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We all want 2020 baseball, but obstacles remain

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Baltimore Orioles v Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

Clearly the big baseball story at the moment is whether there will be MLB baseball this year. And the answer? It’s complicated.

MLB proposal: 82 game season with expanded playoffs; renegotiate player salaries

The owners have reportedly put together a proposal that would involve an 82-game season starting in July. The season would not have the usual leagues and divisions; focus would be on regional play, presumably to reduce time lost to travel. There would be playoffs, too, expanded beyond the usual 8 teams. Jeff Passan provides an overview of the owners proposal.

The owners are also proposing a change in how player salaries will be calculated (most likely leading to decreases in payroll) Back in March, when it because clear that the season would be delayed, the owners and the players, through the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA), agreed that player salaries would be pro-rated to the number of regular season games played this year. Simple enough.

But now the owners are saying, Wait! We meant we’d pro-rate salaries if we were playing under normal conditions, with fans in the stands. Now we think players and owners should share whatever revenues baseball generates, more or less 50-50, and players salaries will be pegged to that amount. The other major sports leagues (NHL, NBA, NFL) use something akin to this model as their regular pay structure; the salary cap is tied to the idea that salaries collectively can’t exceed a percentage of revenues. Jared Diamond in the Wall Street Journal ($) recaps the financial issues.

Hey, Mark Teixeira is willing to play for free!

The leaked financial proposal caused the expected pushback. Player representatives objected, claiming that this was a back door way of pushing MLB toward a salary cap. They pointed out that player salaries aren’t adjusted upward if baseball revenues are higher than expected, so why should they be adjusted downward if revenues decrease? The March agreement was, they claimed, the binding agreement on salaries for restarting play. (Hannah Keyser further explores the likely negotiating positions around salary)

At the same time, the owners got what I assume they wanted by leaking the their salary demands, as several high profile people took to the airwaves to preemptively condemn the players for “selfishly” resisting a pay cut when everyone is hungry for baseball.

Mark Teixiera insisted that he’d pretty much play for nothing under these circumstances:

And Illinois governor Jay Pritzger, a billionaire hotelier whose state, incidentally, is still shut down, managed perhaps the most ham-fisted response of the day:

I must say I’m disappointed in many ways that players are holding out for these very, very high salaries and payments during a time when I think everybody is sacrificing

The real question: how do you social distance in a dugout?

But while the owners have managed to generate debate over their intention to renegotiate salaries, there has been less attention paid to what ultimately is the real barrier to restarting baseball: Can it be done with minimal risk to the health of those who participate?

What will “distanced” baseball look like?

Nationals reliever Sean Doolittle, who is kind of great, expressed his concerns in this thread:

I encourage you to read it through, it is well reasoned, and links to good sources. But I can summarize some of his key points, all of which need to be part of the calculus considered by players and owners. First, we really know very little about COVID-19 and its long term effects, so while many athletes appear to be at low risk for experiencing devastating symptoms, even those with mild cases could suffer longer term impacts. Are we gambling with the long term health of these young men based on incomplete information? He wonders how you configure locker rooms and dugouts to keep players safe in case a teammate were infected. If frequent, even daily, testing is the only way to ensure safety, does the league have a plan to get all those tests at a time when hospitals and state health departments are unable to fulfill testing demand?

He later adds:

Some people telling me to stay home if I don’t want to play. We’re asking these questions BECAUSE we want to play. We want to restart the season again. We also want everyone it would require to resume a baseball season to be as safe as possible.

It appears that the owners and MLB offices have indeed given this some thought, because, as per Ken Rosenthal, a Tuesday meeting between the league and the union focused entirely on such health issues. ($) The league has a medical consultant with years of experience in the field of infectious diseases; the MLBPA and some of the players agents have their own medical consultants. And presumably they are studying other leagues that are in or about to be back in operation, such as the KBO, the German Bundesliga (scheduled to start play again in June) and the MLS (which is considering have all teams located around Orlando for a summer tournament).

