On June 10, commissioner Rob Manfred assessed the chances of MLB playing some sort of a season this year at “100 percent.” Five days later, the same seer said, “I’m not confident … It’s just a disaster for our game.” And the clock ticks ever onward.
We’re within sight of the Fourth of July, which baseball once targeted as its belated opening day. There has been no agreement between owners and players. More Manfred: “As long as there’s no dialogue, the real risk (of not playing) is going to continue.”
The players ceased negotiations by demanding that Manfred “tell us when and where” to report for duty. They asked that this date be delivered by the close of business Monday. The owners had a conference call at noon Monday. Nothing came of it.
A bit of movement -- the first in a long while, we submit -- arrived Wednesday. Manfred released a statement saying: “At my request, (players union director) Tony Clark and I met for several hours yesterday in Phoenix. We left that meeting with a jointly developed framework that we agreed could form the basis of an agreement subject to conversations with our respective constituents.”
Given the grim nature of the past few days, this generated hoorays from those who, despite everything, still consider themselves baseball fans. That said, the word “could” fairly jumps off the page. It’s one thing for Manfred and Clark finally to have a civil conversation; it’s another for players and owners to actually agree, as a check of recent developments indicates.
From Tyler Kepner of the New York Times: “Manfred and the hard-line owners are terrified of walking into a trap by offering the players’ union a schedule before agreeing on health and safety protocols.”
From Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times: “MLB told the (players association) there would be no 2020 season unless the players waived any legal claims against the league.”
From Jared Diamond of the Wall Street Journal: “Right now, the parties can’t even agree on what they agreed upon. Much of the current consternation stems from the March deal that outlined how baseball would proceed during the pandemic.”
The March 26 (non-)agreement addressed the matter of prorated salaries. It also included this weighty and wiggly clause: Players and owners would “discuss in good faith the economic feasibility of playing games in the absence of spectators.” MLB has since determined that any games will be played without fans, which would eliminate a major revenue stream. This prompted the owners attempting to renegotiate the prorated stuff downward. This prompted the players to say, “Hey, no fair!”
After Clark saw his “when and where” demand lead to Manfred fretting that the season was indeed on the brink, the union head responded: “This latest threat is just one more indication that Major League Baseball has been negotiating in bad faith since the beginning. This has always been about extracting additional pay from players, and this is just another day and another bad-faith tactic in their ongoing campaign.”
Is this toys-being-flung-in-the-sandbox stuff? Sure. It’s also baseball, of which we’ve come to expect nothing but. The billionaire owners cry poverty. The millionaire players demand more. Throw in the rampant uncertainties arising from COVID-19, and you get an absolutely-worst-case scenario, and this, we remind you, is the sport that canceled the 1994 World Series.
Here’s how bad this has gotten: Owners would rather play fewer regular-season games — the players proposed 114 of those, which was LOL hilarious; the owners’ last offer was for 70 — because more regular-season games mean more prorated money for the players. The owners care more about getting to the playoffs by October 1, perhaps even adding a layer to the tournament, because postseason is where the big TV money is, and guess where that goes?
The players want a longer irregular season and wouldn’t mind the postseason stretching into November. The owners want everything done by the end of October, in large part because they’re not sure the playoffs can make it that far. On Tuesday, Dr. Anthony Fauci told Shaikin: “I would try to keep it in the core summer months and end it not with the way we play the World Series, until the end of October when it’s cold. I would avoid that.”
Some learned correspondents – Bob Nightengale of USA Today is one – still holds out hope that there’ll be something of a season. (“I guarantee it,” he wrote Tuesday.) The basis for such optimism is common sense. If baseball doesn’t at least try to play, it will harm the sport in a way even the scrubbed World Series did not. Surely both owners and players realize as much. Here, however, is where we note the obvious: At hewing to common sense, baseball’s batting average is below the Mendoza Line.
As for financial sense … here’s Kepner again, addressing a possible players’ grievance. “The safest route — to a large-enough segment of owners — is to blow up the season and save a lot of money. If they cancel the 2020 season, rather than implement a mini-schedule of, say, 48 games instead of the usual 162, the owners would save about $1.2 billion in prorated player salaries. They also would save themselves the risk of losing another $1 billion or so if an arbitrator sided with the players in court this winter.”
This is where we throw up our hands — or, not to be inelegant, simply throw up — and do as many among us did in 1994: We proclaim a pox on both these silly houses and find something better to watch. Given that baseball games are glacial in pace and sparse in action, that shouldn’t be hard to find. Given that this sport just followed its steroids era with some trash-can-thumping cheating, we might ask, “What is there about baseball that would ever make us want to follow it again?”
And we might rightly answer, “Not one damn thing.”
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