Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 31, 2021

One More Trip Down A Familiar Road

Here we go again. With the eagerly awaited signal of Spring Training’s start, the reporting date for pitchers and catchers, less than two weeks away, the framework of another baseball season is again uncertain. If it seems like only yesterday when the 2020 campaign was being held hostage to on-again, off-again negotiations and recriminations between the thirty Major League owners and the Players Association, that’s because it wasn’t a whole lot longer than that. After the spreading pandemic forced the suspension of last year’s Spring Training in mid-March, the terms of a shortened season did not become clear until late June. Even then, the parameters of the truncated 60-game schedule were not the result of a negotiated settlement between MLB and the MLBPA but were imposed by commissioner Rob Manfred when agreement between the two sides proved impossible.

Fast forward barely half a year, and even with some players already engaged in informal workouts and pitchers beginning to ramp up their offseason throwing programs, suddenly a proposal to postpone the start of this season’s Spring Training is on the table. The plan offered by MLB would delay camps for a month and push the end of the regular season back by a week. To accommodate the net loss of three weeks’ playing time, the proposal cuts the schedule from 162 to 154 games and presumably adds 7-inning doubleheaders and reduces the number of off days. Despite the slight decrease in total games, it would not cut players’ salaries, since the union has been crystal clear that 100% of pay is its primary motivation in insisting that the original schedule remain in place. Finally, the plan would also expand the playoffs from ten to fourteen teams and continue last year’s use of the designated hitter in the National League.

With last summer’s hostilities fresh in everyone’s mind, and with both sides eyeing the hand-to-hand combat over a new Collective Bargaining Agreement coming this autumn, fans should not be surprised that there is no chance the eleventh-hour proposal will be accepted by the union. As word of this weekend’s discussions among the union reps from each team leaked out, numerous objections became clear. For starters, there is so little trust between owners and players that the union is deeply suspicious of language in the plan which under certain conditions allows Manfred to further cut the number of games after the season starts. The offending words scarcely appear to give the commissioner carte blanche, but we long ago reached the point where the default position of both sides is to assume the worst of the other party.

The players also see an expanded postseason as a lucrative benefit for the owners that comes at a potentially high price for themselves. Simple math suggests that more playoff spots mean fewer wins will be needed to nab one. The union reasons that will make some owners less willing to spend, in the belief they can still compete for a Wild Card slot without that expensive free agent contract being pushed by their front office. Since players are already enraged at the apparent tanking by some franchises, as well as the upending of the free agent market in favor of reliance on drastically smaller contracts for young players, anything that hints at allowing teams to be less competitive is sure to be a major obstacle.

In addition, for months media reports have pushed the narrative of a tradeoff between the two sides, expanded playoffs for the owners in exchange for the universal designated hitter giving the players fifteen more jobs. But if they once bought into that equivalence, the players no longer do. Without a permanent increase in roster size, the universal DH doesn’t add jobs, it merely changes the job description of one roster spot on National League teams. Whatever benefit that brings to presumably older union members who can still hit despite being liabilities in the field, it does not approach the windfall owners will reap from having more postseason games.

Both sides are trying to make their arguments in the context of the pandemic. Owners point to the COVID-19 numbers. Be it cases or hospitalizations or deaths, all are of course vastly worse than when last year’s Spring Training was suddenly halted. With vaccinations ramping up, they contend it makes sense to wait a bit. The players respond by pointing out that the Super Bowl is about to be held at a stadium that is across the street from, and shares a parking lot with, the Yankees Spring Training field, after the NFL managed to negotiate a full 16-game schedule. NBA and NHL games are also being played, and of course baseball itself managed, despite major COVID-related problems early on, to play its truncated 2020 season and crown the Dodgers champions.

On this issue both owners and players have valid arguments, ones that could perhaps be negotiated. Unfortunately, concerns about the pandemic are window dressing for both sides. As always, the real issue is money, and as has lately been the case in the Great Game, the real obstacle is a lack of trust. The Players Association, as any union should, looks at every proposal in the context of its impact on members paychecks. The owners, having absorbed undoubtedly major though still undisclosed losses last year, want their teams to play with fans in the stands. According to various media reports, in some cases that wish is quite expansive, as in wanting to play only when the stands can once again be full.

On Monday, the union will reject the owners’ proposal. There could be further negotiations, and if there are one can only hope they are conducted privately, since bitter public exchanges may make both sides feel better but do little to achieve consensus. The far more likely outcome, since a new agreement is required to change the existing schedule, is that pitchers and catchers will report as planned. Workouts will begin and exhibition games, in front of limited crowds, will be played. Opening Day will arrive at sparsely populated stadiums, and the schedule will get underway. Though for owners, players, and fans, this year it may be impossible for the longest season to be long enough, for what appears to wait at the end of it is a bloodbath.

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