Everyone Loses in MLB's 60-Game 'Season'

There are no winners in the months-long dispute between the players and owners.
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It took the Major League Baseball Players Association 126 lawyerly words Monday to reinforce what took the union three words last week: when and where. Nothing changed. The union’s statement following an overwhelming rejection of Major League Baseball’s 60-game proposal left the game in its perpetual state of inertia: With almost no hope of an agreement between players and owners, and with the union continuing to challenge commissioner Rob Manfred to schedule a season of 60 games or less.

Manfred finally answered the challenge. Almost three hours after the players’ no vote, Manfred told them when and where: show up at major league parks by July 1.

The commissioner announced MLB clubs voted unanimously to start a season of about 60 games without the players’ agreement. Opening Day is July 24–maybe. The players need to sign off on being able to report to camps at major league ballparks by July 1 and that they agree on health and safety protocols related to COVID-19. Manfred asked for an answer from them on those issues by 5 p.m. Tuesday.

Welcome to a shotgun marriage of a baseball season in which neither side won.

I have thought that a return to play could absolve the two sides of their bickering–that a sprint season and expanded prime-time postseason at a time when television and movie studios cannot generate new content would make these past two months of animosity fade away. I am not sure now. The atmosphere is that toxic.

Manfred’s decision was set in motion by a vote of 33-5 of the union’s executive board (30 player representatives and eight from a subcommittee) to reject the last, best hope that baseball resumed with an agreement.

The union statement did not specify why the proposal was rejected. Instead it doubled down on the “when and where” challenge, stating three different ways how the players were eager to get back to work and that they “await word from the league on the resumption of spring training camps and a proposed 2020 schedule.”

Manfred delivered it. In doing so, he pointed out all the benefits the players rejected–because with or without an agreement, players were looking at a season of about 60 games at 100% of their prorated pay.

Without an agreement, players don’t get an expanded postseason (equal to 156 additional players who would have been in the postseason), a universal DH, a guaranteed $25 million in 2020 playoff pool money, and $33 million forgiven of the $170 million in salary advances.

The players effectively decided the right to challenge the owners with a grievance that they did not bargain in good faith was more valuable than those benefits. The players could claim about $1 billion in damages on games lost.

Such a procedure could take years and engender even more distrust, with an unpredictable outcome. But the mere threat of it has been an important hammer for the union to retain.

The players get their 100% prorated pay and keep their grievance threat. The owners get their short season in (mostly) empty ballparks. But neither side gets the benefit of an expanded postseason or any momentum for the sport.

With leaks and statements (sotto voce dialogue: “We want to play.” “We want to play more) both sides seem to be trying too hard to win PR wars while their house is on fire. They don’t understand that the average fan doesn’t care about gamesmanship. The fans only want live sports to come back.

As other sports do come back or at least plan to do so without such public acrimony, baseball suffers. Unofficially, we now have seen the end of 25 years of labor peace in baseball, which has been the single biggest driver of revenues in the game’s growth. (Well, that and the DVR. Once viewers could time-shift their viewing, live sports content became more valuable. Nobody has more live content than baseball.)

The pandemic stopped baseball, but a labor dispute has prolonged the lack of games. On average, every day lost equals 13 games that are lost for good. The current count is up to 1,131. But because there is a one-month lag before any games can be played–one week for COVID testing and education and three weeks for training–the total of games we’ll never see and the players will never play is at 1,495.

So great is the distrust and so poor is the communication that both sides extinguish the few glimmers of hope with defiant stubbornness. The two sides agreed March 26 on a payment schedule in a shortened season, then they disagreed on what they agreed. Manfred flew to Arizona from New York a week ago to meet face to face with union executive director Tony Clark, and left with an understanding that they would both push their constituents to work with the framework of a deal. The next day it was apparent any such understanding did not exist.

The next sticking point is likely to be contingencies for a COVID-affected postseason (i.e., delays or cancelations or a neutral site “bubble”). Such contingencies are not incidental as infections surge and its arc defies prediction.

If we get baseball this year, it will be played under a cloud of labor unrest. Players will retain their threat of a grievance. They could be in no mood to wear microphones or engage in cooperative behavior to sell the game. Owners will plead more financial distress, especially without an expanded postseason, which will affect offseason transactions and budgets not just for 2021 but beyond.

We thought we were looking at negotiations to restart baseball in the year of a pandemic. As it turned out, we have been looking at something closer to negotiations about a new collective bargaining agreement, about macro-economics and bargaining positions and distrust. It feels too much like 1994.