Are we surprised? No, not at all.
MLB is at odds over the same thing at which MLB is forever at odds — money. The owners want the players to accept less; the players want the owners to pay more. Song as old as rhyme, tale as old as time. For the hundred thousandth time: Baseball is the silliest of all sports.
Even by baseball’s standards, it finds itself in an awful place. It would be one thing if the NBA/MLS/NHL had said, “We’re sorry, but we really can’t see a way to finish our seasons with COVID-19 still out there.” MLB could then say, “We can’t see a way, either.” But the others haven’t said as much. The others, for worse or better, will attempt to play their various games. Baseball being baseball, it hasn’t yet figured out a way leave the proverbial batter’s box without tripping over its collective spikes.
Two weeks ago, many observers proclaimed, “This will be an important week for baseball.” Two weeks on, nothing has happened — except the usual squabbling over who gets what. This isn’t to say that employers and employees aren’t allowed to bargain collectively and disagree openly over working conditions and suchlike. (As Don Barzini told the mob summit in that greatest of American films: “After all, we are not communists.”) And maybe it’s wrong to suggest that baseball should occupy a loftier plateau than any other business. Still …
This is baseball, allegedly the Great American Game. This is baseball at a time when our nation is as skittish as it has been since Pearl Harbor. Baseball played on during that World War — and the previous one, too — but here it sits, each side waiting for the other to flinch over financial compensation.
Tim Kurkjian of ESPN is among the sunniest people in this world. This was Kurkjian on Buster Olney’s ESPN podcast three days ago: “I’m not sure, but I don’t think we’re going to play this year — and boy do I hope I’m wrong.”
This came after the players association “resoundingly rejected” — union head Tony Clark’s exact words — the owners’ proposal, calling for pro-rated salaries over an 82-game season. From Clark’s statement:
“Players proposed more games (114, which made no sense), two years of expanded playoffs, salary deferrals in the event of a 2020 playoff cancellation, and the exploration of additional jewel events and broadcast enhancements aimed at creatively bringing our players to the fans while simultaneously increasing the value of our product. Rather than engage, the league replied it will shorten the season unless players agree to further salary reductions.”
The crux of the impasse — apart from the players-hate-owners-and-vice-versa boilerplate — is an agreement signed by both signs at the end of March. The players insist it set limits on pro-rated pay; the owners say they had no idea they’d be looking at a full season without fans and therefore no idea how much money they’d be losing. The owners want to renegotiate the pro-rated part; the players say, “No way.”
Both sides know the collective bargaining agreement is set to lapse in autumn 2021. Both sides concede the 2022 season already is in peril, and not for health reasons. We’re well beyond Memorial Day, and MLB believes it will need at least three weeks of non-spring training to ready for any sort of a regular season. That would bring us to July 1 as Opening Day were an agreement reached this minute, which nobody believes will happen. MLB also doesn’t want to play much beyond October; there’s fear the virus will again hit hard in the fall.
Although baseball — unlike pro basketball, hockey and soccer — didn’t have to suspend a regular season, it’s baseball that’s fighting the calendar. Baseball being baseball, it’s also fighting itself. The sport took great pride in being the first to resume after 9/11, and the 2001 World Series — George W. Bush threw out the first ball before Game 3 at Yankee Stadium — became a rallying point for the nation. Yes, the dynamics are rather different, but it wasn’t long ago that MLB envisioned its season getting underway, at least for televised consumption, before other team sports could resume. That hope diminishes with every hour.
Indeed, ESPN reported Monday that the owners have made a new proposal offering “a higher potential salary than the last plan but less guaranteed money over a 76-game season.” Initial feedback indicated the players were unimpressed. Knock me over with a feather.
Here, though, is where I channel my inner Kurkjian and say: I continue to believe baseball will sort itself out to the extent that it can, ahem, play ball. Nobody has ever gone broke betting against the absence of brainpower in our oldest of sports, but for MLB to sit idle as LeBron and Giannis frolic in Disney World and the NHL chases pucks in hub cities — and with the NFL and college football preparing to commence around Labor Day — would be a greater blow than even the 1994 strike, which scrubbed a World Series, delivered.
The owners always want more. The players do, too. We get that. We’ve gotten it since Marvin Miller took a hard look at the reserve clause and Curt Flood carried his case to the Supreme Court. At some point, though, reason must prevail. (Mustn’t it?)
This sport has spent the entirety of its existence never quite getting its act together, but for the sake of the game and everyone involved, baseball better get cracking. Even by baseball’s standards, this is ridiculous.
©2020 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.)