments ensued back and forth.

The talks have been more camouflage than substance. Every proposal and counterproposal from the players said the same thing: we’re not taking a pay cut. Every offer and counteroffer from the owners was just a re-packaged version of the previous: we need the regular season to end by a certain date to ensure the post-season is not disrupted by an expected second wave of the novel coronavirus.

Rather than meaningful negotiations, it’s been a power play, a staring contest, a mud-slinging contest, a high-stakes game of chicken. It has been leaked emails and memos, press conferences, and social media posts designed to curry favor with the public at the expense of the other side.

Above all else, it seems, positions must be protected. The players want to play as many regular-season games as possible because that’s how they make their money. Meanwhile, the owners want to protect the playoffs because the lucrative post-season TV deals are where they receive most of their revenue.

Oh, there has been some movement toward settlement in the past week or so. Last Wednesday, the owners suggested a 60-game season, with players receiving full pro-rated salaries, plus a few other concessions. The players countered with a 70-game season.

Common sense would seem to say, “OK, split the difference. Let’s say 64 games, and get this season started.” Sounds simple enough, right? Apparently nothing is that easy when the owners and the players union get together. There is just too much mistrust between the two. An agreement remains elusive as of this writing.

The owners and players apparently can’t even agree on what they’ve agreed upon. In March, the players said the two sides had reached an agreement; the owners said no. Last week, baseball commissioner Rob Manfred said that a “framework” to begin the season had been agreed upon by the union. Less than 24 hours later, players association executive director Tony Clark denied such agreement.

As the stalemate continues, the owners believe that, per the March agreement, failure of the two sides to reach a new agreement means that commissioner Manfred unilaterally can dictate the number of regular-season games to be played. The general consensus is that it would be in the 48-to-54 games range: which pays the players less and increases the chances of the post-season being completed by the end of October. In essence, it implements the owners’ proposal.

The problem, though, is that such a move likely would lead the players to file a grievance, and the owners, in turn, probably would file a grievance of their own. Proving that litigation, not baseball or football, truly is America’s national pastime.

Fans Want Baseball, Not Squabbling

At this point, the fans are saying enough already; we just want baseball. Sixty or 65 games isn’t a season, it’s extended spring training. But fans would accept that if it’s because of the pandemic, and not some arbitrarily assigned number enacted out of failed negotiations.

Most polls show fans leaning slightly in favor of the players. But fans should not side with either, because both owners and players have handled the situation poorly. People have little stomach for billionaire owners and millionaire players complaining about their supposed financial hardships. Especially when 120,000 Americans have died from the virus, close to 40 million have filed for unemployment benefits, when people all across the country are demonstrating against racism and police brutality (and economic inequality), and when people across the nation swamp food banks in numbers not seen since the Great Depression.

Take Owner A. In 1995 he headed a group that bought a major-league team for $150 million. Today, Forbes estimates that the team to be worth about $2.2 billion. This is the same owner who recently said on a radio show that owning an MLB team “is not very profitable.” Most people would consider his return on investment to be excellent.

Then there is Player A. He is not a star. In nine-plus seasons, he has a .235 career batting average in a reserve/utilityman role. But, he is the type of player that every team needs and wants: an experienced, solid player who can field five positions, is by all accounts a good teammate, and provides a veteran presence in the clubhouse.

According to information from Cot’s Contracts, this player has earned more than $11 million in his major-league career. Plus, this is a big year for him: if he earns a season’s worth of service time, he will have accumulated 10 years in the majors.

Not many players reach that level. Ten years is considered a milestone moment, along the lines of a playing in his first game; collecting that first hit or win or save; reaching arbitration; and gaining free agency. Ten years of service makes him eligible for a $100,000 pension that will grow to $210,000 a year if he waits until age 62 to collect. That’s almost four times the average teacher’s salary in this country.

There’s nothing wrong with making money. In normal times, let the free enterprise system determine how much owners and players should earn. They’re at the peak of their profession, so they should be compensated accordingly. Let the market determine their value. But these are not normal times. The owners and players should make sacrifices, just as millions of their fellow Americans do.

Risk of Losing Fans?

If health delays or prevents the season, people will understand. The virus showed just how formidable an obstacle to this season it can be, with the news last week that five players and three staff members at the Philadelphia Phillies training complex in Clearwater, FL, had tested positive for the disease.

But, if baseball fails to start this season because of a battle of wealth, then it’s a fair question as to whether baseball fans will – and should – turn their backs on a sport that seems intent on continually shooting itself in the foot.

Twice before, in 1981 and 1994, seasons were interrupted by player strikes. Both times fans eventually came back, though on each occasion it seemed as if baseball lost a little bit of its soul.

In 1982, the Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa race to break Roger Maris’ single-season homerun record widely is considered to have helped save Major League Baseball after the 1981 player strike. Many sports experts, though, believe that strike forced baseball to relinquish its title of “America’s National Pastime” to football.

The players’ strike in 1994 wiped out the playoffs and the World Series, in addition to forcing the first cancellation of all Fourth of July baseball games that season.A lot of people credit Cal Ripken Jr.’s pursuit in 1995 of Lou Gehrig’s record of 2,130 consecutive games played as bringing back Major League Baseball following the players’ walkout the previous season.

Eventually, there will be baseball again. And fans eventually will return, because sports are a part of our national fabric. As psychologists and sociologists tell us, people are tribal and want to be around others who share their interests. In this case, to cheer for the same baseball team.

The owners will get their billions, the players will make their millions, and in the end the fans will pay, as they always do, as owners hike ticket prices and players raise the price of autographs to try to recoup this season’s financial loses.

“There’s no crying in baseball,” to repeat an oft-quoted line. But today there should be tears of shame from both the owners and the players. They had an opportunity to show leadership, to rise above the fray, and they failed miserably.

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Dennis Richardson is a writer/editor with Words Matter. He has an extensive background as a reporter, copy editor, sportswriter, sports copy editor, and Senior Special Sections Writer with newspapers in Missouri and Florida. He lives outside of Orlando, FL.

Photo credit: Roven Images/Unsplash.com

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