Nobody wants a 50-game Major League Baseball season. The players want more games. The team owners want more games. The fans want more games.
But with each passing day, that scenario becomes more and more likely.
Monday was another discouraging day for the players and the owners, those bickering bedfellows who control the resumption of a sport still stubbornly on pause. When the coronavirus pandemic shuttered spring training March 12, the sides forged a new economic agreement in about two weeks. They also pledged to hold good-faith talks about the feasibility of proceeding without fans in the stands.
All these weeks later, there is no indication that the two sides can negotiate a settlement. Without one, Commissioner Rob Manfred can impose a regular-season schedule as he sees fit, which would mean a roughly 50-game season, at full, prorated pay, to be completed by the end of September, with the playoffs and the World Series in October. (The players’ union must agree to any potential postseason expansion beyond the current format.)
The players agreed in March to take prorated salaries based on how many games they played in 2020, and they have not budged from that stance. Their refusal to do so has exasperated Manfred, whose latest proposal, on Monday, is sure to be rejected by the union.
The plan put forth Monday included a 76-game schedule that would yield an additional $200 million in salary money for players, if the postseason were completed. But even in that scenario, the players would still receive only 75% of their prorated salaries.
That is a nonstarter for the union, which is determined to show resolve against the backdrop of even bigger negotiations with the collective bargaining agreement set to expire after the 2021 season.
A sampling of player tweets Monday afternoon showed widespread ridicule of the owners’ new plan. St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Jack Flaherty called it “the same deal worded differently,” while Philadelphia Phillies outfielder Andrew McCutchen simply wrote, “lol.” Cincinnati Reds pitcher Trevor Bauer noted that “it works out to be about 35% of our full salary to play for 47% of the games,” while Toronto Blue Jays infielder Travis Shaw took a wordless approach: a GIF of Judge Judy shaking her head.
“It’s frustrating to have a public labor dispute when there’s so much hardship,” wrote Sean Doolittle, a pitcher for the Washington Nationals. “I hate it. But we have an obligation to future players to do right by them. We want to play. We also have to make sure that future players won’t be paying for any concessions we make.”
Before last winter, when the free-agent market rebounded after two sluggish offseasons, many players and agents had suspected owners were colluding against them to hold down salaries. That suspicion is raging again, as reflected in the way the sides are framing these discussions.
Ownership insists that these negotiations are distinct from future CBA talks, because the unresolved issue — a lack of in-stadium revenue caused by a pandemic — presumably will not come up again. But players, who believe they gave too much ground in previous agreements, believe any further concessions will become precedents that can be used against them.
If the players present a counterproposal — a big if — it could very well reflect the vastly different mindsets of the sides. The league desperately wants to protect its postseason revenue by wrapping up the World Series before a possible second wave of coronavirus infections in the fall. The players dispute that time frame; their last proposal, for 114 games, called for a postseason stretching deep into November, if not longer.
The owners believe they have made concessions by backing off the idea of a sliding salary scale, which the players rejected, and offering to eliminate free-agent compensation rules this offseason. That was the issue that sparked a 50-day strike in the heart of the 1981 season, leading to a gimmicky playoff arrangement.
MLB reset the standings when the 1981 season resumed, so the first-half division leaders automatically qualified for the playoffs. Teams played between 48 and 54 games in the second half, and the division winners of that late-summer sprint also reached the postseason.
Baseball then lucked out with a credible World Series matchup; the Los Angeles Dodgers beat the New York Yankees in six games in a clash of perennial contenders. But the legitimacy of a 2020 World Series after just 50 regular-season games, total, would always be in doubt.
Yet that is where baseball is headed, barring a sudden, out-of-character move by the owners or the players. The players seem willing to sacrifice millions to protect their principles, and the owners seem unwilling to bend any further.
The gap is roughly 25 games, at the moment, and shrinking every day. Soon enough, the sides should face reality and set the schedule. Then, they must promote it as vigorously as possible before the fans lose interest altogether.