For baseball, the game itself has always been the best elixir.
In times of strife, in times of scandal, you could always count on the beauty of the sport to overcome all the infighting, the image defamation, the scoundrels.
Not this time. In negotiations with players to resume a season shut down by the coronavirus pandemic, Major League Baseball is administering self-inflicted wounds from which it might never fully recover, no matter how tight the pennant races or majestic the play. If the 1994 strike, which wiped out the World Series for the first time since 1904, provided a previous low point in the sport’s history, the “stewards” (quotation marks fully intended) of the game are hellbent on relocating that nadir.
This is a lifelong baseball fanatic speaking, mind you. Over the years, I’ve reflexively fought back against criticism of the sport, feeling almost an obligation to defend the game I’ve deeply loved since youth. But you’re on your own this time, fellas.
The optics of a financial battle in the midst of a worldwide pandemic were bad enough. To have that fight continue, with increasing intransigence, during social upheaval not seen since the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, is unconscionable.
There’s blame to be meted out, of course, and I put the lion’s share on the owners. To borrow a much-used phrase, they are trying to socialize their losses after being perfectly content to privatize their gains. They have employed a divide-and-conquer strategy that ignores the fact that the people they are trying to divide and conquer are also their product — the ones they will ask their fans to embrace when this is all over. It’s as if Nabisco embarked on a campaign to paint Oreos as mushy and ill-tasting — and then expected consumers to pick up a few cartons.
The players are holding firmly to the fact they already negotiated an agreement to have their salary prorated over the season, however long it turns out to be. The owners are trying to impose cuts well beyond that, on the grounds that the financial losses for games in fan-free stadiums will be “biblical,” in the words of Cubs owner Tom Ricketts.
Excuse me for having trouble summoning much sympathy for the cash-flow problems of a man whose family’s net worth was pegged at $1.8 billion by Forbes, and who has control of one of the flagship franchises in all of pro sports. I’m reminded of the declaration that then-Blue Jays president (and later president and COO of MLB) Paul Beeston regretted ever saying: “I can turn a $4 million profit into a $2 million loss and get every national accounting firm to agree with me.”
Part of the problem is that the players seem to be already girding for the epic fight to come over the basic agreement that expires after the 2021 season. And both sides are infected with profound distrust of the other side not seen since the darkest days of Bud Selig vs. Donald Fehr.
But in the bigger picture, it hardly matters who’s right and who’s wrong. The players might have the righteous satisfaction of holding the higher moral ground (and I know many of you disagree with that assessment). When baseball devolves further into a niche-sport status, even deeper in arrears of the NFL and NBA (and maybe a few others) in the public consciousness, who really cares who was the most righteous?
Here’s where we stand: The owners’ latest offer delivered Monday was for a 76-game season, with players ostensibly getting 75 percent of their prorated salaries. It seemed like a big step up from rumors of a 50-game season with full proration, until you dig into the details. If a new coronavirus outbreak forces cancellation of the lucrative postseason, owners would pay just 50 percent of prorated salaries. So the players would make $200 million more under this proposal if the playoffs are completed — or $250 million less if they aren’t, according to the Los Angeles Times. The union’s first reaction was to scoff at the deal and portray it as untenable. The players reportedly made a counteroffer for an 89-game season late Tuesday night.
So here’s where we’re headed: Baseball, which once had the golden opportunity to be the first major U.S. sports league to return to action, and thus command the full attention (and affection) of the public, has now bickered for so long that the NBA, NHL, MLS and others are poised to beat them to it. And even if the sides eventually agree, the unseemly squabble has been so distasteful that even ardent fans are disgusted. Imagine what the peripheral fans are thinking.
There seems to be a distinct possibility that commissioner Rob Manfred will use his power to impose a 50-game season (with full prorated salaries), which appears to be within his rights by virtue of the agreement between the sides when the game shut down in March. Baseball would be back, but with the flimsiest of seasons, much too short to be deemed legitimate in any way. There would be an ocean of disgruntled players, backed by a seething union that would almost certainly file a grievance. And those expanded playoffs that could have generated some excitement in the fall? No way the players would help out the owners by agreeing to that.
What management seems to be neglecting in all of this is the long-term cost of wielding an iron fist to try to save money now — about $10 million per team, as ESPN’s Jeff Passan broke down the difference between a potential 48-game season and the 82-game season proposed by the players. To be fair, that’s on top of what the owners claim to be $3.5 billion in losses they are already facing. But what about the loss in franchise value that will accrue when everyone turns away from baseball in utter revulsion over this impasse? The phrase “Penny wise, pound foolish” comes to mind.
It took Cal Ripken’s iron-man streak, the Mariners’ wondrous playoff with the Yankees and the home-run chase between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa (steroids-tainted as it was) to get the game humming again after the 1994 strike. But while revenues have since soared to record levels — a reported $10.7 billion in 2019 — MLB irretrievably damaged something far greater.
I’m speaking, for lack of a better word, of its soul. The yearning of kids to play the sport, of rabid fans to live and die with it, and casual fans to care about it. That’s far more important than the numbers on a spread sheet. And though baseball will eventually return, maybe even this summer, its soul has been crushed again.