ORLANDO, FL --- There is no joy in Mudville today. Mighty Casey did not strike out, but Major League Baseball did.
Baseball fans across the nation should be rejoicing at the news that there will be a season in 2020, beginning July 23 or 24. Instead, with MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred imposing a 60-game schedule after months of fruitless and testy negotiations with the Major League Baseball Players Association, there is more a sense of relief than joy that a season could begin – the COVID-19 pandemic permitting.
The past several months have been like the feeling one gets when watching a 15-inning game at 2 A.M.: after awhile, you don’t care who wins, you just want it to end.
Publicly, both the owners and the players will put on their happy faces and talk about how pleased they are to be able to bring baseball “to our great fans” once again. But ignore that corporate-speak. This three-month debacle has administered a bitter taste of defeat to all concerned.
Yes, one could argue that having a season in the midst of a pandemic represents a victory – and, it will if a season can be completed. But right now this feels like a loss, because at a time when this nation needed baseball to step up and help lead and provide a small sense of normalcy, the owners and players resorted to childish “His-slice-is-bigger-than-mine” behavior, and to what one agent called conduct more like a spit wad contest than professional negotiations.
A shutdown that began honorably in mid-March out of concerns for the health of players and fans as the coronavirus spread throughout the country somewhere along the line was hijacked by a battle over money and leverage for future negotiations. So, there are no winners – not baseball, not the owners, not the players, and not the fans – only losers.
A Game Without Winners
The players will say they won because they achieved one of their major demands: to be paid their full, pro-rated salaries. Plus, they retained the right to file a grievance (more on that later). But, they lost more than $30 million in forgiveness of salary advances from the owners to players on the lower end of the pay scale. They also lost $25 million in postseason pool money.
The owners will declare victory because they got the abbreviated regular-season schedule they wanted to help protect the lucrative postseason from an anticipated second wave of the coronavirus in the fall. But, they won’t receive the added revenue from an expanded postseason (the playoffs will follow the current 10-team format, as opposed to the 16-team field proposed in negotiations). They also lose the income from ad patches on uniforms, and suspension of the luxury tax for the 2020 season.
Plus, owners now must contend with an unhappy labor force that already is upset over five straight years of little salary growth (even while league revenues exploded) and the slow free-agent markets of the past several seasons.
Baseball lost because the negotiations were seen as three months of needless, petty squabbling over money, further reinforcing the view of many fans that both owners and players are greedy and out of touch with reality. There are a number of people inside and outside of the game that feel like the negotiations were as much about gaining leverage for the next Collective Bargaining Agreement in 2022 as they were for saving the 2020 season.
Fans would understand if the season is short-circuited by the virus. Even the most callous fan would put the safety and health of the players and those associated with the game first. But to sabotage a season because of money is unpardonable.
As Cincinnati Reds’ pitcher Trevor Bauer, one of the more cerebral players in the major leagues, tweeted, “We’re driving the bus straight off the cliff. How is this good for anyone involved? Covid 19 already presented a lose lose lose situation and we’ve somehow found a way to make it worse. Incredible.”
Meanwhile, fans lost because even though baseball may soon be back, they will be subjected to what feels like a rushed season, all after suffering through almost 14 weeks of baseball in-fighting over an agreement that basically was reached on March 26.
A Season Like None Before
Through all the bickering and hand wringing over the 2020 restart there should have been little doubt that there’d be some type of season, pandemic permitting. There will be a baseball season because there had to be. Failure to play in 2020 would have meant going 18 months between games. That’s a long stretch for any business, but especially for a sport that has seen attendance drop in six of the last seven seasons (and will again this year).
But, a 60-game regular season? That’s not a season, that’s extended spring training. Sixty games are five fewer than baseball’s first professional team, the Cincinnati Red Stockings, played in 1869 – four years after the end of the Civil War.
A typical MLB season has been described as a marathon (162 regular-season games) followed by a sprint (the postseason). Well, this will be a sprint followed by another sprint.
This promises to be a season like none we’ve seen before – with rules like starting every half-inning after the ninth with a runner on second base and nobody out; teams playing in empty stadiums; as many as 24 or 25 of the 30 clubs in the league conceivable contenders for one of the 10 playoff spots, thanks to the truncated season; and teams playing “home” games in neutral cities (if there is a virus outbreak in their home city).
