Same as it ever was: MLB players and owners don’t agree

Baseball owners are proposing to restart the regular season about July 4th

MLB owners are offering players a 50-50 split of revenue to work a half-season plus playoffs. Tony Clark, director of the MLB players association, told the Athletic: "The league is trying to take advantage of a global health crisis." Scott Boras, demon agent, told Sports Illustrated he will urge his clients to reject the proposal. And away we go.

For late tuners-in: MLB owners and players despise and distrust one another. The 1972 season started late because players were on strike. The 1981 season was halted for two months because players were on strike. The 1990 season started late because players were locked out. The 1994 World Series wasn’t played because players were on strike.

We on the periphery tend to lump such squabbles as millionaires (players) against billionaires (owners), but that’s no longer accurate. MLB players were scheduled to earn $4.7 billion in salary in 2020. Unlike in the NFL and NBA, baseball has no salary cap. The players’ knee-jerk antipathy to the revenue-sharing proposal is learned behavior. They don’t want to share revenue because they’re afraid it will lead to a cap, and they wouldn’t be making $4.7 billion if a system existed in which can’t-help-themselves owners are prohibited from splurging.

In March, owners and players signed an agreement that called for the latter to receive pro-rated salaries should the 2020 season be played. The 50-50 split would override that arrangement, and not to the players’ benefit. Said Boras to SI: “The owners represented during that negotiation that they could operate without fans in the ballpark. Based on that, we reached an agreement, and there will not be a renegotiation of that agreement.”

What has changed from March to May? The owners have all but conceded that no MLB games will be played this season with fans in attendance. Ergo, there'll be no revenue from ticket sales, concessions and parking. (According to the Associated Press, 40 percent of MLB revenues come from the gate/ancillaries. In a normal season, revenues are roughly $10 billion.) There'll still be TV and radio money, but the owners will take a billion-dollar-bath this season. They'd like their players to share some monetary hurt. Did we mention that players and owners hate each other?

Even if the players are right in principle — they often are — they’ll come off looking worse should the half-season not be staged because they turned thumbs-down to revenue-sharing. Because this year is not like other years. This is the year of the pandemic.

The latest official unemployment number is 14.7 percent. On Sunday, Treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin conceded to Chris Wallace of Fox News that the actual figure could be 25 percent. The economy is just beginning its restart, and it's unclear whether another wave of COVID-19 would trigger a second shutdown. Lots of people are sick. Lots of people have died. Many have lost jobs, some of which mightn't come back.

From the owners’ side: Even if the players wind up receiving $1 billion of the $4.7 billion they were slated to earn, that’s $1 billion divided by less than a thousand guys. That’s $1 billion they won’t get if they opt not to play. If you’re an owner, you look at the players and think, “Where else are you going to go?”

In the 1994-into-1995 strike, players took a heavy hit. (Tom Glavine, the Braves’ player rep, absorbed a disproportionate amount.) By now, players know they can’t win an optics contest: They’re making $4.7 billion for playing a game some among us would play for $4.70 an hour. And it would be one thing if the players refused to play because they were concerned about health; their issue with the 50-50 proposal is money – at a time when money is in shorter supply than it has been since the Depression.

Said Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker on Tuesday: "I realize the players have the right to haggle over their salaries, but we do live in a moment where the people of Illinois and the people of the United States deserve to get their pastime back. … I'm disappointed in many ways that players are holding out for these very, very high salaries and payments during a time when I think everybody is sacrificing."

That's the sort of populist pressure the players will face. The owners can simply say, "If you don't want 50-50, we just won't play." Never mind that it's the players who would be assuming considerable risk, even in semi-quarantine. As Nationals reliever Sean Doolittle posted on Twitter: "It feels like we've zoomed past the most important aspect of any MLB restart plan: health protections for players, families, staff, stadium workers and the workforce it would require to resume a season."

The players have labor law on their side. They agreed to pro-rated salaries, and now they’re being asked to agree to something else/less. The owners see this as a season in extremis, and not just a season. Even with 82 games and a postseason, the losses sustained in 2020 will ripple for years. When the owners pleaded poverty in the past, we outsiders could point to Gerrit Cole signing for $324 million to work every fifth day and roll our eyes. I can’t imagine anybody going crazy on free agents come December.

But forget then. What about now? With every day, it becomes less likely that the NBA will restart. MLB could become the first major sport to play after the shutdown. What owners/players lose in dollars, they might gain in goodwill, not to mention TV ratings. Then again, the players could go out and get sick.

This isn’t, and shouldn’t be, just about money. There’s way more going on. But this is baseball, and these are the owners and the players, and when they collide it always comes down to money. You’d like to think that, amid such upheaval, common ground can be found. This being baseball, I wouldn’t hold my breath.

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