The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

MLB made its play to salvage the season. The players’ union is now on the clock.

MLB union chief Tony Clark is effectively on the clock with the 2020 season at stake. (Carlos Osorio/AP)
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Having gained ownership approval the day before, Major League Baseball on Tuesday presented to the MLB Players Association, via a video conference, its proposal for starting a season delayed for more than six weeks and counting by a global pandemic.

Though it is only an opening move in a potentially thorny negotiation and the union is unlikely to respond immediately, the proposal effectively starts an imaginary clock ticking for this season to be salvaged, with MLB targeting an expedited spring training in about a month and Opening Day around July 4.

In considering MLB’s plan — which includes a regular season of roughly half the usual 162 games, played mostly in teams’ home stadiums and at least at first without fans — the union will need to consider both the health and safety risks presented by the novel coronavirus pandemic as well as the many financial considerations. Some within its ranks see the two as inseparable.

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Tuesday’s meeting covered mostly logistical and medical issues — MLB’s detailed plan to have a 2020 season and the many health protocols and contingencies, including issues related to coronavirus testing, that must be considered to make the plan work. The sides are expected to move on to the potentially combustible economic considerations in the coming days.

As part of its economic proposal, MLB is expected to suggest a one-year-only, 50-50 split of revenue between the owners and players — a notion that, after details leaked Monday afternoon, union chief Tony Clark immediately rejected, equating a straight revenue share with a salary cap. The union has firmly resisted any suggestion of a salary cap in the past, going on strike in 1994 in opposition to one.

The union contends the agreement the sides reached in March already settled the matter of 2020 compensation, with players getting prorated portions of their salaries based on the number of games played. MLB contends that agreement only pertained to games with fans and that the figures need to be adjusted for fan-free games to account for the lost revenue from tickets, parking, concessions and other game-day sources.

MLB officials see the revenue-share idea as a way to bridge the differences. Clark sees it as evidence that team owners are “trying to take advantage of a global health crisis to get what they’ve failed to achieve in the past” — meaning a salary cap. At least at first glance, Clark’s stance is not one that leaves much room for negotiation.

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But this particular negotiation also will underscore the significant structural differences between the sides’ constituencies, a reality that could make Clark’s job more challenging.

Unlike MLB — which must answer to only 30 owners, more or less aligned in their desire to play baseball and make money (not necessarily in that order) — the union represents some 1,200 members whose backgrounds and interests in some cases differ greatly by nationality, culture, seniority, economic security and worldview.

That inherent diversity of viewpoints is a challenge for the union in any negotiation with MLB, and that’s without adding the complex set of factors associated with a pandemic that has caused the biggest disruption to the sport in its modern history. This is almost certainly the first time, for example, that the union has been forced to canvass its membership to ask how much health risk players are willing to accept for themselves and their families.

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For every player rushing to make clear how badly he wants to get back on the field, no matter the risk, there is another whose wife is pregnant or who has small children at home and now regards risk with a different calculus than before.

Like any segment of the population, the union’s membership also includes those with preexisting medical conditions, from cancer survivors such as Anthony Rizzo, Jon Lester and Daniel Norris; to players with Type 1 diabetes such as Jordan Hicks, Scott Alexander and Adam Duvall; to players with heart conditions (Kenley Jansen, Carlos Carrasco) and autoimmune deficiencies from colitis (Jake Diekman, Kyle Gibson).

“There’s no way I want to get sick and bring it home to our 18-month-old girl and possibly get her sick,” Diekman, a pitcher for the Oakland Athletics, told the San Francisco Chronicle. “We’re taking all the precautions in the world.”

And while the union doesn’t represent managers and coaches — many of whom are older and thus more vulnerable to the virus — some players have made clear their shared uniforms make them the equivalent of family members and make the union their de facto protectors.

The inherent risk in playing baseball amid a pandemic — which falls squarely on the players and not the owners — is one reason some players are finding it so distasteful that MLB would come back and ask for a second reduction in their pay following the March agreement for prorated salaries.

“The risk is real,” one person with the union said. “How do you put a price on you and your family’s health?”

Given the diversity of the union’s membership, it also stands to reason that not every player will be inclined to endorse the hard-line stance, as outlined by Clark, that the owners’ proposal for a revenue share is a non-starter. The times are extraordinary. The arrangement would be temporary. The possible alternative — no baseball in 2020 — is unpalatable. Can’t there be some middle ground within the framework MLB is laying out?

This negotiation also takes place against the backdrop of a collective bargaining agreement that expires at the end of 2021 — a timetable that could make the union’s leadership even more dug-in against the notion of a revenue share. With such a massively important negotiation looming, the thinking goes, it’s just one more reason not to set that sort of precedent, even on a temporary basis.

Both sides must be aware of the terrible optics they would project by finding a logistically feasible way forward through a once-in-a-century pandemic, only to blow up the whole plan in a timeless squabble over money. But the union also knows public sentiment in baseball’s past labor wars has tended to favor the owners over the players.

If there was any hope the sides could come together in mutual motivation amid extraordinary circumstances and put aside their historical differences long enough to make a deal and salvage this season, they were exploded by Clark’s initial, caustic reaction to MLB’s economic proposal. The implication was that this will be just another bitter negotiation between archrivals, one that will be decided, as always, by questions of leverage, power and unity.

And the clock, counting down the hours and days remaining before the plug must be pulled on 2020, is ticking.

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