The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Time working against MLB union as it contemplates critical next step to save 2020 season

MLB and the players' union are discussing the sport's return amid the coronavirus outbreak. (Elaine Thompson/AP)
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As the most critical week yet in baseball’s desperate effort to launch the 2020 season reached its midpoint, the Major League Baseball Players Association disseminated the details of MLB’s opening economic proposal to its vast and varied membership, and the sport’s figurative Doomsday Clock, perennially stuck somewhere around 11:59 p.m., crept about as close to midnight as it has in more than a quarter-century.

Time is very much a factor now, with the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic — which shut down virtually all professional sports in mid-March — permitting only a fraught and narrow path to a truncated, fan-less season this summer and a rough deadline of early next week to agree to its terms, both economic and epidemiological.

But for there to be a “spring training 2.0” in mid-June and an Opening Day around July 4, as MLB hopes, there will need to be a major breakthrough — the outline of which is barely discernible — in the next few days over the contentious issue of how players will be paid for this season. And it will need to originate with a union that still has to prove it is comfortable shifting from defense to offense.

The union’s immediate reaction to MLB’s proposal Tuesday — which called for a sliding scale of salary reductions for players that would take the biggest bite out of those who are the highest paid — was to express its extreme disappointment at what it viewed as “massive” pay cuts. Some on the players’ side viewed it as a boldfaced ploy to divide the union membership, which, because it includes players making the major league minimum of $563,500 and those making $36 million alike, is inherently susceptible to that dynamic.

Meanwhile, MLB issued a statement effectively putting the union on the clock: Its proposal was “completely consistent with the economic realities facing our sport,” the statement read. “We look forward to a responsive proposal from the MLBPA.”

By Wednesday, as they began weighing their response, union leaders projected calm, framing MLB’s proposal as a classic opening offer but reminding players of what the sport’s overarching mission is: to gain significant financial relief, amid extraordinarily turbulent economic circumstances, from players who would have never received commensurate consideration, in the form of profit-sharing, had the circumstances been the opposite.

At least publicly, the union has never backed off its central stance that the issue of player compensation was settled by the March 26 agreement governing the sport’s shutdown, which called for players to receive prorated portions of their 2020 salaries based on the number of games played. MLB contends that agreement covered only games with fans and that games in empty stadiums would require a different calculus to account for the loss of in-stadium revenue.

The proposal Tuesday was a definitive statement by MLB that the issue of salaries was by no means settled by the March agreement. Under MLB’s proposal, in an 82-game regular season, some high-priced stars, having already accepted half their 2020 salary for what amounts to half a normal season, essentially would see their salaries halved again.

And any counterproposal by the union on economics, whether it works within the framework of MLB’s opening offer or goes in an altogether different direction, would be a tacit acknowledgment on the players’ part that the March agreement was actually not the final word on player compensation, as union leadership has consistently maintained.

Perhaps there is wiggle room between those extremes — the matter was settled or not settled — in the form of deferred payments that could help owners with their immediate cash flow issues but still make players whole across future years. Perhaps there are ways to manipulate this winter’s free agent market or 2021 salaries in a way that would essentially have the same effect.

But is there time for that? Even the issue of time itself is a touchy one, with the union bristling that MLB took two weeks between its trial balloon of a 50-50 share of revenue — which the union rejected before it could even be proposed, calling it a form of a salary cap and thus a non-starter — and Tuesday’s official opening proposal.

MLB claims it needed that time to come up with a fully realized alternative plan following the union’s rejection of the 50-50 share, but the effect was to shift the burden of expectations to the union, with the days now running short for salvaging the season. And running through the entire endeavor is the reality, understood by both sides, that fans rarely sympathize with players in baseball labor battles — and perhaps even less so now, amid the widespread unemployment and economic havoc wrought by the coronavirus.

And lest anyone forget, the sides still need to agree to the complex and numerous health and safety protocols that would govern play in 2020. While that parallel negotiation isn’t seen as nearly so contentious, the two are also clearly not as separate as you might think. If anything, MLB’s economic proposal could give high-paid superstars an additional, unappealing data point in the risk-reward calculus: Is it worth it to take on the risk of playing through a highly contagious pandemic for less than a quarter of your full 2020 salary?

It is worth noting that the two players tied for the highest salaries in baseball in 2020 — Los Angeles Angels center fielder Mike Trout and New York Yankees pitcher Gerrit Cole, whose $36 million salaries would be reduced to about $8 million under the MLB proposal — both have wives who are expecting to give birth this summer.

The slow creep of hours and days until next week’s soft deadline isn’t the only way in which time is working against the players. A central part of their argument is the fleeting nature of an athlete’s competitive window — the average length of a big league career is 5.6 years, not even enough to reach free agency — as measured against owners who can own their teams for decades and who have seen a 20-year run of rising revenue and even greater growth in franchise values. Which side is better positioned to weather a one-year financial crash?

In the meantime, the sports landscape shifts by the day. At one time MLB could envision itself riding in to rescue the televised sports industry while having the summer stage to itself before a captive audience starved for live games. But now the NBA and the NHL are racing MLB to get back to the nation’s television screens. Already, the Korea Baseball Organization, the third-largest baseball league in the world, is airing its games on ESPN, and Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball, the second largest, is three weeks away from its launch.

Baseball’s Doomsday Clock last struck midnight in 1994, when the players went on strike, ultimately leading to the cancellation of the World Series — a crushing blow from which it took the sport years to recover.

This week, the sport finds itself as close to midnight as at any point since then. (Yes, that includes 2002, when baseball narrowly avoided another work stoppage.) Baseball needs a breakthrough, but as the sport awaits the union’s next move, it isn’t exactly clear what a breakthrough might look like — or whether one is even possible.