Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 10, 2020

Field Of Schemes

The sports world is slowly awakening from its COVID-19 coma, with the biggest news to date coming very soon in the form of a concrete proposal for the start of the 2020 season of Major League Baseball. As initially reported by Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic, MLB owners will consider a plan on Monday and bargaining with the Players Association could commence as soon as the next day. After two earlier plans were widely panned – one to isolate teams in Arizona and the second to add additional “hubs” in Florida and Texas – it appears that commissioner Rob Manfred has accepted as impractical the idea of essentially quarantining players away from their families for the next several months.

The new proposal is expected to be for teams to play out of their home stadiums, with a significantly shortened schedule of perhaps 80 games, and an emphasis on contests against division rivals and the corresponding division of the other league to eliminate cross-country travel. As is often the case, the focus of reporting has been on these high level bullet points, but the hard negotiations between owners and players, and the extent to which this year’s season will be accepted as legitimate by fans, involve details not yet leaked to a willing scribe.

For the players, the key issues will be money and safety, with the priority between the two perhaps varying among members of the MLBPA. The union has already agreed to prorate contracts based on the number of games played in exchange for accruing a full year of service time, so if the reporting of an 80 game schedule is correct every big leaguer will be paid essentially half their published salary. But the internet has been overrun by rumors that owners will seek further pay reductions because at least initially, and possibly for much or even all of the shortened season, games will be played in empty stadiums, depriving the clubs of ticket revenue. The union’s response is that empty stands symbolize the inherent risk players are taking by agreeing to play at all. That also raises the issue of how MLB will provide the extensive testing needed.

Work stoppages have shortened past seasons, so many fans will be looking at other measures of how closely the Great Game in 2020 resembles a normal campaign. No one’s likely to object to regular double headers, but if they involve 7-inning games, or, god forbid, the possibility of ties after a limited number of extra innings, more than a few fans will start giving the season the side-eye. That will be even more true if not all teams are able to play in their home ballparks. The goal of having teams host games at the stadium their players know and live close to is admirable, but the impact of the coronavirus has scarcely been uniform. If the Red Sox and Mets cannot play in Boston and Queens in July, but the Royals and Diamondbacks are cleared by local officials for games in Kansas City and Phoenix, is the proverbial playing field still level?

These questions don’t even touch on the basic issue of what happens if a team produces multiple positive tests at some point. The plan in the KBO is for play to stop for three weeks, but by the time MLB gets going – and the rumored July start may well be optimistic – a shutdown of that duration would likely be enough to scuttle even a shortened season.

Yet amidst so much uncertainty, two decisions have been made, and neither is good for the future of the Great Game. As noted in this space early last month, the current agreement between MLB and the association representing minor league clubs expires this fall, and when negotiations on a new contract began late last year, major league owners took a hard line. MLB proposed slashing the number of affiliated minor league clubs by forty, leaving the jettisoned franchises to join the previously slender ranks of independent teams. Owners of scores of minor league teams vowed to fight the proposed contraction of their system, but that was pre-pandemic. Now there is almost certain to be no minor league season this year, and unlike MLB, the little franchises in small cities across America that are the primary live connection to the Great Game for millions of fans don’t have lucrative television deals. Faced with the same economic dislocation that countless small businesses are facing, MiLB had little choice but to accept the hard terms of MLB’s proposal.

Cutting the amateur draft was also discussed in the minor league negotiations, but now MLB has used the pandemic shutdown to announce that this year’s draft will be reduced from forty rounds to just five, saving big league clubs slightly more than $29 million. That sounds like a lot, but it is less than $1 million per franchise, and only about $500,000 in current cash based on the way signing bonuses are paid. With even the lowly Miami Marlins valued at just under $1 billion, this is pocket change to every major league team. But the effects on young players will be vast.

Hall of Famer Mike Piazza, his future Cooperstown colleague Albert Pujols, and two-time Cy Young Award winner Jacob deGrom are merely at the top of a very long list of players taken in later rounds of the draft who went on to outstanding big league careers. But slashing the number of minor league contracts means hundreds of college players with a year or two of eligibility now won’t be giving up one of the very limited number of baseball scholarships allowed by the NCAA in order to pursue their dream. That in turn will limit college recruiting efforts and turn some number of multi-sport high school athletes away from baseball to some other game.

In the next day or two fans should have a good idea of just how realistic the proposal for a 2020 season is, whether owners and players appear likely to come together, and if the plan can produce a World Series champion that doesn’t require an asterisk in the record books. The proposed schedule should also reveal whether the planned “Field of Dreams” game on the famous movie site in Iowa is still on for August. But whether that marketing scheme survives, MLB has already made it clear that in the Great Game, as in life, the year of the pandemic will be remembered as the time a lot of dreams died.


Responses

  1. Hey Mike – Baseball doesn’t look likely to get its act together, which distresses me more than losing the other major sports combined. As to other assorted points, TB should have shuffled off all stages when he won his last Super Bowl, and I’m not sure whether I think less of him for taking off to wear Tampa Bay colors, or for shamelessly hawking immune system-bolstering nostrums during a mortal crisis – actually, of course the latter is much worse. Enough $ is enough, eh?
    John Lamond


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