We have to ask: Does baseball even want to play?

MLB commissioner Rob Manfred pauses before answering a question about the Houston Astros while holding his press conference  to open spring training at the Atlanta Braves CoolToday Park on Sunday, Feb. 16, 2020, in North Port.
MLB commissioner Rob Manfred pauses before answering a question about the Houston Astros while holding his press conference  to open spring training at the Atlanta Braves CoolToday Park on Sunday, Feb. 16, 2020, in North Port.

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

There’s still a chance there’ll be a 2020 baseball season. Even at this unbelievably late date, there’s also a chance there won’t. This tells us all we need to know.

The owners and the players union have spent the past month squabbling over an agreement signed in March. Proposals and counter-proposals regarding the number of games and the level of pro-rated pay were flung hither and yon, the upshot finally arriving Saturday. Tony Clark, the union head, said: "It's time to get back to work. Tell us when and where."

This wasn’t so much a surrender as a dare — as in “tell us when and where, and then we’ll tell you if we’ll show up.” The players requested that a reporting date be forthcoming by the close of business Monday. The owners held an already scheduled noon conference call, after which no such date was announced. The owners love the players as much as the players love the owners, which is to say not at all.

At some point over the next two weeks, commissioner Rob Manfred could proclaim a start date for a 72-game season that would pay the players 80 percent of their pro-rated salaries if there’s a postseason, 70 percent if there’s not. (MLB is working under the assumption that COVID-19 will return in force come autumn, assuming it hasn’t already.) That was the owners’ proposal as of Friday; since the players declined to counter, the owners aren’t about to negotiate against themselves.

That doesn't necessarily mean the players will report. We're still in a pandemic, and it's unclear if any level of isolation/testing can manage that with so many humans, not to mention planes and buses and hotels, are involved. (Tucked into a story by ESPN's Jeff Passan over the weekend was this: "Multiple players on 40-man rosters have tested positive for the virus recently, according to sources.")

COVID-19 has done no one any favors. (There’s your understatement of the millennium.) Baseball being baseball, it’s fully capable of making the absolute worst of the absolute worst, for which the year 2020 qualifies. Players and owners aren’t just bickering over games and pay for this year — they’re warming the bile that will be loosed when the sport’s collective bargaining agreement lapses in 2021. Insiders have long believed there’d be a strike/lockout at some point before opening day in 2022. The virus brought the rancor sooner than anyone could have imagined.

Why do owners hate the players? They make roughly $5 billion in aggregate salary and keep wanting more. Why do players hate the owners? Because no MLB entity except your Braves — who as a subsidiary of publicly traded Liberty Media are required to do so — will open its books so the players can see how much revenue there really is.

Last week brought another of those juicy juxtapositions at which baseball excels. No sooner had Cardinals owner Bill DeWitt Jr. proclaimed, "The industry isn't very profitable, to be honest," Andrew Marchand of the New York Post reported that MLB and Turner Sports "had consummated a new billion-dollar deal."

For all the haggling, it remains possible to ask: Does baseball really want to play? Nobody profits if there are no games, but this sport has proved it’s not above excising its nose to spite its face. It wasn’t so long ago that baseball was envisioning a semi-triumphant return on the Fourth of July. There’s no way that can happen now.

Indeed, the first realistic date a season might begin — Aug. 1, after a month-long non-spring training — is perilously close to the last possible date anybody would care to see baseball commence. If you’re only going to play two months of an irregular season and maybe a month of playoffs, what’s the point? To remind us that this is the only sport that despises itself so much it couldn’t set aside differences during a pandemic?

We’re halfway through June. MLB hasn’t set a date. The players asked for one. They’re still waiting. We’re all still waiting. Conventional wisdom holds that it would be devastating for baseball to be the one sport that doesn’t at least try to play, but we’re drawing near that moment when the masses will stop caring. With an NFL fantasy draft just around the corner, who needs this clown show?

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