As Baseball Squabbles Over Money, It Risks a ‘Disastrous’ Outcome

As Baseball Squabbles Over Money, It Risks a ‘Disastrous’ Outcome

It was all there for baseball, a chance to fulfill some of its high-minded ideals, to be a symbol of renewal and a comforting distraction in times of trouble. And even if you don’t buy into that vision, you have to admit: It sure would be nice to have some original, live programming instead of the endless parade of old games being shown on sports channels.

“I have been getting texts from people, ‘Hey you’re on doing this game, you’re on doing that game,’” the longtime broadcaster Bob Costas said by phone the other day. “I’ve had this conversation with Al Michaels. He’s like, ‘I’m just channel-surfing, and everywhere I turn, it’s me!’”

Classic broadcasts from Costas or Michaels are always a treat. But when MLB Network aired a 64-hour Derek Jeter marathon last weekend, it felt like a cry for help: Can the captain please swoop across the infield with a desperate relay flip to save the day?

The coronavirus pandemic scrambled everything, of course, and it’s painful to look at the phantom schedule and imagine what should be happening. The Mets would be in Washington this weekend facing the Nationals, the reigning World Series champions.

With the sport on pause, though, the Nationals made news in the past week for a sobering reason: They attempted to save money by shaving $100 per week off their minor leaguers’ $400 weekly paychecks. The major leaguers stepped in to cover the losses, and after reliever Sean Doolittle tweeted their plan, the billionaire owners caved.

It could be worse, though: Doolittle’s previous team, the Oakland Athletics, cut its minor leaguers’ pay altogether.

Most owners have done right by their employees; the Kansas City Royals vowed to pay their minor leaguers all season and not release any of them. But it is hard to generate much sympathy for the owners as a group, or for Commissioner Rob Manfred as their leader.

Look at what is happening with the proposed 2020 season, which would take place without fans in the stands, at least initially. The short version: Owners proposed an 82-game schedule to the union, which countered with a 114-game proposal — and the owners reportedly rejected that plan on Wednesday. Now the owners are threatening to schedule only 50 games.

In other words, the union and its executive director, Tony Clark, propose more baseball. More games mean more money for players, who agreed in March to take their 2020 salaries on a prorated basis.

The owners and Manfred have proposed fewer games, essentially saying: Fine, you’ll get your prorated salaries — if you play a drastically compressed schedule.

The players do have some leverage. They must agree to the expanded playoff format, in which 14 of the 30 teams would qualify for the postseason. They also must agree on the health and safety protocols baseball has proposed.

But the big obstacle is money. Players rejected the owners’ proposal of a sliding salary scale in which the richest players would take the biggest pay cuts. Owners have not formally presented the 50-game proposal, but have made it clear that it could be their next move.

A mini-season, in theory, is better than no season at all. But this seems as if the players would be dragged back to work for a mad dash to the postseason money spigot, even if some of them have concerns about the health risks. Under those circumstances, baseball could forfeit any good will bounce it might have gotten.

This was a chance for both sides to recognize and work together toward a greater good that would have helped them all. If that had been the backdrop of these talks, they could have agreed by now on the particulars. Give a little here, take a little there, and let’s play ball.

“When the industry as a whole thrives, then everybody benefits,” Costas said. “The owners won some concessions in the early 2000s, some. But over all, when the game thrives, we can’t say that the players as a group didn’t thrive. They did.

“So to win certain points at the negotiating table may turn out to be a Pyrrhic victory, because if the industry itself flounders, then everybody takes a hit.”

If the season was canceled or derailed solely over virus-related health concerns, Costas said, fans would understand.

“But if it’s, ‘Here we go again, baseball and its labor troubles,’ people don’t have much patience for that under any circumstances,” he said.

  • Updated June 2, 2020

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And if those labor troubles lead to a 17-month period without baseball, it would be “disastrous,” Costas said. Even under ideal circumstances, he added, some fans would be hesitant to return to the stands in 2021 — some from fear of large gatherings, others because their discretionary income will be down because of the economic devastation the virus has wrought.

“If you add to that: resentment?” Costas said. “They’re turning a potential positive, which is to come back before anybody else and have this strange circumstance play to their advantage in a certain sense — maybe only a small positive, but a positive — into a gigantic negative.”

A mini-season, especially one played under duress by employees furious with their bosses, could be seen as more gimmicky than legitimate. How invested would fans really be in determining a quickie champion for a sport that prides itself on the long journey?

After 50 games last season, the Nationals were 19-31. The 2019 season was defined by their long climb from the bottom to earn their first title. How could any fan base or front office properly evaluate a team that goes 19-31 now, if that constitutes the full season?

Even an 82-game schedule would be the shortest one baseball has played since the 1870s, but at least it would be more than half of the usual 162. Fifty games is borderline insulting — both to fans and to the competitive sensibilities of players.

Some of us are baseball addicts, and would watch a two-week schedule with keen interest. But baseball does not need the folks who are hooked. It needs to retain casual fans and recruit new ones. The process should be well underway by now.

The longer the players and the owners wait, the more chances they miss. They must understand this, right?

“I’m not an economist and I’m not a labor expert,” Costas said. “But there have to be ways for them to see their mutual interest and not self-destruct.”

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