There Are No Winners Here

There’s a story in the Old Testament called “The Judgement of Solomon.” In it, two women both claim to be the mother of the same child, and petition King Solomon of Israel to pass judgement on the matter. To discern who truly cares for the child, Solomon orders the baby to be cut in half and split between the two women.

The coronavirus pandemic is forcing all of us around the world to make difficult decisions. The problem is, we’re not King Solomon, and we’re not the two women petitioning him. We’re the baby getting cut in half.

For most of the dilemmas facing us, there are no good options. Every potential solution has major drawbacks and seemingly insurmountable hurdles. Just when we think we’ve found a way through the problem, we realize that in solving it we created three more problems which now need their own solutions. Life has turned into a Russian nesting doll full of mortgage payments, unemployment papers, and N95 respirators.

Take the basic calculus facing governments and health professionals right now. With no vaccine in sight and limited medical supplies available, community non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) are by far the most effective way to decrease the spread of Covid-19. Most state and local governments have issued some form of shelter-in-place orders and have closed all non-essential businesses. Those closures have resulted in the most drastic economic downturn in decades and the highest spike in unemployment ever, with some ten million Americans applying for assistance over the past two weeks.

The choice is an impossible one. The hardships that result from the economic shutdown will cause suffering aplenty. But refusing to take these drastic measures would directly result in the deaths of thousands of people, perhaps hundreds of thousands, adding a devastating body count to the eventual economic downturn. We get to the same terrible place in the end. There are no good options; only the best of the bad.

Or take an issue near and dear to Brett’s heart: public schools. Schools are a major vector of community disease transmission. Influenza pandemics in 1918 and 1957 escalated in the fall when students returned to classrooms after summer recess, and a smaller pandemic in 1968 was slowed when schools adjourned for the winter holidays. Closing schools is a necessary precaution to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

But closing schools for an extended period raises questions without easy answers. Will instruction continue at the same pace online? Some subjects like mathematics or English can be converted into online instruction with minimal duress, but what of subjects like music or theatre, disciplines that demand in-person interaction? What of students in rural areas that don’t have access to high speed internet? Will students automatically be moved up to the next grade level, and if so, how will they be prepared for the more challenging material they will be facing when schools reopen? How will seniors be prepared for the transition to colleges and universities? Will non-educational staff at public schools be paid during this furlough period? What about teachers who haven’t transitioned to online instruction? Every answer raises a new question, and no answer is entirely satisfactory.

With the baseball season still indefinitely put on hold, MLB is facing its own slate of unanswerable problems. This is where my editor told me to put the caveat that yes, in grave times like these, the absence of baseball is a rather trivial matter. But for the people for whom baseball is their livelihood — the stadium workers, the broadcasters, the college and high school players hoping to turn pro, and, yes, even the wealthy players and owners — baseball’s absence and the solutions that MLB proposes going forward are as important as our jobs are to us.

A deal between MLB and the MLBPA signed last week attempted to come to some accord on pay structure, service time, and the MLB draft. Start with pay structure. Per reporting by Jeff Passan of ESPN, players agreed to accept salary reductions in the event that the 2020 season is never played. In exchange, MLB will advance $170 million towards player salaries over the next two months, which will be rolled into player salaries if and when the season commences. The agreement is probably the best of the imperfect solutions available. The players naturally want their full salaries–which, depending on the interpretation of force majuere clauses in the contracts, are fully guaranteed–but they understand that right now the important thing is the health of the league rather than that extra one million dollars in their contracts.

The other benefit to current players is that this year, regardless of the number of games played, will count as a year of service time. That means players on rookie contracts will get to arbitration faster, and players in arbitration will get to the big paydays of free agency faster. Baseball careers are short already, and executives are increasingly reluctant to pay big money to aging stars. Locking players into an additional year of a contract structure that grossly underpays younger stars before they hit free agency would have exasperated the disparities in an already-flawed system.

