Major League Baseball was lobbed an 0-2 pitch right over the center of the plate. Not only did it swing and miss, it fell over into a cloud of dust.
In the middle of a global pandemic, baseball had a chance to be America’s symbol of hope. Summer’s pastime should have been a rallying cry and a source of healing. And with that would have come a vast number of eyeballs, new fans and high television ratings.
The long-term gain for baseball was obvious. All it needed was leaders of the game to come together with cool heads and good faith to hash out an agreement.
Apparently, that wasn’t possible.
I’m using past tense because it feels like the damage has already been done. I still believe baseball will be played in 2020, but the potential goodwill that could have been built up with fans feels lost.
The easy thing to do is blame the players for being greedy. But would you do your job for 25 percent of your salary, as some players are being asked to do?
But this is an extraordinary situation and these millionaires have plenty of money and are just playing a game!
That’s way too simplistic of a view that lacks decades of context between baseball’s players and owners, but the players still showed some awareness of that line of thinking when they agreed to prorated salaries back in March. This is a sport with guaranteed contracts and the players agreed that if they only play half the games, they should only receive half of their money. In return, the owners agreed to grant players full service time in 2020 no matter how many games are played.
It was a common-sense agreement in the midst of a crisis and suggested that goodwill could be built up in a sport that hasn’t had very much trust over the last few years.
But two months later, the situation is very different. The owners, perhaps with the realities of their short-term losses setting in, are asking the players to take even more cuts. The players have balked. The fans have lost.
There’s been a lot of extreme rhetoric during these negotiations, but this independent piece by entrepreneur Roger Ehnrenberg does a good job of explaining why owners are essentially asking players to finance their short-term losses from COVID-19.
Ehnrenberg writes: “During COVID-19, there has been a short-term hit to asset value as ticket sales, ad revenues, merchandise sales, etc. have slowed to a trickle. The owners have fixed costs (like stadium leases and/or maintenance, supporting the farm system and supposedly player contracts) that need to be covered regardless of revenues, so on a cash flow basis the lack of baseball is costing them real cash. But guess what — this is what being an equity owner is — benefiting from the ups but paying for the downs. But that’s not what the owners want — they want their highly compensated employees to cushion the blow, without any return for what is an implicit financing of the owners by these players.”
Look at it like this: If players insisted on receiving their full, already agreed-upon prorated salaries, but also agreed to defer the payments in effort to help cash flow problems in 2020, they’d essentially be financing the owners with zero interest. From a business perspective, this alone would be a generous offer from the players and multiple sources have told NBC Sports Chicago that deferred payments could end up being the compromise in this situation.
But the proposal sent to the MLBPA earlier this week asked for more. At this point, the players are not expected to respond to that proposal. Instead, they’ll come up with their own proposal.
Ehrenberg details other conventional ways owners can cover their short-term losses. For example, they could secure a bank loan. Or, on the more extreme end, they could sell part of the team.
“This is the way things work in the real business world,” he writes.
The smart move is for baseball to embrace the long-term gains that can come with getting back on the field and being a symbol of hope in America. This would bring new fans to the game and heal wounds with others that have left the game.
Operating in good faith and assuming a short-term financial hit might not be the easy thing for owners to do, but it is the right thing to do for baseball. The money and profits will still be there in the future and there will be more of it if the sport is able to take advantage of this incredible opportunity.
Instead, Major League Baseball is alienating its players and fans even more than it has in the past. What’s especially concerning is the impact the current disagreements will have on the next labor negotiations in 2021.
The quick, sensible negotiations in March pointed to potential peace and respect between the two sides. Indeed, this was an opportunity for owners to regain the trust that has eroded over the last three years. Instead, that opportunity appears to be lost.
Baseball can’t stomach the complete loss of the 2020 season. Add in a labor strife when the current collective bargaining agreement expires in 2021? Ouch.
Someone in Major League Baseball must see the damage that is being done. The 0-2 pitch right down the middle was spoiled. Perhaps there’s still a chance to get back in the game.
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