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Baseball’s return looks even more doubtful

Will the players walk?

Will there be baseball in 2020? It's looking less likely by the day.
Chris Carlson | AP file photo

Will baseball come back?

It’s not only a COVID-19 issue now. It’s also a labor dispute.

In theory, Major League Baseball wants to hold an 82-game season with regionalized schedules — i.e. NL West teams play each other and their counterparts from the same AL division and so on — and a 14-team playoff.

There are two issues. Is this a “real” season? And, likely more importantly, how do teams pay their players for a shortened season?

It’s a marathon

Simply put, 82 games ain’t a baseball season. Were it to take place, it would be a wonderful return to whatever is the new normal. I would sit here yelling at my television, gently instructing my team, the San Francisco Giants.

But, truthfully, it would not be a real season. Baseball has been a day-in, day-out grueling 162-game march since 1961, and 154 games before that. One of the joys of the sport is its history.

One can compare statistics from Babe Ruth’s time to those of Mike Trout. The numbers pop off the page/computer screen — .406 (Ted Williams’ batting average as the last to hit .400), 61 (Roger Maris, the true single-season home run leader) and 1.12 (Bob Gibson’s ridiculous ERA in 1968).

If you play only 82 games, someone could hit .400 or better. As impressive as that would be, it would come with an asterisk. The way starting pitchers are already treated with kid gloves with regard to innings pitched, it’s not hard to see someone making a run at a 1.12 ERA. Again, the asterisk would come.

There’s also the championship angle. Eighty-two games does not a playoff team make. The Washington Nationals were 41-41 after 82 games last year. Had the season ended, the Nats would have missed the playoffs. As it turned out, the Nationals surged, made the playoffs and won the World Series. (At least that’s what our assistant editor Ross Leonhart tells me every day.)

For the record, the Chicago Cubs were also leading the NL Central after 82 games. The St. Louis Cardinals won the division. And, yes, the San Francisco Giants had the best record in baseball in 2016 at the All-Star Break before fading to oblivion with the Cubs finally winning the World Series after 108 years. Baseball is littered with examples like these. (Ahem, the Boston Red Sox.)

Whoever wins the World Series — and with 14 teams, instead of 10, making the playoffs, there’s even more of a chance for an oddball champion — will not be regarded as a true champion. What if the Cleveland Indians break their 72-year World Series drought by winning this year?

The Tribe would not be a true champion, which would be a bitter pill for Cleveland sports fans.

The money

And then there is player pay for an 82-game season. After all sports shut down on March 13 for COVID-19, the players and the owners agreed to a deal on modified compensation.

Though the players’ contracts are guaranteed, a rarity compared to other sports, the union agreed to pro-rated pay based on the number of games played in exchange for service time accrued. (Service time being credited allows players to achieve free agency and the accompanying compensation.)

On Tuesday, baseball’s owners proposed pay cuts on top of the pro-rated salaries to which the players have already agreed. The owners argue that with fans likely not being able to attend games because of COVID-19 and the ensuing loss of ticket sales, concessions and so on that they will lose money.

The only problem is that the owners have claimed they have been losing money since the Cincinnati Reds turned professional in 1869.

It’s easy to say baseball players make too much money for playing a game. Of course, we should pay doctors, nurses, police people, firefighters and teachers the millions that athletes make. That’s how the owners frame the argument to the average fans.

The truth is sports, overvalued in our society, practice true capitalism as it should be practiced. The best in the profession get the big bucks as teams bid for their services. The players get paid for their true value to the business.

Trout was scheduled to make $37 million this season because he sells tickets and merchandise and makes the Los Angeles Angels more valuable as a franchise. (According to Forbes, the team is worth $1.9 billion. Owner Arte Moreno bought the team for $183 million in 2003, so the general cry of poverty from baseball owners rings somewhat shallow.)

The players have already taken a pay cut and the owners, who are never very truthful in financial disclosure, are asking for more and the 2020 season is in jeopardy.

So what now?

The collective bargaining agreement between the players and the owners is scheduled to expire after the 2021 season and it was already shaping up to be a contentious negotiation. The players were on the offensive about the manipulation of service time — sending a player like the Cubs’ Kris Bryant to the minor leagues to start the 2015 season to keep him under club control and at a lower salary for a longer period of time.

The players also believe that the owners are not negotiating in good faith with free agents. It’s understandable that the owners don’t want to give out 10-year contracts to players like Albert Pujols anymore, but seeing pitchers like Jake Arrieta and Dallas Keuchel going unsigned for most of an offseason is fishy. Throw in proposed 2020 pay cuts and the players are not a happy bunch.

Since the outlook for an 82-game schedule is still somewhat murky with COVID-19 and the legitimacy of said season is in question, why not use the rest of the calendar year to hammer out a new CBA and come out fresh in 2021?

The sport needs to get its house in order and this is a perfect opportunity.


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