ST. LOUIS — A Cubs team that spent the second half of the season tanking and closes out the season this weekend with a COVID-19 outbreak has once again become baseball’s poster boys for what ails the game.
Literally and fiscally in this case.
But the ignominious, face-down finish for the Cubs in 2021 doesn’t have to go to waste if the game’s leaders learn from some of the Cubs’ more dubious decision-making and come together on two big changes in the next collective bargaining agreement:
1. Pay the damn players what they’ve earned.
2. Mandate a damn COVID-19 shot (or two) before they’re allowed to take the field in 2022.
The first is the give-back that owners aren’t likely to do over any dead president’s body: Raise the artificially and ridiculously low luxury-tax thresholds commensurate with the record revenue increases in the game (or eliminate them) and eliminate the hard caps on amateur spending — the primary incentives driving team executives and owners to tank.
The second is the one the players union is likely to fight as a pro-choice issue regardless of the health risk, potential cost of time on the field for infected players and (in worst-case scenarios) possible lost gates.
“I think it benefits everybody,” Cubs manager David Ross said of a possible mandate or incentivized vaccination effort heading into next season — on the day the Cubs added two more players to the COVID-19 “injured list” for a total of four Cubs in three days.
“And, look, I understand and was a union rep, and I know all that stuff is bargained,” Ross added. “There’s give and take to everything. Both sides understand how serious this is, and how detrimental it is to our game to come in daily and have this kind of lingering if somebody does happen to pop positive.”
The Cubs are one of the few teams in the majors this season that failed to reach MLB’s herd-immunity vaccination threshold of 85 percent. Team president Jed Hoyer said late this summer that the team still wasn’t close, though Ross said Friday some players who weren’t vaccinated early in the season had been vaccinated since.
The Cubs have four extra players in St. Louis for the final two games of the season as taxi-squad reinforcements in case the COVID-19 outbreak spreads any further. “Our radar’s up,” Ross said.
Whether their guard was down, collectively or individually, leading up to this outbreak, the lessons of navigating a game-a-day, six-month baseball season during a pandemic are clear, Ross said.
“We all can look back and say did we or didn’t we take things for granted, right?” he said. “This shows that nobody’s immune to it. We followed the same protocols we did early on. We’ve had a lot of interchanging parts as of late. I don’t think anybody knows where these things might stem from. That’s the world we’re living in.”
But it’s a world with vaccines.
And a professional sports world with role models in the NHL, NFL and NBA as MLB looks toward a third season in 2022 with COVID-19 still in play — variants of the virus currently filling ICUs and morgues at the highest numbers in regions with the lowest vaccination rates.
None of the sports has a mandate.
But the NHL won’t pay unvaccinated players for time lost due to COVID this season, with the NHL projecting at least a 98-percent vaccination rate by this month’s openers — the Blackhawks reporting the team is 100-percent vaccinated.
The NBA won’t pay players for games they miss because of non-compliance with local mandates — which impacts players for the two New York teams and Golden State. The NBA, which also opens this month, reportedly has reached a 95-percent vaccination rate among players — with a few high-profile exceptions, including Brooklyn’s Kyrie Irving and Golden State’s Andrew Wiggins.
The NFL, which reported a 93-percent vaccination rate in September, has especially strict protocols for unvaccinated players and puts the financial burden for any canceled games on any team whose unvaccinated player or players cause the cancelation.
Baseball’s players union is stronger than those in the other sports, so a mandate is difficult to imagine.
But that’s where the money comes in — freeing up again the theoretical free markets the MLB has managed to suppress through gains in the last two CBAs as well as what has looked in some recent markets like collusion. Easing the salary suppression that has driven baseball's so-called middle class and 30-something veterans into near extinction.
That’s already a high-priority point of contention for the players in negotiations to replace the CBA that expires Dec. 1.
So restore a fair share for the players of the revenue the players earn for the league in exchange for NHL- or NFL-like vaccination incentives tied to that increased flow of cash.
That would fix two of the biggest problems facing the sport as it closes the 2021 regular season, holds its breath during a potentially fraught postseason and tries to build a better 2022 product.
It would help assure the best players are on the field for the most games, help protect the gates and potentially put the sport in position to boost revenue to further enrich both sides.
“I think both sides understand there’s a great sport here, and a lot of people come to the park to watch us play, and we make nice money to do that,” Ross said. “The best thing to be able to do is put a good product on the field every single night.
“Everybody benefits from good players on the field and good competition and growing our sport. That’s where we’ve got to keep the right mindset.”
Teams such as the Cubs and Nationals already mandate vaccines for their non-playing personnel.
That’s a good start on the right mindset.
It should continue with the league for once treating its players like the actual product and league brand that they are instead of labor costs and interchangeable widgets — and some of the pro-choice and inexplicably anti-vax players conceding on strong vaccination incentives.
Because when it comes to what’s right, two fundamental truths are self-evident in this sport at this moment:
Players should get paid. And players should get vaccinated.