While the NFL steams towards the postseason after navigating the perilous waters of the pandemic, and the NBA prepares for a 72-game season just a couple of months after finishing its Finals in a bubble, MLB's owners are once again forcing us to ask a simple question.
Do they even like baseball?
You wouldn't know it from their actions, which over the last year have revealed two priorities:
- Keeping the season as short as possible
- Defeating the union
To no one's surprise, they're at it again. A pair of anonymous owners recently told USA Today there's no way the season starts on time, that spring training could be delayed until April, and that no games should be played until every player is vaccinated.
The players countered that they wish to play all 162 games, and more importantly, be paid for them. The last thing they want is a repeat of last season, when the owners unilaterally imposed a 60-game season that only lasted that long because they hadn't negotiated a floor of 59.
The coming months are about to get ugly, which is what these sides do even in the best of times, and now they're jockeying to see who ends up on the wrong end of the Red Wedding during next winter's CBA negotiations.
The knee-jerk reaction is to declare the players greedy and ungrateful while conveniently overlooking the fact that they're the ones that want to play. You can practically feel the drool, by comparison, dripping from the chins of the owners at the prospect of slashing the season to 140 or 120 or if they're lucky maybe just EIGHTY games in order to save on payroll ... I mean get everyone vaccinated.
Imagine owning a movie theater and closing on Memorial Day weekend to avoid all of that time and a half? Or running a restaurant while trying to serve as little food as possible. Or franchising a Dave and Buster's and then unplugging the claw machines.
You'd wonder if that person had chosen the right business, and it's a fair question for every one of MLB's 30 owners, who seem consumed with limiting their expenses and therefore increasing the desperation of the players at the bargaining table, even if it means further eroding passion for the game.
And yes, this includes John Henry.
The Red Sox owner has spent freely and built four World Series winners and soliloquized about his childhood love of Stan Musial, but we should never forget the disgrace of last summer, when baseball squandered a chance to deliver a much-needed jolt of normalcy, maybe even briefly reclaim its status as our national pastime, choosing instead to engage in boilerplate infighting.
The players sounded tone deaf because idiots like Blake Snell whined about money amidst the 'Rona, but at least the players wanted to play. The owners were the ones driving that impasse; some of them doubtlessly would've preferred no season at all. Henry's silence made him complicit.
The owners are once again angling to truncate the 2021 campaign, this time by making an appallingly bad-faith argument about vaccines. Let's be real: they don't care if the players are vaccinated nearly as much as they want to know when they'll be able to host fans. Were restrictions on mass gatherings lifted on April 1, you can bet they'd want the games to start and the queso to flow the next day.
On the surface, making this about vaccines is unassailable. Who's going to argue against prioritizing safety? Too bad it doesn't withstand scrutiny.
Baseball navigated 60 games last year. The NFL may be crawling over the finish line, but the playoffs will happen. The NBA has left its bubble. The NHL will play a regionalized schedule. Only is baseball, months ahead of time, defaulting to, "We can't play." Some may call it an abundance of caution. Others will see it for what it is, since operating on a vaccine timeline guarantees the games won't start until late spring or early summer, which allows the owners to save on salary.
Making this about safety when it's really about money is sleazy.
If the owners want to demonstrate their concern for player safety, they could pay the players until the games start, but we know the chances of that happening rank somewhere between are you bleeping kidding me? and yeah ... no.
Baseball claims it lost $3 billion last year, but owners won't open their books to prove it. (The Braves, who are publicly traded, are the exception, and their quarterly report showed a small profit of $6 million once the game started last year). Owners expect the players to take their claims of biblical losses on faith. "Teams make money," super-agent Scott Boras said flatly last week.
The Red Sox are worth over $3 billion and they saved roughly $120 million on payroll during the 60-game 2020 season, but that wasn't enough to forestall significant layoffs. They axed 10 percent of their workforce, or about 40 people, many with long and meritorious careers at Fenway Park. The Cubs, A's, Braves, Orioles, Padres, Phillies, Nationals, Astros, and Giants, among others, made similar cuts.
What no one in baseball's ruling class seems to grasp is that every game that's played in 2021 -- even without fans -- is an investment in the game's viability. Owners are myopically focused on short-term losses instead of long-term growth, a position that doesn't square with the killings they're undoubtedly making in the stock market, which isn't on a bull run because of our current misery, but the promise of the future.
The arrival of multiple vaccines means an end to the pandemic is in sight. When that happens, does baseball want to be positioned to capitalize, or will the league's 30 billionaires be toasting the 12.5 percent they just saved on payroll?
Maybe if they gave us a reason to believe they actually like the game they're stewarding, we wouldn't have to ask the question.