Buster Posey could afford to opt out of MLB’s shortened 2020 season.
The Giants catcher is secure on and off the field. He’s well on his way to a spot on the Giants “Wall of Fame” and, potentially, enshrinement in Cooperstown. Posey has also made over $115 million in career earnings, according to Spotrac, with two more seasons under contract beyond this one.
Many of Posey’s fellow players -- and millions of his fellow Americans -- aren’t so lucky. They’re faced with an impossible choice: Return to work (and a paycheck) now, as states reopen despite a national inability (with some exceptions) to limit the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, or don’t and miss out on financial security during what is otherwise an extremely insecure time. MLB salaries didn’t rise at the same rate as league revenues over the last few years, and they almost certainly won’t rise at all next season in the wake of the pandemic.
Posey opting out is a reflection of his privilege, but it shouldn’t have come down to that. That Posey, correctly, deemed playing baseball was too risky for his young, growing family while a pandemic -- of which so much remains terrifyingly unknown -- ravages the country is a greater reflection of the failures of people far more powerful than an All-Star catcher.
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Nearly 135,000 Americans have died during the pandemic, according to NBC News reporting and state health officials. The United States has more confirmed deaths than any country in the world, earning that dubious distinction on April 11. Three days later, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred was one of many professional sports commissioners and executives tasked with advising President Donald Trump on re-opening the nation’s economy.
Manfred’s presence on that committee was not an explicit endorsement of the White House or federal policies relating to the pandemic, but that context simply can’t be ignored. He, representing MLB, advised a President whose government has continually downplayed the coronavirus’ threat and continually botched the response to it while advocating for Americans to return to work when there's no guarantee they can do it safely.
It’s only getting worse. Infections are climbing nationwide, as are deaths. ICUs are reaching capacity. Testing is short. This is the context in which MLB is set to return at the end of the month, with players traveling across state lines.
It’s an impossible choice that athletes abroad haven’t had to make, nor is it one that players in all North American sports leagues have faced.
Four of Europe’s five biggest men’s soccer leagues have kicked off amid the pandemic, with each occurring in a country with a greater handle on the pandemic than the United States. Even England’s Premier League, playing in one of Europe’s hardest-hit countries, has only had 18 players and staff test positive for the coronavirus among over 16,000. MLB had 66 among nearly 3,500 initial samples.
While NBA and MLS players are resuming their seasons in Florida as the state continues to be a coronavirus hotspot, NWSL’s Challenge Cup has mostly gone off without a hitch in Utah. Yes, an entire team backed out before the start of the tournament, but even NWSL players weren’t facing a choice between a salary and health before play started: Their salaries are fully guaranteed this season.
Of course, NWSL has fewer teams, fewer players and thus fewer salaries to pay at much lower levels than MLB. Eight teams in a “bubble” is a lot more realistic than 30, let alone 15 for the National and American Leagues. But NWSL didn’t make a record $10.7 billion in revenue last year, nor did it sign a television-rights deal worth nearly $500 million per year just last month.
MLB players, like Posey, who opt out won’t get paid or receive a year of service time unless they’re deemed high-risk by a team physician. You can fault the MLB Players Association for not negotiating guaranteed salaries, but MLB showed time and again it was unwilling to concede much of anything at the bargaining table.
Posey had the security to step away from playing baseball this season, and his calculus was fundamentally different from the sport’s rank-and-file. It didn’t have to be, though, and the inability of less-secure players to do so is because of an insistence from those in the highest levels of power to return to business as usual.
But Posey's absence this season will be yet another reminder that there is no business as usual in the middle of a global pandemic.