Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 7, 2020

The Great Game On The Brink

It now seems likely that major league baseball games will be played this summer. That may come as a surprise to fans who have only focused on the headlines of owners and players locked in a bitter struggle over the terms of a shortened 2020 season, with neither side showing any inclination to compromise. But the precise phrasing of that first sentence is intentional.

Under the agreement MLB and the MLBPA signed in March, commissioner Rob Manfred can order a season of any length, provided the players are paid their full prorated salaries for the number of games played. In the absence of any real negotiating between the parties, the popular rumor this week was that Manfred was prepared to impose a 50-game schedule, presumably beginning sometime in July. The rumor may be nothing more than management’s latest negotiating ploy. But if such a schedule does prove to be the resolution to the current impasse, then there will be games played at major league parks across the land. But there is little chance that the collection of those games would be looked upon as a legitimate season by either players or fans.

Fundamental to the nature of the Great Game is the length of its season. One hundred sixty-two games, played across widely varying conditions through spring, summer and fall, is a test unique to baseball. Within that long framework every individual player and every team goes through periods of success and failure, hoping of course that the former outweigh the latter by the time the final out is recorded. While it’s a given that this year’s campaign will be shortened, truncating the schedule to less than one-third of its normal length introduces an element of chance contrary to the spirit and essence of the game. Fans of the reigning world champions can attest to that, for it was the Nationals that finished the first fifty games of last season with an unsightly record of 19-31.

There is also the very real possibility that at least some players would approach such a schedule with a less than enthusiastic attitude. Were it to happen, Manfred’s decision would be seen as a heavy-handed attack on the Players Association, conceding its demand of full pro-rated salaries only by establishing a schedule that leaves every player with barely more than thirty percent of their contracted pay. Fans would be tuning in to watch members of an embittered workforce going through the motions of their job, and in some cases perhaps not even that.

As Buster Olney speculated for ESPN, players who already feel they have been used by management might not play at all. Olney used the theoretical example of Houston’s George Springer. The Astros made no attempt to disguise their intent to manipulate Springer’s service time when he wasn’t called up from the minors in September 2013 and then again when he was left off the Opening Day roster the following year. That gave Houston an extra year of Springer’s services, at a cost of tens of millions of dollars to the player. Now Springer is one season away from free agency. With the March agreement guaranteeing him a full year’s service time if he plays at least one game, Olney wondered if Springer might consider doing exactly that and no more. Would other pending free agents join him in developing a mysterious injury or finding another urgent reason why they couldn’t play?

In short, a faux short season unilaterally imposed by management might well do more harm to baseball than no season at all. At the very least, the two options are in close competition for the most damaging to the sport. But the reality is that time is now truly short for owners and players to bridge what still appears to be a yawning chasm of disagreement. The idea of an early July date for Opening Day is all but by the boards, with the consensus being that players, especially pitchers, will need four weeks of work during “Spring Training 2.0” to prepare for meaningful games. Owners, players, and fans are now all at the eleventh hour.

History is full of stories of seemingly implacable disputes between labor and management that were resolved even as the proverbial clock was striking midnight. And it’s worth noting that there appear to be several issues on which the parties agree, including expanded rosters, use of the designated hitter in both leagues, a regional schedule to limit travel, and more teams in the postseason. But these are ancillary to the core questions of health protocols and pay, and the last one especially will only be resolved when both sides accept that each must yield from its current position. Perhaps after a week in which the owners of several franchises were embarrassed by players who either individually or as a group stepped in to fill the void when teams announced plans to end the modest stipends paid to minor leaguers, management may have an incentive to compromise.

Even if that happens, there are many pundits who say that the delay and the ugly exchanges between players and owners mean baseball has squandered an opportunity to lead in the country’s recovery from the pandemic. That notion always seemed hyperbolic to this writer, in part because a central factor in the catharsis provided by all sports is the role played by a stadium full of passionate fans, something that will not exist anytime soon. Still there is no question that the focus on salaries at a time of enormous economic deprivation for so many has been harmful.

The Great Game could mitigate that by taking the lead in addressing an issue far more pernicious than any virus. Whatever there is of a 2020 baseball season should be dedicated to raising awareness of and combating the systemic racism that has spurred thousands to action in the past two weeks. Already individual players have started to use social media to speak out. That list includes African-American stars like Aaron Judge and Dexter Fowler, but also a growing list of white players, including Pete Alonso, Justin Turner, Bryce Harper, and Sean Doolittle. MLB should encourage and promote more of this while incorporating anti-racist messages into every television broadcast and at every ballpark once fans return.

Like all professional leagues, MLB does a very good job of promoting causes, the “Stand Up to Cancer” campaign being an obvious example (interestingly, no one ever complains that the phrase should be “stand up to all diseases”). Just as that effort will not by itself eradicate cancer, a commitment to anti-racism by MLB will not expunge the nation’s original sin. But every voice is important, and the Great Game’s is loud. Nor is there money in it, no higher salaries for players or increased ticket sales for owners. But the reward for our most important work is measured not in dollars but in grace, as was written more than twenty-five centuries ago – “they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.” Surely both owners and players could agree on that.

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