“Is there going to be a baseball season?”
The question is asked often from a mix of people, ranging from Twitter followers, emailers, text-messaging friends, a fan in a grocery store — masked and unmasked — and my mom, who is worried her baseball-writing son is playing too much PS4 and misses the background noise on her kitchen television.
We decided to provide some answers to Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about the situation in hopes of providing some clarity to a constantly changing process that has been fueled by inside sources and a series of calculated media leaks.
So, will there be a baseball season?
My answer is a hesitant but hopeful … yes. Obviously, the unpredictability of the novel coronavirus could derail that optimism.
Despite their contentious relationship, the owners and the Major League Baseball Players Association know that if they fail to have a season because they can’t agree on compensation, it could levy irreparable damage. With the country’s unemployment numbers climbing, the idea of billionaires and millionaires fighting over money is vomitous to the average baseball fan.
Baseball’s popularity rallied after the 1994 strike with a magical home-run chase in 1998 that we now know was tainted. A failed agreement and lost season in 2020 won’t kill baseball, but it will never be the same.
Where are we with baseball’s potential return?
Writing this on Monday afternoon, MLB and the MLBPA will resume negotiations Tuesday morning on the proposal that was submitted for approval May 12.
This coming week should be vital for the negotiations. While there isn’t an announced deadline to reach an agreement, sources inside baseball have mentioned that ideally it needs to happen around June 1-3 so the league, the teams and the players can start making detailed plans to prepare. Like we all did in school with term papers and finals, and like some sports writers still do with projects and features, waiting until the last minute to get it done seems probable.
What is the proposal from Major League Baseball’s owners?
Here are the basics of the plan initially submitted by owners:
- A spring training 2.0 that starts around June 10 with teams given the option of holding them at their home stadium or their spring-training facility.
- A regular season of approximately 81 games (half of the normal 162) that would start on or just before July 4.
- While teams would remain in their normal divisions, there would be a geographical schedule linking the American League and National League by region. The AL West would play only games against divisional opponents and games against teams from the NL West.
- Because of this crossover and to protect pitchers, there would be universal use of the designated hitter — something MLB has wanted/planned to enact.
- Teams would have a 30-man active roster for a game with a 20-man taxi squad to keep players, specifically pitchers, healthy.
- The playoffs, which would be baseball’s best moneymaker in this interrupted season because of television contracts, would be expanded from 10 to 14 teams. Each league would add two more wild-card teams — seven for each league. The team with the best record in each league would earn a bye into the division series.
- The wild-card round would pit the other two division winners in the league and the top wild card team would host three-game series vs. the other three wild card teams. The division winners would get to choose their wild-card opponents.
But the most important aspect of the plan, which was leaked to several national writers, was the desire to change up the compensation for players. Despite a March agreement where players would get a prorated version of their 2020 salaries based on games played, the owners wanted to amend that to a 50-50 split of the revenues accrued in 2020. With games expected to be played without fans, MLB reported a team would lose $640,000 per game. The owners don’t believe they can afford to pay players at the prorated agreement without ticket revenue, which also includes concessions, parking and merchandise.
That initial idea, which was met with great resistance from players, appears to have been pulled back before financial negotiations have even started. Monday, The Athletic reported that the owners will not include a 50-50 revenue share in the financial plan they’ll submit to the MLBPA on Tuesday.
That doesn’t mean the prorated agreement will remain. Owners still want to reduce that payroll commitment and could offer a percentage cut to salary or a deferred payment of the prorated 2020 salary to next year and beyond. Given the financial uncertainty surrounding the game and the country, plus the fear of a depressed free-agent market this offseason and limited spending on payroll, it could offer players some security.
What is the players’ position?
The MLBPA has been anti-revenue sharing for as long as it’s been a concept for compensation. To the players, it means a salary cap, which they’ve battled to avoid and it resulted in the 1994 strike. The mere mention of such a consideration elicited plenty of emotional reaction — some good (Sean Doolittle and union chief Tony Clark), some regrettable (Blake Snell) and some expected (agent Scott Boras).
The players felt like they had negotiated a fair deal in March. This only builds their suspicion that owners are making vastly more money than people know, and they still try to take every possible advantage to avoid playing players if possible. MLB owners have been steadfast in refusing to open their books and release their full financial workings, which has only increased the players distrust. And accusations of owner collusion against free agents in the past two offseasons were rampant.
Players are also the most at risk in this in terms of health, injury and performance. The owners won’t be exposed the daily dangers of infection like the players and staff.
Who is right?
There is no right or wrong. They both have valid arguments.
But there is a weird reaction from many fans to demonize the millionaire players instead of the billionaire owners. Remember not every player is a millionaire, in fact most aren’t, but every owner is at least a multimillionaire and most are billionaires. Every franchise is worth more than a billion dollars. The Marlins, who were the only team to actually lose money the last two seasons, were sold for $1.2 billion in 2017.
The anger toward players seems to be steeped in jealousy. Baseball players are doing what many fans would say they’d be happy to do for free — so they should just shut up and play. A reminder: There is a reason they get paid to play baseball and you don’t.
And it is the owners who collect the money on your overpriced beers, hot dogs and tickets, while also not letting you stream games in their television market. Yes, they can say that escalating payroll forces higher prices, but since they don’t release financial records there is no way to know if that’s true.
What about safety and testing?
MLB released a 67-page plan to outline safety guidelines, which at times reads like 667 pages of poetry about cats.
The plan calls for frequent testing, up to three and four times a week, but not daily testing … yet. A player who tests positive will be quarantined, but the rest of team will not be. That protocol doesn’t follow typical guidelines expressed by health officials.
The private testing, which will be funded by MLB, will be handled in the Utah facility that used to handled minor league drug tests.
Other guidelines include no spitting, which includes a ban on chewing tobacco and sunflower seeds. The MLB proposal would also recommend no high fives, fist bumps or elaborate handshakes. Players would maintain distance in the dugout. Masks would not be required for players, but for staff, coaches and umpires.
There would be no postgame showers or hot or cold tubs for treatment, both of which the players are expected to contest. That doesn’t figure to be a sticking point.
Will fans be allowed at games?
It sure doesn’t seem like it this season.
Perhaps a few limited fans during the postseason, but why take the risk when the whole situation seems so fragile? Could limited fans offset the lost revenue? Probably not.
What about minor league baseball?
While minor league baseball is vital to the development of young talent that allows sustained success for a MLB team, it’s far from a priority right now. Contrary to reports, there has been no decision made to cancel the minor league season. But it is logical to think that there will not be a minor league season in a typical sense. Too many risks, logistical problems and financial pratfalls loom.
Teams will want to get young prospects into game competition. A handful of scouts mentioned sequestering minor leaguers in the spring-training sites once the MLB season begins. They could hold minor leagues games at the multiple fields of the complexes similar to spring training minor league games.