Passed Ball

Oh, what could have been.

This season was brimming with storylines. Could the Dodgers finally get over the hump with the addition of Mookie Betts? Would Gerrit Cole anchor the Yankees’ rotation en route to their first World Series in what feels like a lifetime for Yankees fans? Would Wander Franco make the Rays roster out of Spring Training; would he take the league by storm? Would Mike Trout continue to make his case as the greatest player of all time? Would the Tigers, Royals, and Orioles combine to lose another 325 games?

How many no-hitters have we lost? How many memorable walk-offs? How many web gems, how many moon shots, how many milestones have been washed away in this, the Lost Season of 2020?

No one would have wished for this pandemic, nor the human suffering and tragedy it brings. But, callously, coronavirus presented MLB with a potential golden opportunity. Every sport had been cut down at their most exciting moments, building to a climax that was never allowed to come. Basketball and hockey lost their postseasons; European soccer lost their end-of-season titles and Champions League matches. If baseball could be the first sport back, it would have the rapt engagement of desperate sports fans worldwide.

And make no mistake: MLB needs those fans. Attendance at ballparks has been declining since 2015. In 2007, 79.5 million fans went to the ballpark; last year, that number had fallen to 68.5 million. In 2018 Sports Business Journal found that the average MLB fan was 57 years old, the oldest of the major American sports. According to 2018 Q scores, a metric used to measure appeal to consumers, Mike Trout, baseball’s $430-million man, was as recognizeable as Kenneth Faried, at the time a bench player for the Brooklyn Nets. Baseball may be the national pasttime, but it’s no longer the national sport. Having the sporting landscape all to itself would give MLB the chance to win back fans and grow the game for a new generation.

Were there challenges? Of course. Initial proposals to isolate players from all thirty teams in Arizona to protect them from the virus were far-fetched. Early suggestions of switching around divisions into Eastern, Central, and Western groups led some to question the legitimacy of the 2020 season. New health and safety protocols were obsessively detailed in some respects and painfully vague in others; MLB still hasn’t adequately addressed the safety protocols in place if a player tested positive for coronavirus.

But the NHL figured it out; they’re going to return straight into a 24-team playoff located in two hub cities. The NBA figured it out; they’re going to play an abbreviated regular season before launching into a 22-team postseason at the Happiest Place on Earth: Disneyworld Resort in Orlando, Florida. The Premier League figured it out; Project Restart will launch June 17th with a match between Manchester City and Arsenal–in front of empty stadiums, of course.

Major League Baseball was supposed to be the first through the breach. Instead, they still haven’t formulated a plan to start the 2020 season, and we’re well past Memorial Day. Don’t blame coronavirus for this. No, the 2020 season has been killed by a far more familiar foe: Greed.

The disagreement between the owners and the players revolves around revenue sharing. When the coronavirus pandemic began and the MLB season was delayed, players agreed to accept pro rated salaries based on the number of games played. For the players, that’s the end of it; they already took one pay cut, they’re not keen on taking another.

The owners, however, have different ideas. They–rightly, it must be said–complain that their streams of revenue have been severely curtailed during the pandemic. TV contracts don’t pay out if no games are broadcast, and revenue from ticket sales evaporates entirely if baseball resumes behind closed doors. Owners are already taking massive losses; they feel that players should bear some of the burden as well.

A logical argument, in theory. But it’s unclear exactly how steep of a loss the owners are taking. While the value of player contracts are made public, the revenues of each MLB team and its owner are kept private. MLB has based its offers on a projected revenue of $2.75 billion this season; the MLBPA, however, disputes that figure. The lack of transparency erodes the already-fraying trust in the fragile relationship between labor and employer.

The insincere attempts at compromise by both sides erode it further. MLB’s initial offering was an 82-game season with a sliding pay scale that would have seen the highest-paid players receive a pittance of their regular salaries. The MLBPA rejected that out of hand, countering with a 114-game proposal with full pro-rated salaries. MLB then floated the idea of a fifty game season with fully pro-rated salaries, which was decried by players and fans alike. The most recent proposal consists of a 76-game season, with players receiving 75% of their pro-rated salaries–that percentage, however, drops to 50% if no postseason is held.

Let’s cut through the contract legalese and put this in easily-understandable terms. MLB’s most recent proposal offers players somewhere between 30 and 35 percent of their full, 162-game salaries. The sole proposal offered by the MLBPA thus far demands around 70 percent of their pro-rated salaries. At this stage of the negotiating process, the chasm between the two sides is staggering.

This should be a relatively straightforward compromise, at least on revenue sharing. Both sides should agree to an 82-game season, with guaranteed pro-rated salaries. To accommodate the recent loss of revenue, players could agree to receive their full salaries on deferment, paid out over the the next three seasons. Other issues, including playoff format and health and safety protocols, could be worked out without extensive hand-wringing.

But neither side is in the mood for compromise. Both the owners and the MLBPA see the current negotiations as a prelude to next year, when the collective bargaining agreement expires. Owners and players alike want to enter those negotiations from a position of strength; demand, rather than acquiesce, is the watchword of the day.

There could still be a 2020 MLB season. MLB and the MLBPA might come to an agreement, maybe even this week if both sides make significant concessions. But the moment to strike has come and gone. Sports fans are gearing up for a summer unlike any other, with the NBA and NHL playoffs steamrolling right into the beginning of the NFL season — coronavirus permitting, of course. The hallowed months of summer that were once MLB’s unique purview have been conquered by other sports, much as MLB’s pride of place in the American sports psyche has been pushed aside. How many more fans can baseball afford to lose?

This should have been a routine grounder. This should have been an easy out. Instead, MLB booted it. Coronavirus put the season on life support; greed delivered the fatal blow.

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