There are a number of adjectives that come to mind to describe 2020 thus far. Chaotic, uncertain, disastrous, and destructive are just a few of them. Regardless of what side of the political spectrum you land on, one thing is certain – the events taking place this year around the world are unprecedented. Virtually every industry has been rocked by the spread of COVID-19, or by the economic fallout it has caused, and Major League Baseball is no exception. Many of you have undoubtedly been following the shutdowns, negotiations, and bickering that has been going on in the league over the last couple of months. For those of you who haven’t, let’s start from the beginning.
Recap: How did we get to where we are now?
Up until mid-March, MLB had planned to move forward with the 2020 season as scheduled. We will begin our timeline when things started to trend in the opposite direction.
March 11, 2020 – The NBA suspended its season after Utah Jazz C Rudy Gobert became the first professional athlete to test positive for COVID-19.
March 12, 2020 – Major League Baseball teams are deep into spring training, just two weeks from Opening Day. MLB announces that spring training is suspended and the start of the regular season will be pushed back at least two weeks, targeting April 10th as a best-case scenario for the delayed start to the season.
March 13, 2020 – MLB gives players the option to remain in camp, return home, or relocate to their team’s city. Many teams, notably the Yankees and Padres, vote to remain in camp.
March 15, 2020 – An unnamed Yankees minor league player tests positive for COVID-19, the first positive test among MLB personnel. The league issues a statement advising players who are not on the 40-man roster to return home.
March 16, 2020 – MLB announces that mid-May will be the earliest possible start of the regular season and that the intent is still to play a 162-game season.
March 18, 2020 – MLB and MLBPA reportedly begin negotiations on various topics such as service time and pay in the event of a shortened season or canceled season. It is also becoming clear that changes will be made to the first-year-player draft and the international signing periods for 2020.
March 19, 2020 – Major League Baseball commits to paying all players signed to a minor-league contract through the MiLB Opening Day, April 8th.
March 25, 2020 – On the night before what would’ve been Opening Day, Commissioner Rob Manfred encourages fans and players to stay hopeful and expresses his desires to return to camps in May.
March 27, 2020 – MLB and MLBPA complete an agreement for the pay and service time structure of the 2020 season. The agreement stated that players would be paid on a prorated basis depending on the number of games played in 2020. The agreement was made under the premise that fans would be allowed in attendance for games in 2020. However, it also contained language that gave MLB the power to mandate “the largest season possible that is economically feasible.”
March 31, 2020 – MLB announces that all minor-league players will be paid $400 per week through the end of May.
Over the next two months, restrictions began to lift at various paces, and the owners and players went to work on addressing how to go about starting the 2020 regular season. The first seven to 10 days were spent on health and safety protocols, which led to a 67-page document created by the league that was sent to the MLBPA. Next, the sides moved on to finances, and that’s where the trouble really emerged. The owners began to re-negotiate this aspect, claiming the previous agreement that had been finalized was only applicable if fans were in attendance, which seemed highly unlikely. The players, behind the leadership of Union President Tony Clark, argued that no such condition was present and that there was no need to re-negotiate salaries since a deal had already been made. And thus, the game of hardball had begun.
May 11, 2020 – The owners approve a plan for an 82-game regular season. The original plan suggested that players’ pay would be based on a 50% revenue sharing plan, an idea that was considered “a non-starter” by the union.
May 26, 2020 – The owners officially propose a plan for an 82-game season that includes a sliding pay scale, essentially meaning that the highest-paid players in the league will take the largest pay cut, while the minimally paid players will make up to 90% of their prorated salary. Seen by many as an attempt to divide the union and make the players seem like villains, the proposal is met with almost entirely negative reactions from both players and fans. MLBPA President Tony Clark expresses that the players will not be willing to take any further pay cut and that any deal which includes less than the full prorated salaries will not even be considered.
May 31, 2020 – The MLBPA releases a counterproposal for a 114-game season that includes full prorated salaries for players, and a regular season that extends into October, with playoffs in November. The owners decline the proposal and claim that they will not allow the regular season to extend past September 27th for fear of a second wave of the virus, forcing the cancellation of the postseason.
