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Finding a path back to baseball: health and financial concerns

Let’s get the health and safety right first

MLB: Minnesota Twins at Tampa Bay Rays Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

Major League Baseball (MLB) and the Major League Baseball Player’s Association (MLBPA) have gone to the media in order to try to resolve issues the two sides need to agree to in order to play some version of the 2020 Major League Baseball Season. Issues about salary and health precautions will need to be addressed, and both sides have used both social media and leaks to reporters as they try to win the battle for public support.

Health and Safety

This is the number one most important thing that needs to be addressed. Without an agreement surrounding health and safety nothing else matters. Players, team employees, and fans need to be safe.

The easiest group to protect is the fans. The simple solution is to play games in empty stadiums. Obviously this will lead to money issues, but that’s not the focus here.

Players and essential team employees such as managers, coaches, and the broadcast crew are harder to protect. We’re seeing what measures are effective with the resumption of games by the Korean Baseball Organization.

These personnel need to have regular tests to make sure infectious people don’t transmit the virus to others. There are measures that can be taken to minimize the spread of the disease such as washing your hands constantly, wearing masks, and minimizing the amount of people you are in contact with.

The risks will never be zero. If not COVID-19 it will be some other risk. The goal should be to minimize these risks as best as they can.

How do we weigh the risks and rewards of baseball to those on the field and to the broader community?

As far as the community is concerned: as much as we might not like to believe it, sports aren’t an essential part of life. They make life better, but if there are additional risks to communities from professional sports then we should do without professional sports. We should not support sending thousands of tests to MLB, for example, if those tests could otherwise be used for essential workers. If travelling players will increase infection risks then we shouldn’t have players travelling. This is the first bar that should be cleared before the sport begins. If this can’t be figured out then it should stop.

The players as a group are generally in a lower risk of experiencing complications from COVID-19 (but not at lower risk of catching or spreading the virus). They are young and generally healthy. There are concerns about transmitting it to their family that must be considered. Limiting the amount of people you need to be in contact and periodic testing are just a few things that should be done to limit the risks of infection.

But that doesn’t mean that COVID-19 creates no serious health threats to a baseball team. You may have players with respiratory illnesses in their medical history; you may have coaches and clubhouse personnel who are at higher risk because of age or health concerns. Ultimately each individual will have to determine whether they are willing to take these risks. They should be educated about the situation and if they feel it’s not worth it they should have the option of sitting out the season.

There needs to be a plan about what happens when a player or employee tests positive. The only likely solution is to quarantine anybody in contact with the infected people and pause the season for some specified period of time.

I’m not an infectious disease expert, but MLB has apparently consulted with people who are. Hopefully they would heed those views in plotting their course of action.

If we can get an agreement on these points I’m confident we can see 2020 baseball.

Money

This is the part that makes me sick to write. This is the part that makes the headlines and it absolutely should not be the focus right now. If you can’t figure out health and safety guidelines the money the players make is irrelevant. They should not be playing.

But money differences have been getting a lot of the attention. We’ve had Blake Snell venting “I’m not making shit,” and then on the other hand some former players or other commentators talking about how players need to take what they get. Both approaches come off badly to the general public. These make great click bait headlines, but ultimately aren’t the important issue right now.

Now I completely back Snell in that the players need to get what they can get. In their eyes they have already agreed to roughly a 50% pay cut if they are only able to play a half season. This wasn’t something they gave up as there is a force majeure clause in the CBA that has the players getting pro-rated pay when games are forced to be cancelled due to situations not under the league’s control.

The players should stand to get the pay they feel thy are owed. Now this is a negotiation to agree to get the season started.

The owners stance will be they will lose stacks of money. Yesterday on CNN, MBL Commissioner Rob Manfred said, “If we don’t play a season the losses for the owners could approach $4 billion.” This number has to be taken with a grain of salt as it very likely is a worst case scenario from the owners perspective. Owners will lose a lot of money whether that is $2 billion, $3 billion, or $4 billion it’s likely somewhere in that ballpark.

Now owners shouldn’t be guaranteed a profit and they will have to take a hit this year. The leverage the owners have is half of the player’s salary, about $2.1 billion. That is a lot of money the players miss out on if a season isn’t played even if they take a cut on that amount.

It sounds like the owners proposal would require players to take a 33% pay cut, and that’s not something the players should just agree to. It’s a first proposal. I don’t think a season gets played if they don’t agree to some fashion of reduced pay. Maybe it can be in the form of some money being turned into deferrals, but the players should try to get as much as they can.

Beyond the question of individual player salaries, the MLBPA can negotiate to include more players on major league rosters. One proposal I’ve heard floated includes larger rosters of 28 and maybe even 30 instead of 26 in order to facilitate additional double headers. The addition of taxi squads is likely necessary to help with injury replacements as it’s very unlikely that a minor league season can be agreed to. These are extra jobs that will earn something. So while guaranteed major leaguers lose something they can get something for other players.

A revenue split would be the easiest way to work things out, but I understand why it’s a non-starter for the player’s union. Once you head down that path it’s one that you likely get trapped into when this CBA expires in a couple years. The MLBPA isn’t interested in heading down the path of revenue splits like the NBA and NFL models, which are often tied to salary caps. The union recognizes that agreeing to this arrangement now will impact their CBA negotiations moving forward.

Frankly, I believe the public airing of the financial negotiations ends up making both sides look bad, as these are mostly privileged people trying to get the edge on other even more privileged people, and none of them will look like heroes to a general public that is struggling to pay rent. I’d prefer this got settled behind closed doors and we weren’t barraged with spin from both sides, but that’s not how it will play out.

If they can find a way that minimizes any risks for the players they should be able to reach an agreement on the financial side.

I hope everybody is safe and we are able to see baseball this year, but if it doesn’t happen then I’ll be hopeful for a return next spring.