Also, we likely will see players choose to sit out this season. Certainly those players who have underlying medical conditions that put them in the “high risk” category or who have family members who are considered “high risk” may opt out. These players will receive their pay and service-time credits.
There also may be players who opt out of playing a shortened season for various reasons -- without receiving pay or service time. Why risk your health or a career-threatening injury to play for a fraction of your salary?
That’s perfectly understandable. Not enough is known about the virus’ potential long-term impact on the health of people who’ve survived this illness. Ask yourself: Would you want your son to risk his long-term health in pursuit of what Manfred once called “a piece of metal”?
Speaking of The Civil War
The failure of the players and owners to reach an agreement almost ensures that the players will file a grievance, effectively ending 25 years of labor peace.
The last work stoppage in baseball was in 1994, when owners tried to install a salary cap. That strike lasted 232 days – from Aug. 12 until April 25, 1995 -- and wiped out the entire 1994 postseason and World Series.
This grievance, possibly seeking as much as $1 billion in damages, likely will contend that the owners did not live up to part of the March 26 agreement that said that each side would, in effect, work in good faith to play as many regular and postseason games a possible.
That may be difficult to prove, given that three proposals from the owners were for games greater than the 60-game schedule Manfred has implemented. In addition, it is more than the 48 to 54 games contained in the March 26 agreement.
Still, the MLBPA may be hoping that the courts continue a history of siding with the players. The courts basically handed the owners their heads in three collusion cases over three consecutive years, 1985 through 1987. From those three cases, owners had to pay the players hundreds of millions of dollars in damages over claims that teams conspired to limit pay to free agents by eliminating competition among clubs to sign those players.
Meanwhile, the owners probably will countersue, alleging that the players association acted in bad faith, too.
The current Collective Bargaining Agreement expires on Dec. 1, 2021, and those negotiations are expected to be much more contentious than the talks this spring. The battle cry among both owners and players may be, “Negotiate like it’s 1994.”
One of Bauer’s tweets foretells the fight ahead. “If there’s going to be a fight the time for that fight is after the ’21 season when a new CBA is negotiated. 5 years of potential change. We’re doing irreparable damage to our industry right now over rules that last AT MOST 16 months.”
In other words, in December 2021 we may be saying, “Here we go again.” A bettor might have trouble getting favorable odds in Vegas against there being a work stoppage.
Pandemic in Control
So, now the focus shifts from if players and owners can reach an agreement to if the league can complete the season. The COVID-19 pandemic can lay waste to even the best of plans, and the virus is proving to be a formidable and relentless opponent, as evidenced by the spike in cases all across the country in recent weeks.
The Orlando women’s professional soccer team recently chose to opt out of a season-ending tournament after six of its players and staff tested positive. On the PGA Tour, two players and two caddies have tested positive for COVID-19 in the two weeks since the Tour resumed play – and golf is one of the easiest sports in which to implement social-distancing guidelines. Then, on the same day that Manfred announced MLB’s 60-game season, the PGA of America postponed the Ryder Cup matches and said that the PGA Championship in September, the year’s first major, would be played absent fans, due to concerns over the virus.
Even with MLB’s exhaustive, 100-page manual that documents testing, safety and social distancing protocols (reportedly tests every other day for players), it is inevitable that there will be players that test positive for the coronavirus. The question is not if a player will become infected, but how many, how teams will react, and how it will impact the season.
Already more than 40 MLB players and staff have tested positive after outbreaks at training camps for the Philadelphia Phillies, San Francisco Giants, Toronto Blue Jays, Houston Astros, and Los Angeles Angels. Odds are, those numbers will grow.
No, there is no joy in Mudville today. Not among Mighty Casey and his peers. Not among the team owners, not among MLB’s offices, and not among the fans. Failure to re-negotiate terms of the March 26 agreement made everyone losers, and further deepened feelings of distrust among both players and owners.
The pandemic permitting, we will have a baseball season – albeit abbreviated. Not because any side won, but because it was a necessity.
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: Jose Morales/Unsplash.com