Instead of embracing shame and pettiness like the bad old days of 1994, MLB was sitting in the batter’s box with a 3-1 count when it came to the idea of re-starting the 2020 season.
They could get themselves a fat pitch to hit by simply reading the room around them. MLB could have knocked that cookie pitch out of the park. People wanted to see progress back to normalcy. The country as a whole and their fan base in particular wasn’t in the mood for a labor squabble. The COVID-19 national shutdown included nearly all of the sporting world. People are dying in hospitals and nursing homes. People are out of jobs. (We hoarded toilet paper!) All of it being politicized daily wearing out the populace. There have been many bleak weeks throughout the land. For better or worse sports are held up in America as a beacon of hope.
Be willing to do what’s right
The script seemed to write itself. Once things started to re-open, put a thorough player safety plan in place, get teams in camp, and shoot for the obvious symbolism of an Independence Day start to lift spirits in the country.
By any reasonable view, this should have been done and agreed to even before the tragic outrage perpetrated upon George Floyd in Minnesota leading to worldwide protest. It’s now even more embarrassing to see MLB and it’s player’s union continue the “millionaires versus billionaires” fight in such a time of national sorrow and upheaval.
Indeed the message of “baseball bringing back normalcy” rings less true as vast segments of our land cry out for change, not normalcy. Baseball missed the bigger window but it still can play a role in national healing if the powers that be simply grasp the enormity of our times and make a selfless decision…for once. Come together, sacrifice the bottom line for a few months and “Play Ball!”
How do they wish to be remembered?
Baseball’s mostly faceless cabal of owners led by their feckless frontman Commissioner Rob Manfred had a chance to step up. As titans of business and usually holders of ten-figure wealth, this was the time to step into the breach and take any financial hit to put their sport, their business, at the forefront of a national resurgence. If a re-start was handled gracefully and generously they had a chance to change how they’ve been viewed by fans for decades as cold-hearted and greedy masters of the baseball universe. Instead…they’ve shown themselves to be cold-hearted and greedy masters of the baseball universe.
The MLBPA, led by former Tigers first baseman Tony Clark, on the other hand, has been trying to position themselves as the aggrieved party in the eyes of the fans. They are mostly winning the PR battle. However, as they try to keep a united front on 100% pro-rated salaries in 2020 agreed upon in March it must be said they have made two possible miscues. They allowed some degree of understanding that MLB could renegotiate if baseball ended up playing in front of no fans. MLB, therefore, is trying to do precisely that. This probably should have been buttoned up in March when both sides were understandably scared of the unknown and wanted a quick agreement. A no-fan scenario may have been easier to bang out quickly then instead of the tedium we have now.
Also, the union had a mega-star like Max Scherzer out there shooting down the idea of a further pay reduction. You’ll find no bigger Scherzer fan on the planet than this writer, but we all know Scherzer is financially comfortable to the point his great-grandkids will be wealthy. Fans who’ve taken financial hits lately don’t want to hear it from him. A mid-level player who may not always be able to buy an island and needs to make money while he can have been a more palatable player messenger.
Baseball has been a unifier in the past during times of national trial. We don’t need to even hear James Earl Jones’ speech in “Field of Dreams” to remember what’s possible if the two sides could come together.
However, it hasn’t been the case. Tersely written letters have been exchanged in the last days that all but say the two sides are at an impasse. Even with MLB getting news today of Turner Broadcasting committing $1B in TV revenue moving forward, it is now looking like Commissioner Manfred, in his Neville Chamberlain ineffective manner, will unilaterally impose a 48 to 54 game mini-season with no expanded playoffs. As negotiated, the players would get 100% pro-rated salaries for this short season.
The view of a short season
Frankly, it’s a bad joke. It’s a season length that will always be talked about with disdain. An asterisk against all who are successful and an excuse for all who fail. It will give those who fantasize yearly about “baseball is dying” new ammunition to bleat on with for a decade at least.
Manfred, already generally unpopular, is now going to see his legacy go into tatters as the man who guided the sport to its weakest possible outcome in response to a challenge. His ineffective replies to ESPN’s Karl Ravech during the MLB Draft coverage spoke volumes about his inability to navigate this rough sea.
The owners once again might end up in a slightly better financial place but will also take another whack at the sport’s reputation they supposedly hold dear. Holding fast to their position without making any further sacrifice only shows, as said in “North Dallas Forty”, when we think it’s a game, they believe it’s a business.
What needs to happen:
1. A congressional inquiry into MLB’s anti-trust exemption must be launched and it has to appear to have teeth. Owners wet their pants when the exemption is in peril. This should spur action.
2. The owners must commit more money this year to players’ salaries. It’s a $10B/year sport. They can afford a one-year set back that isn’t in any way cataclysmic. They can get to 76 or 80 games at a 90% pro-rated salary structure.
3. The union needs to give a little of full pro-ration down to 90%. They left the owners that little renegotiation window. It was a mistake and they need to make a small sacrifice for it.
4. Expand the playoffs. Make extra money for both sides if possible.
5. No TV blackouts. With no fans in the stands, one of the reasons why blackouts exist goes away. It’s a goodwill gesture all around.
MLB gonna party like its 1994!
In the end, the bigger crisis for baseball looming on the horizon is the next set of Collective Bargaining Agreement talks set for next year. If acrimony only intensifies during a national crisis instead of some sense of unity, one can only imagine how unbelievably difficult it will be for the two sides to smoothly find an agreement in 2021.
No one truly wants to calculate the damage to the sport possible should an ugly work stoppage occur then.
MLB is in the middle of abdicating the public’s trust. It is incumbent upon its leadership to find common purpose immediately to salvage every bit of baseball on the field they can muster in 2020. Sadly, we seem as far away from that as ever this weekend.