For MLB Owners, Playoff Money Trumps ‘Health and Safety’

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When Mom and Dad can’t stop fighting, it’s the kids who suffer. In the ongoing battle between Major League Baseball and the Players Association, the kids are all the normal people who work in and around the sport.

In two weeks, a typical organization will dispatch to Arizona or Florida some 75 people making closer to the salary of Mike Trout’s barber than to that of Mike Trout. All of these people—athletic trainers, clubhouse attendants, media-relations staffers among them—have been strung along for three months, unable to sign spring-training leases, largely ineligible to be vaccinated yet, wondering if they would be sent to COVID hotspots as cases remain high.

They will, as it turns out, because no one can agree on whether there should be 10 playoff teams or 14. The squabbling has lasted nearly the entire winter, and it has left us here: There will be no deal to postpone the start of the season until more people can be vaccinated. Instead spring training will start, as scheduled in the collective bargaining agreement, on Feb. 17.

Most of the blame here rests with the league. The union can be intransigent, but it is not legally required to renegotiate things the CBA already covers. The league’s labor lawyers know this. Yet they continued to send the union proposals studded with what the union considers to be a poison pill: expanded playoffs.

The real money for owners comes in the form of October television rights, so they crave this structure. The players’ position is that expanded playoffs will dilute competitiveness and suppress salaries: If you can make the postseason with 85 wins, why would you sign a big-ticket free agent? They agreed to a 16-team format last year, in an attempt to make back some of the money lost without ticket sales and as a failsafe in case the best teams failed to emerge at the end of 60 games. But the union has spent the offseason insisting that was a one-time concession.

The league’s latest proposal offered a one-month delay to spring training; a 154-game season for which the players would be paid their full, 162-game salaries; a 14-team postseason; and a universal designated hitter. On Monday, once the union turned it down—and declined to make a counter-offer—MLB released a statement that read, in part: “On the advice of medical experts, we proposed a one-month delay to the start of Spring Training and the regular season to better protect the health and safety of players and support staff. … This was a good deal that reflected the best interests of everyone involved in the sport by merely moving the calendar of the season back one month for health and safety reasons.”

If health and safety is really the priority, why submit a proposal you know the union won’t accept? If health and safety is really the priority, why not focus only on the timeline and leave the petty financial bickering for the next negotiations, which will come when the CBA expires in December? (Indeed, if health and safety is really the priority, why play baseball amid a global pandemic at all? But that ship has sailed.)

The truth is that it isn’t, really. The priority is, as ever, further enriching the rich at the expense of the less rich.

Of course the season—and with it, spring training—should start a month later. COVID cases have begun to decline, and each time another arm is pricked, the world becomes marginally safer. There is no moral case for shipping thousands of people into hotspots right now, where they will immediately head to restaurants (both states allow indoor dining) and add to the caseload. If the league had just proposed that delayed season with full pay, and left the expanded playoffs out of it, we could be preparing for a mid-March spring training right now.

Instead, equipment trucks are headed south. The players will join them soon. So will the hundreds of people who are not represented by a union; who receive COVID tests less frequently than the players; some of whom are classified as part-time employees, and therefore are not covered by the team’s health insurance plans. All will climb into cars or board airplanes and prepare to risk their lives, because a bunch of adults couldn’t get on a Zoom call and make the right decision. And when they get to camp, you know who won’t be there? The team owners.