The endless back and forth between MLB owners and players seems to be heading toward a conclusion. The players association essentially withdrew from negotiations on Friday, demanding owners to set the terms for the 2020 season so long as the players receive their full pro rated salary. We'll know the details of how this season will look shortly.
In the meantime, it's fair to wonder: Have these negotiations caused irreparable damage to the sport? Have weeks and weeks of contentious dialogue over billions of dollars at a time like this left a permanent stain on Major League Baseball?
SI's MLB staff is here to weigh in.
The irreparable harm would come if there is no baseball this year, which I don’t see happening. The league will implement a season of around 50 games, and much of this public spat will be forgotten once baseball is back. Nothing changes the narrative like having 15 games a day and a wild sprint to the finish.
Essentially the season becomes an instant pennant race. I’m a bit worried that 15-man pitching staffs and a short camp will turn these games even more into a boring relay race of relief pitchers. And without crowds (or partial ones) these games essentially become studio shows, so the television presentation had better give people something new and different (enhanced ambient sound, drone cams, new camera angles, field reports about protocols, etc.).
There hasn't been irreparable damage to the sport. But I do think it's significant. MLB had a real opportunity to be the first major professional sport to return this summer, and instead, they squandered it and now face a ton of uncertainty. The best-case scenario is to "agree" on a significantly abbreviated season that would still see some players make the decision to sit it out, which would take not only skilled negotiating, but also lots of planning and luck around managing the coronavirus, particularly when it comes to playing in October—and then there'll be another round of heated labor discussions in 2021.
That's not a great way to set a foundation for the future of baseball. And, again, that's probably the best of what's on the table now. If Rob Manfred decides to set a 50-game schedule on his own? If top talents sit out en masse? If there's no season at all? It took years to make a full recovery from 1994. This looks like it will be worse.
Years from now we will not speculate what baseball lost in the public's view during this trying time, rather we will dwell on what the sport failed to gain with a captive audience starved for any live sporting event. Major League Baseball squandered an unprecedented opportunity to showcase its product, deliver society a slice of normalcy and display grace and humility in quickly reaching an agreement with the players to return and worry about the bottom line later on.
Instead we've seen an exhausting amount of bickering between billionaires and millionaires while the rest of the country smolders. It's a shame. It will always be a shame.
It's not too late for baseball, at least not yet. Baseball's window to be the only major sport in action is all but closed, with the game missing its best chance to reach a new audience of sports fans. But whiffing at an easy opportunity to grow the game doesn't mean baseball is out yet. Baseball has always had contentious labor negotiations—dating back to 1887 when star shortstop and future Hall of Famer John Montgomery Ward penned a scathing essay titled, "Is the Base-Ball Player a Chattel?"—and it has always settled those disputes.
As long as the two sides can agree in some fashion—not just the players telling the owners to dictate the terms of the season—the sport will be fine.
I tend to think the general public will have a short memory if and when the 2020 season begins.
A 50-game season isn’t sufficient to crown a true champion, and an asterisk attached to the 2020 World Series winner could seriously impact the reputation of the sport across America. Pairing a shaky champion with extended economic bickering through 2021 isn’t a recipe for popularity. Baseball needed to do everything it could to cobble together a schedule of 80-100 games. It couldn't, and the results could be catastrophic. Hopefully they aren't.