Within the next couple of days, Commissioner Manfred notifies teams and players that based on language in the March agreement, he reserves the right to mandate a season of 48-50 games at full prorated salaries, which is the longest season that the owners consider “economically feasible” under those financial conditions. The owners claim they are losing money for every game played without fans. The players still hold firm on their refusal to take another pay cut and claim the owners have offered no proof that they are actually losing money.
June 8th, 2020 – The owners propose a 76-game regular season, guaranteeing 50% of prorated salaries, with players able to make up to 75% if the postseason is played as planned. This proposal was once again met with a refusal to consider any further pay cuts by the players.
June 9th, 2020 – The players propose an 89-game season with fully prorated salaries, to which the owners respond negatively. At this point in time, everyone knows time is running out to get an agreement in place. With the number of playable days dwindling, a sense of urgency should be present. But with both sides playing hardball and refusing to give, the only ones who seem to have any sort of urgency are the fans.
June 10th, 2020 – Rob Manfred says on live TV before the draft that “unequivocally we are going to play Major League Baseball this year” and put the chances of there being a season at “100%.” The commissioner also claims that the next proposal will be a “significant step in the player’s direction.”
June 12th, 2020– MLB proposes a 72-game regular season that guarantees players 70% of their prorated salaries, with the possibility of making up to 80% if the postseason is played in full. MLBPA declines the proposal and says they will not counter. Tony Clark says that it appears that any future dialogue would be futile and told the owners to tell them when and where to report. Clark asked that the league respond by end of the day on Monday, June 15th, because delaying things any further would be unfair to players and fans.
June 15th, 2020 – Just five days after putting the chances of a season at 100%, Manfred says he is “no longer confident” that there will be a 2020 season. The league also issued a statement to players warning that there will be no season if any kind of grievance is filed against the league. Some people believe this is a delaying tactic by the owners, so they can ultimately justify a 48-50 game season being mandated, while others now believe that the 2020 season is seriously in jeopardy.
Regardless of your interpretation of these events, two things are abundantly clear: baseball is broken and there’s more than just this season at stake. The relationship between owners and players is fractured, and there are doubts about how quickly, if ever, it will heal. Secondly, these negotiations are not just about this season, as the results that come from these dialogues will affect many more that will follow.
Who is at fault?
This is the section that I may be put on blast for. There are hundreds of thousands, if not millions of fans who have been closely following the situation and each person brings a unique perspective, so I don’t expect you all to completely agree with my assessment. Overall, who should we be blaming for this situation that has become nothing short of a complete circus?
The way I see it, there is blame on both sides. On the players’ end, the public displays of displeasure and threatening to sit out is both unproductive and quite unflattering from a public relations perspective. To go on social media and complain about only making 70% of your $20 million salary while millions of Americans, including myself, can’t even find work due to the pandemic is not exactly a great look – and it’s pretty hard to be sympathetic to that. Hiding behind the premise of “health and safety” as many players did, is also not much better. As professional athletes, these players would reportedly have access to quick and high-quality testing and treatment should play resume.
From a civilian standpoint, the players seem to almost be SAFER than many average Americans going to work right now. To the players, *cough* Blake Snell *cough*, who claim they are “going out and risking their life” to play baseball, you’re not fooling anyone. It’s not only about safety, and it never has been. It’s more so about money. Yes, I am aware that there are several players who have underlying conditions that may make them more susceptible to the virus, and to those guys, this may be about more than just your paycheck. For the overwhelming majority of players, who are in excellent health, let’s stop pretending this isn’t about money. It’s a bad look. I will give them credit though, as they have been firm in their stances and have refused to give in to pressure.
I don’t blame the individuals for actually getting themselves in this situation as much as I blame Tony Clark. The MLBPA’s executive director set the players up for failure by signing an agreement in March without reading the fine print. Now, he’s trapped in an agreement that he doesn’t want to be in, and won’t have accomplished anything productive except by making his point when the league mandates a season.
Clark’s negotiating tactics have been suspect, and it seems he has spent more time blaming the owners for the situation than he has actually trying to solve it. Additionally, his request for evidence of financial strain on the owners is unrealistic. In what other business does management turn financial information over to employees upon request? The owners have no obligation to provide proof of financial losses to the players. The losses should be obvious. Even if games are played and TV revenue is obtained, there will be no ticket sales, no concession sales, no gift shop sales. Teams may lose money usually attained from in-stadium ads. According to Statista.com, 30% of MLB’s revenue comes from ticket sales alone. There is no question that a season without fans will be significantly less profitable for teams, and there seems to be evidence supporting the fact that some teams are indeed losing money. Clark’s insistence on being provided proof has only been detrimental to the players’ cause.
