There are so many issues regarding the 60-game season Major League Baseball implemented on its players, with the MLB Players Association informing the sport Tuesday that players will report July 1. But start right there. In “implementing” the schedule, Commissioner Rob Manfred is all but imposing a season on the players. What a framework. The joy of the game is sucked out before “spring” training even begins. Let’s play two? Eh, I’m bummed out enough right now, who cares?
The silly reality: MLB and the MLBPA came to an agreement March 26, bickered for nearly three months — worsening their relationship rather than strengthening it — only to end up playing under the terms of the original deal. A bib-less 18-month-old strapped in a highchair and armed with spaghetti, marinara sauce, indelible markers and a set of finger paints would look at MLB and the union and babble, “Look at the mess you made.”
“It’s absolute death for this industry to keep acting as it has been. Both sides,” Cincinnati Reds pitcher Trevor Bauer tweeted Monday night. “We’re driving the bus straight off a cliff. How is this good for anyone involved? Covid 19 already presented a lose lose lose situation and we’ve somehow found a way to make it worse. Incredible.”
Score some points for self-awareness. They’re the only points available at the moment.
Go back those three painful months. On March 12, MLB canceled all remaining spring training games amid the worsening novel coronavirus pandemic. Two weeks later, the two sides reached an agreement that provided the players with $170 million in advance payments that would provide some funds should there be no season. MLB agreed to pay players a prorated portion of their salaries — if, the sport believed, there were fans in the stands. It quickly became clear that playing a season with no fans was the only possible path to a return. And so the sides dug in.
Here’s how naive I was those three months ago: I thought, given that the back-to-play agreement came together rather quickly, there might not only be a path to an agreement on a truncated 2020 season, but the pandemic might be a path to put aside the rancor and make progress on a new collective bargaining agreement. For years, those negotiations — the current CBA expires after the 2021 season — have felt apocalyptic. I wondered: Could the fact that the sides needed to talk sooner help them stake out more common ground and a better working relationship?
I was told swiftly by characters on both sides: Uh, no. Given how it played out, they were right and I was wrong, in rather stark terms. But that doesn’t mean it’s what should have happened.
Suspend disbelief for a second. The sport was on hold. It’s important to remember how fast the world was moving as March turned to April: states of emergency followed by stay-at-home orders, with many of us becoming accustomed to social distancing and mask-wearing and staying at home all the time. But it doesn’t mean that baseball couldn’t have been more progressive about finding solutions. The pause in play called for a step back to see what might be for the good of the game, an acknowledgment of what former commissioner Bud Selig believed was true: that baseball clubs weren’t as much businesses as they were civic institutions. Instead, the sides focused on what, relative to the overall health of the game, is short-term minutia, haggling over money in the midst of a public-health crisis.
Over the past few months, for instance, several front-office officials at various clubs — who technically are on the side of ownership but not being owners themselves are kind of caught in the middle — suggested to me that the MLBPA should have attempted to link concessions on a shortened 2020 season to trade-offs for the upcoming bargaining talks. What I’ve learned, though, is that sort of compromise and dealmaking would have to involve two elements decidedly absent from the past three months: trust and long-term vision.
Take hockey, for example. The NHL and its players’ union worked during the pandemic to set up a format for the Stanley Cup playoffs and begin discussions on a new CBA. Now, there are differences between the sports, some significant: The NHL had completed the bulk of its season, so the players had been paid the bulk of their salaries. Plus, the current CBA expires this fall, so there is more urgency on hockey’s timeline.
Still, baseball should recognize the urgency afoot. The 16 months between now and the expiration of the current CBA can’t be filled with the same tone-deaf rhetoric and posturing that has characterized the past three months, infuriating fans who are desperate — in these uncertain times — for the small sense of normalcy sports would represent.
The discord is such that, early in the process, an official suggested to me that the two sides had to address health and safety protocols before they moved on to economics, because how would economics be relevant if they couldn’t agree on how to safely stage the games? Instead, they spent nearly the entire time squabbling over money — and then were hastening to straighten out the logistics, including testing of players, at the 11th hour, with a week before they hope to open training sites.
About those health and safety protocols: If and when players gather from parts around the country — not to mention around the globe — prepare for an onslaught of positive coronavirus test results. It’s inevitable. The virus is out there. It’s moving. We’re not locked down. There’s reason to be skeptical about whether a season can be staged safely — not just for the players but for the coaches and support staff members, many of whom fall into a demographic that is more vulnerable to covid-19.
For so long, baseball’s Opening Day has represented all those cliches about spring and hope and possibility. If this Opening Day ever arrives — a big if indeed — will those be the qualities in abundance? Will we be able to concentrate on a rotation or a lineup or whether a player should play one position or another? Or will these past three months leave us focused not on the game as a distraction from all we’re going through but rather on the game as a broken business that no longer lifts us up but instead drags us further down?