As Major League Baseball finds itself in a maddening tug of war over the 2020 season, it’s time to hear from someone who was often a voice of reason inside the White Sox clubhouse, a former captain who can shed some light on why we’re into June and there’s still no deal between the owners and the players.
On the other end of the line, it’s Paul Konerko.
It’s pretty clear where he stands.
“I think you have to do what’s right. I feel like the players have bent over backwards in a lot of ways in the last few years on a lot of things. Sometimes you got to push back,” Konerko said on the White Sox Talk Podcast. “I think that the players just have a right to get what they want to get.”
Considering we’re in the middle of a pandemic with millions of Americans filing for unemployment, this might seem like the worst possible time for the players to be fighting for millions with owners worth billions.
But leave it to Konerko to peel back all the layers and get right to the core of what’s preventing the players from signing on the dotted line for anything less than the prorated salaries they agreed to back on March 26.
“It’s very simple for me. They signed contracts to play baseball and play baseball games. If you make $10 million a year signing up to play 162 games, if you play 81 games you should make 5 million bucks,” Konerko said.
“As crazy as it sounds, when anybody buys a team or owns a team, it’s not like when they got into this they said, ‘OK, what happens if eight years from now there’s a global pandemic and if I get this team I’m going to have to deal with this and all that? That I should think at that point, somehow or another, make sure the risk is somehow assumed equally or shared by somebody else.’
“It’s like, listen, if you own a team, unfortunately when a global pandemic hits, that’s kind of like the problem. It’s the same way with the players where you decide you want to be a baseball player and you don’t prepare for anything else and you go out and blow out your arm in your first year. That’s the risk you assume by taking that path.”
Of course, the league sees things differently. Owners believe the March agreement called for new negotiations if fans aren’t allowed in ballparks. The two different interpretations of the language in that agreement is a big reason why the league and the players' union remain without a deal to start the season after all this time.
“I’m a player through and through, and you know when something looks right on paper and says, ‘This is it.’ And if it doesn’t look right, you’ve got to have the discipline to walk away and don’t feel the pressure and the urge because of what’s gone on over the last four or five months to be pushed around,” Konerko said. “I think the players are pretty unified. It wouldn’t shock me if there’s a handful of owners or more that are perfectly happy not playing the season because I think it might be better on the bottom line for them.”
Though Konerko is siding with the players, you won’t hear him speak negatively about Jerry Reinsdorf.
After the White Sox won the 2005 World Series, it was Konerko who famously surprised the White Sox chairman by handing him the baseball from the final out at the victory parade.
“Jerry Reinsdorf I think is a great man. He treated me as good as anybody. He’s one of the best,” Konerko said.
But when it’s a battle between players and owners, Konerko gets down to the nitty gritty, explaining why owners are working in their comfort zone, while the players are not, and what that means for both.
“It’s a business. When guys in suits treat it like a business, it’s never a problem because that’s what guys in suits do. They do business. When players who wear uniforms that fans love treat it like a business, it’s a problem, and it shouldn’t be, because it is a business,” Konerko said. “So I have no problem. I admire the players.
“For me, you shouldn’t have to feel pressure that there has to be a season. I don’t know if the owners feel pressure. No one’s going to see them walking down the street if they don’t play a season. A lot of people don’t even know what they look like.”
Despite all the rancor, there is still hope there will be a baseball season at some point, even if they play only 48 games.
But what if the worst-case scenario occurs, where they can’t come to an agreement and the 2020 baseball season gets canceled?
We’ve heard predictions of irreparable damage to the sport. What does Konerko think?
“If they don’t play a season, no one is going to die. We’ll get through it just fine,” Konerko said. “We’ve gotten through a lot of things in this country over the last few months. If we don’t have baseball, we’ll live. We’re going to be fine.
“I don’t say that to bring a deal down. What I’m saying is I don’t think the players should be in a position to be the scapegoats to have to give so much to make a season happen.”
As grim as things might appear, the two sides are at least listening to offers. They might not like what the other is proposing, but there seems to be an overall willingness to have a baseball season, albeit under the right financial conditions.
How they eventually arrive at a deal remains a mystery, but Konerko has been around enough to know that an agreement could come at any moment.
“How many times does it look like a deal is so far away and then all of a sudden the announcement comes out?” Konerko said. “So it wouldn’t shock me if tomorrow they’re like, ‘We got it done. We’re going to play.’”
Can’t wait for that.