So discussions, and hopefully well-informed discussions are underway. But let’s acknowledge that it will be a challenge to overcome the obvious safety barriers to a 2020 season.

Would players be asked to quarantine with their families when they are away from the field? Would the potential for infection complicate trades? Keep in mind that while teams use chartered flights for road trips (which minimizes their exposure to other travelers) a traded player will usually grab a commercial flight to his new city. Does this create increased risk of infection?

Another sticky issue is whether a player could opt out of this year without penalty (other than loss of salary). While many players are eager to resume play and consider themselves to be at low risk for serious illness, a few may have underlying conditions, or have close family members with such conditions, that would make even the modest risks of daily exposure intolerable. If these players sat out the year, what would that mean in terms of service time, health benefits and other concerns? How would that affect the competitive balance between teams? It’s hard for me to imagine forcing someone back to work who has reason to feel it is unsafe for him.

Let’s remember, as well, that some state “stay at home” orders would prevent even empty stadium baseball. Gavin Newsome does not expect restrictions of gatherings of more than ten to lift this summer. That leaves five California teams unable to play home games. It’s not yet clear whether New York teams could resume play either. So this shortened season will also have to find some alternate locations.

Also, plans to re-start in July assume that the US (and Canada) are moving toward greater containment of Coronavirus. But the data are still uneven, with some places showing improvement but others dealing with new hot spots. And many health experts see it as likely that we will see a “second wave” of COVID-19 cases, most likely in the Fall but possibly sooner. Many of us live in states where, buoyed by flattening new case counts after weeks of near-quarantine, we are able to venture back into the world. If you are in the Tampa Bay area, you can now visit the beach or a restaurant. You can get your hair cut, and I just got an email from a local day spa telling me that it’s a great time for a massage.

This is all a grand experiment and we are the guinea pigs. We don’t know whether this return to semi-normal will lead to a spike in new cases two to three weeks down the road. MLB leadership is no more prescient than our public health experts and can’t project COVID-19 cases two months ahead. So the plans for restarting baseball in July could be vulnerable to higher infection rates and new restrictions.

Will there be 2020 baseball? Weighing the risks and rewards

With all these difficulties, will we ever see MLB baseball in 2020? I have seen the salary issues and health issues as operating on two entirely different tracks — first, baseball needs to ensure it can minimize (not entirely eliminate because that is not realistic, but greatly minimize) the possibility of COVID-19 infections. And then owners and players need to agree on a salary arrangement (which, in my mind, should follow the template agreed to in March). If health concerns can’t be addressed there is no baseball, period.

Others see these issues linked, in that player compensation should reflect the fact that, by returning to work, they are accepting a degree of risk they would not be taking on by staying home. Yankees Chris Ianetta, who sits on the MLBPA executive committee, was quoted in the Jeff Passan article as saying that players

should get fairly compensated for taking that [health] risk for the betterment of the game and the betterment of the owners who stand to make a huge profit off the game.

Wendy Thurm, an attorney and baseball writer, notes:

In sum, I really REALLY would like to see baseball resume. I know it’s not essential, but it’s such a great diversion. Even with empty stadiums it would bring everyone a huge dose of normal.

But I wonder whether those making these decisions, even with expert advice, can really anticipate how to deal with a virus that is not yet very well understood. I know that players and owners are arguing over money, but they really ought to be able to find a salary agreement they all can live with rather than have no 2020 season. I fully understand that the standard for returning to work, whether that is in the ballpark or the shop floor, can’t be zero risk of illness — we take risks every time we get out of bed. But we are constantly also taking reasonable precautions to reduce those risks - many that are so integrated into our daily lives (from wearing seatbelts to refrigerating perishable foods to brushing our teeth) that we barely notice them. Do we fully understand the precautions needed to minimize the risk of COVID, and are those precautions compatible with playing baseball? Health concerns and their associated logistical conundrums may defy easy solutions.