Baseball Can't Afford Another War Over Money

Chris Halicke

With $10.7 billion of revenue in 2019, Major League Baseball can afford a lot of things. One thing it can't afford is another war over money.

Unfortunately, MLB's past is riddled with issues that revolve around the almighty dollar. It wasn't all that long ago that baseball saw its worst war over money: the 1994 players strike. The cancellation of the playoffs and World Series in 1994 sent shockwaves through the game's fabric. Not to mention, baseball's paying customers were forced to watch the league and its players set the record for the longest work-stoppage in sports history (later surpassed by the NHL's 2004-05 lockout) while they bickered over millions of dollars.

Now, when sports leagues are trying to make a return from a pandemic, the stick in the mud between MLB and the players union will once again be over money.

On Monday, MLB and its owners agreed upon a proposal that was going to ask players to forgo their salaries in exchange for a 50-50 revenue share as a way to soften the blow of games being played initially without fans in attendance. With the eyes of the baseball world upon them, negotiations between MLB and the Players Association began on Tuesday. According to Evan Drellich of The Athletic, MLB did not make an official economic proposal with discussions expected to continue.

Super agent Scott Boras told Sports Illustrated on Monday that he urged the players union to reject the proposal from the league, citing that owners claimed they "could operate without fans in the ballpark" when the two sides agreed to several terms in March. 

In that earlier agreement, MLB gave the players union $170 million to divvy up amongst themselves in case a season could not be played in 2020. In the event of a shortened season, the players agreed to have their salaries prorated to the number of games played. MLB also agreed to grant players service time in 2020, whether or not a season is played this year.

In a report by The Athletic, league officials and the union disagree on two major points in this proposal from MLB. First, the league says they will lose too much money with games played without fans for an unknown length of time – the union disagrees. Second, the players union views any system where player salaries are tied to and based off revenue to be a salary cap – the league disagrees.

And now, it all circles back to the 1994 strike, which centered around the league approaching the players union in an attempt to implement a cap system. 

This time around, baseball's next war over money could come at a time where the economy came to a standstill and millions of Americans have had to file for unemployment due to the novel coronavirus pandemic. While millions of Americans are trying to conjure up ways to feed themselves and their families, they now have to sit and read about millionaires arguing with billionaires over money. 

It would be disingenuous to think it's as simple as that. It's not. Both sides will sacrifice more than anyone can fathom if games are played in 2020. However, if public health officials give the "all clear" to sports leagues and genuinely safe protocols for players (and eventually fans) are put into place, it would be a nightmare for MLB to be the only sport that can't get started because they couldn't agree over money.

The future of baseball is already going to suffer a black eye with this year's draft being limited to only five rounds. There's a multitude of high school and collegiate players that will go undrafted and have serious decisions to make regarding their future. Not to mention, there will be ripple effects in upcoming drafts as well. 

When pitchers get into trouble on the mound, the truly good ones consistently limit the damage. MLB, nor any other league for that matter, is obviously not immune to the effects of this pandemic. With an opportunity to be the first North American sports league to return from this shutdown, MLB needs to limit the damage. After all, it's better to get out of a bases-loaded, nobody-out jam by pitching smart and only surrendering a run than being cavalier and giving up a grand slam. 

If MLB truly gave the players union the notion that they can operate without fans in the stands, MLB needs to stay true to their word. They don't need to engage in created loopholes to gouge players further after they've already agreed to pay reductions. 

If negotiations come to a stand still, MLB needs to ultimately become the proactive one and make further concessions. At the end of the day, if baseball can't resume in 2020 because of money alone, MLB's brand will suffer greatly – fair or unfair. MLB also has to consider any momentum they have regarding their popularity compared to the NFL or NBA. It will all be gone if baseball is the only sport noticeably absent in 2020.

One thing is for certain: both sides need to be willing to make uncomfortable decisions for the betterment of the game. Anything they decide on for this season is and should be temporary. Baseball has an amazing opportunity to be in the spotlight when the entire country is missing sports as a whole. Not taking advantage of it would be a monumental swing-and-miss. 

With the calendar already in mid-May, time is running out for any hopes of baseball being played in 2020. What MLB and its players have to guarantee is only external circumstances can prevent baseball from being played this year. Anything short of that could permanently damage the game.

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