Of course, Clark’s constant complaints about the owners aren’t completely unjustified. The difference between playing 48 games and 72 games at full pro-rata is, in the grand scheme of things, fairly small. Yes, we are talking millions of dollars, but it’s an agreement that will surely only last for one season. Once fans are allowed back in the stands, which will hopefully be sooner rather than later, the ticket revenue will be back, and owners will return to profiting at their normal rates. A league that made a record $10.7 billion for the 2019 season can afford to take some hits in 2020 for the good of the sport. The truth of the matter is, both sides claim that they want to play, but they clearly don’t want to play enough. It all comes down to greed. Neither side is willing to compromise at all “for the love of the game.” All they care about is money and making a statement, and as a result of that, nobody wins. The players lose, the owners lose, and of course, the biggest losers of all are us, the fans, who have seen the game we love destroyed by greed and selfishness.
Looking beyond 2020… how does this affect the game?
It is obvious what kind of effect a canceled, or at the very least severely shortened, season would have on baseball this year. With every other major sport already establishing a plan to return to play this year, the MLB would obviously be a leg behind financially. With attendance numbers already decreasing over the past several years, the game cannot afford to lose more fans, and taking an entire year off while other sports are playing is certainly less than ideal. An even bigger deal than that will be the presence of tension and bad blood between the owners and the players. With the CBA expiring at the conclusion of the 2021 season, people all around the industry are preparing for the possibility of a work stoppage.
Tensions were already high before 2020 amid disagreements about free agency and teams tanking, and I don’t believe for a second that the issues coming up now are new issues. These issues have been there for several years, and are being brought to light by the current negotiations. There is no reason to think that these tensions would subside if the two sides reached a 2020 agreement, but the fact that the sides can’t even do that is an indication of how broken the system really is.
SNY’S Andy Martino, although self-admittedly being pessimistic, brings up a scenario in which MLB doesn’t have a full season with fans until 2023. I’ll admit, this scenario doesn’t seem too far-fetched anymore. A heavily-shortened 2020, followed by 2021 that still contains restrictions on fans, and 2022 that’s been shortened by a work stoppage does not bode well for the future of the game. The sport would undoubtedly lose money, lose fans, and ultimately lose players. More athletes, like Kyler Murray, could make the choice to play football because baseball may no longer be the safe option with so many intricate factors getting in the way.
What about the White Sox? They were just starting to get good…
After years of rebuilding, 2020 was finally supposed to be the year that things turned around for the franchise. The White Sox have loaded up on talent and brought a lot of their prized prospects up to the next level. A canceled 2020 season would certainly be a large setback for the rebuild. But because of the youth in their organization, a shortened season (if played) may actually be positive for the team at the Major League level. Plus, the very likely use of expanded playoffs will certainly increase their odds come the fall.
The part that hurts the most will be the likely cancellation of the minor league season. The White Sox think very highly of several minor league players, such as Nick Madrigal, Andrew Vaughn, and the recently drafted Garrett Crochet and Jared Kelley. No season for the affiliates means no opportunities for the crucial development of these players who aren’t quite ready for big-league action. Looking past 2020, the White Sox would like nothing more than labor peace, and the guarantee of a full season in 2021, 2022, and beyond. The window appears to just be opening for this team, and the fans deserve some winning baseball in the near future. But alas, the baseball gods seem to have other ideas.
All in all, this is an unprecedented and chaotic time across Major League Baseball. The game we love is being run by billionaires who care more about saving a few bucks than making their workers happy. When it’s also being played by a bunch of millionaires who are so caught up in making their point, it results in all players league-wide sitting out rather than taking a pay cut to bring back the game they claim to love. It’s a sad time to be a baseball fan, and our leadership has failed us. All we can do is watch as our national pastime slowly self-destructs and hope that cooler heads prevail before it’s too late. I believe there will be a season in 2020, even if it’s a shortened one. Until then, back to watching highlights of brighter days.
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Featured Photo: Chicago White Sox/Twitter