Depending on when — or if — the season starts, however, the service time clause could be a major blow to certain teams like the Los Angeles Dodgers. Earlier in the offseason they traded Kenta Maeda and Alex Verdugo along with prospects Jeter Downs and Connor Wong in exchange for Mookie Betts, who is set to hit free agency after the season. If the 2020 season doesn’t happen, Betts will become a free agent without ever playing a single regular season game in a Dodgers uniform.

One side harms the players. One side harms the teams. Every solution raises new problems. There’s no good way to solve them without cutting the baby in half.

The deal also provides some protections for team employees, who will receive full pay for at least the month of April. That is a good deal for the employees, who would naturally never expect to be out of work in the middle of the baseball season. Their salaries are also much lower than the players, so an additional guaranteed month of pay could mean the difference between making it through the month and struggling to make rent. However, MLB has only agreed to pay employees through April, and many employees are preparing for furloughs and layoffs in May and June if the situation does not improve.

“Wait!” you shout. “The owners are BILLIONAIRES! They have to pay their employees for as long as this takes!” You certainly aren’t wrong; the financial status of the owners ranges from wealthy to obscenely rich, providing them with one hell of a golden parachute to float on during an economic recession. But remember that running a baseball team is a multi-million, if not billion, dollar business, one that relies on sales of merchandise, tickets, and contracts with advertisers and broadcasters. With no baseball, all of those revenue streams dry up while the cost of operation remains astronomical. Finding fair and equitable ways to cut the cost of operations–and again, I emphasize, fair and equitable–is a sound business strategy meant to protect the league during the shutdown. Owners should do everything they can to protect the team employees, but they are also losing money hand over fist for every game that isn’t played. Nobody comes out of this on top.

One group, however, clearly comes out on the bottom: incoming players. The agreement between MLB and the MLBPA gives Commissioner Rob Manfred the authority to shorten the 2020 draft to just five rounds. For comparison, the 2019 draft lasted forty rounds. That greatly diminishes the amount that major league teams have to spend on signing bonuses and contracts for new draftees, helping to cut costs, but it in turn constricts the amount of money going to the incoming players. Former MLB player Micah Johnson took to Twitter to voice his frustration.

Once again, solutions that seem equitable create more problems. And the dilemmas continue the deeper you dig into the solutions.

With the shortening of the MLB draft, it’s fair to wonder how many high school or prep players who were eyeing the 2020 draft will reconsider and look at playing ball either overseas or, more likely, in the collegiate ranks. But the NCAA cancelled all spring sports in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. College players that intended to enter the draft may stay on an additional year, especially now that the NCAA has granted schools permission to offer an extra year of eligibility to seniors who were unable to play their final season.

What will likely occur is a backlog of players trying to play college baseball in 2021. Players who did intend to enter the draft will look to go to school to develop their skills and get in front of scouts. Players who never got to play this year will want to return for one more season; for some, it will be their final time ever playing competitive baseball. The normal conveyor belt of college athletics has stopped, with those at the end of the line remaining in place and those at the beginning trying to hop on. For further context, each schools’ roster can only carry forty players, and the NCAA allows for just 11.7 baseball scholarships to be distributed among a maximum of 27 players on the team. Once you wade through that mess, consider also that the 2021 draft will be overstocked with talent, and players who might have been drafted in the top three rounds could fall further into the draft and receive significantly less money in signing bonuses.

In short, the already narrow avenue to becoming a major league baseball player has shrunk, and more prospective players will be forced to abandon their dream due to the deal between MLB and the MLBPA.

But was there a better solution? Is there any fair solution when a car with five seatbelts and six passengers slams on the breaks?

The coronavirus pandemic has ground our society to a screeching halt, leading to dilemmas in every walk of life. Those problems have solutions, but none of them are satisfactory, and they only raise further questions with no good answers. Just as there is no “universal vaccine” for influenza, there is no one solution for all these myriad challenges facing us in the weeks and months to come.

Perhaps all we can do is take a suggestion from the playbook of the doctors, nurses, and medical professionals who are on the front lines of our fight against this virus. Our solutions may not be perfect, but they can follow that simple, timeless model:

Do no harm.

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