Kevin Cash wore a mask for eight years as a major league catcher. He never needed one as a manager until this week, when his Tampa Bay Rays began voluntary workouts at Tropicana Field.
“We walk in with them on and basically leave them on,” Cash said by phone after Wednesday’s practice. “If we take it off for a second, it’s just to pull it down to catch our breath. The first day we didn’t have the air totally cranked up; today was better. It’s hot as hell down here.”
Players did not wear masks while working out, but were given temperature checks and forbidden to use the clubhouse, trainer’s room or batting cages. Even so, Cash said, it was encouraging to see tangible progress after weeks on pause.
“You get sick of phone calls and text messages; you want to see them,” Cash said. “It was awkward, though. Normally you’re giving a guy a hug or a handshake. Certainly didn’t do that. We tried to follow the protocols that we as an organization and M.L.B. have put in place.”
Major League Baseball outlined medical, testing and facility protocols in a proposal to the players’ union on May 15, calling for physical distancing in the dugouts, discouraging on-site showering and banning spitting, sunflower seeds, water coolers and other familiarities.
The league wants an 82-game regular season with teams using their home ballparks but without fans, at least initially. The loss of revenue from staging games with empty stands has set up a predictable but discouraging obstacle to returning: how to pay the players.
Team owners never formally presented their preferred plan — a 50-50 split of revenue with players — because officials knew the union would reject it. When the league finally proposed an economic plan on Monday, it hoped to invite a counterproposal. But the details so provoked the players that the union may not counter at all.
The players agreed on March 26 to prorated salaries based on games played. The sides agreed then to “discuss in good faith the economic feasibility of playing games in the absence of spectators.” To that end, baseball wants a sliding scale of salaries in which the lowest-paid players take the smallest pay cut, and the highest-paid players the largest.
A player making the minimum salary ($563,500) would make $262,000 in an 82-game season, while a player earning $35 million would make $7.84 million. The strategy of the plan appeared to plead to the majority of the union membership. More than half of the players earn $1 million or less. But the union, whose higher-paid members bring up the average salary to about $4.4 million, is presenting a united front.
“After discussing the latest developments with the rest of the players there’s no reason to engage with MLB in any further compensation reductions,” Washington Nationals pitcher Max Scherzer said on Twitter late Wednesday. “We have previously negotiated a pay cut in the version of prorated salaries, and there’s no justification to accept a 2nd pay cut based upon the current information the union has received. I’m glad to hear other players voicing the same viewpoint and believe MLB’s economic strategy would completely change if all documentation were to become public information.”
Scherzer, who is a part of the union’s executive subcommittee, gave voice to the players’ long-held frustration that while their salaries are widely known, owners’ financial data is largely kept private. Teams do not share unexpected profits with players, but now want players to share in the burden for the absence of game-day revenue like tickets and concessions.
The players have favored a longer schedule — which, obviously, would pay them more of their prorated salaries — but teams believe that would only burden them more. Teams also fear that extending the schedule deep into November could overlap with a second wave of the coronavirus and threaten the lucrative postseason.
The league hopes to have a deal by Monday in order to restart spring training by June 10 or so. But that is a soft deadline, and in the meantime, the sides would seem to have far too much to lose to blow up a season over finances during a pandemic.
As for Cash, he said he just wanted to get back to lineups and pitching changes and how best to use expanded rosters. That tends to be a strength of the Rays, who won a wild card last season and thrive on a tight budget by shrewdly cultivating depth.
Cash can again see some of that team with his eyes, above a different kind of mask than the one he wore as a player. For the moment, though, he is caught in the middle, hoping that the owners and the players find a way forward.
“Being a really bad former player, I have a fairly good understanding of how these negotiations go back and forth,” Cash said. “You just hope that both sides recognize and appreciate that in some capacity, everybody’s going to have to take some type of a setback here. It would be unrealistic to think that that would not happen.”