That extra time, at least for now, does not seem as if it will be filled with baseball. There was optimism, real optimism, Wednesday afternoon that MLB and the union would come to a deal. Maybe they still will. Either way, know this: At least some MLB officials believe they had a handshake deal following Tuesday’s meeting in Arizona between Commissioner Rob Manfred and Tony Clark, the executive director of the MLB Players Association.
And now here we are: a counter-offer by the players but no deal and no idea when — or if — there might be one.
This all makes you wonder whether these two sides speak the same language. How could Manfred and Clark meet in person and make progress and have one side believe a deal was made and the other say, “No such thing?”
The base issue is trust, and that matters both in these negotiations and — more ominously — going forward. Though the talks about figuring out a way to salvage a truncated 2020 season aren’t necessarily tied to those for a new collective bargaining agreement in the winter of 2021-22, the relationship that’s being established — and, it seems, worsened over the past month or more — will color everything. As one MLB official with intimate knowledge of the talks said Thursday, “Backing out of deals like this does not bode well for trust going forward.”
That’s quite a claim and quite a sentiment. So here we are, miserable. These two sides should be partners, both with interests in sustaining and growing the sport. They need each other: The owners need the players to have a product, and the players need the owners to get paid. Yet somehow they are nothing more than adversaries. For a sport that is precariously positioned to begin with, that’s harrowing stuff.
I have long thought the decline of baseball was an overwrought narrative given the money derived from local television revenue and the nearly $11 billion in revenue generated last year, a record. But this stalemate further highlights the sport’s financial issues entering the next decade: local television contracts that won’t be replicated because people consume their sports in new and different ways, an aging fan base and declining attendance. Combine those with a product that is deeply flawed: too many home runs, too many strikeouts, too-long games with too much dead time between the action.
That’s a lot to overcome. Boil it down to this thin, unappetizing broth: At a time when baseball had a chance to play games unencumbered by other sports, perhaps even gaining some new fans who have no NBA or NFL to which to turn, it is managing to alienate at least some of the fans it already has.
Now, I’m not a big believer in baseball fans who say, “I’m done with baseball.” It feels like an in-the-moment hissy fit. I like red meat. Put red meat in front of me, particularly after I have fasted for three months, and I will eat it. Should it return, baseball fans will consume baseball.
But the ask here would be enormous. If — if — a deal is struck, the sport is asking fans to believe a 60-something-game season with an expanded playoff format is legitimate. (Record of the 2019 World Series champion Washington Nationals after 60 games: 27-33.) Then it will be asking fans to process what could be an unsettling offseason, with some executives predicting not only an impossibly slow free agent market but perhaps even a mass exodus of arbitration-eligible players, as Jayson Stark of the Athletic reported. Such a salary purge could lead to oddly constructed, temporary rosters filled with players on one-year deals. Fans would be asked to apply their allegiances — not to mention their money — to unrecognizable teams?
And all of those circumstances are merely a prequel to what long has been feared as the sport’s real problem, the negotiation of a new CBA following the 2021 season.
Mix it all together in a rancorous stew, and it just might be too much for one fan base to choke down.
So back to trust. It’s hard to forge forward without any of it. In that regard, one issue that’s hard to talk about but is real nonetheless: Both sides miss the late Michael Weiner, the former MLBPA chief who died of a brain tumor in 2013. He was just 51. Weiner had taken over for longtime union head Donald Fehr in 2009, and he had a history of getting deals done. Not just deals but deals with Manfred, who before he became commissioner served as the chief negotiator for former commissioner Bud Selig.
This is not necessarily a condemnation of Clark, because if I’m choosing who’s more at fault here, I’m choosing the owners, as my colleague Thomas Boswell has pointed out. But once the parameters for a season are established — whether a deal is struck or Manfred imposes a season on the players, thus inviting not only a grievance but even worse P.R. — the relationship needs repairing. If that means finding new leaders for both MLB and the union, fine. If that means blowing up the business side of baseball and resetting everything, fine.
The lack of trust right now between MLB and its players is obvious. More importantly, though, even after a quarter century of labor peace, the trust between the sport and its fans is at risk of being threadbare. Even if a 2020 season can be played, that will be true entering the winter, true if next season is played with teams that look wholly unfamiliar and even more true if this same conversation is carried into the winter of 2020-21, so bleak-looking from here.
Someone must care about the future, and someone must care about the fans. If no one does, baseball won’t have much of either.