Judging by the tone-deaf tenor of these negotiations, Major League Baseball not only is banking on the belief that people need the sport but doubling down on that bet.
“Need’’ is a strong word, however.
Or can you get to the point that all this owner-player bickering finally flicks a switch in your brain and you start looking forward to the NBA or NHL season instead?
We already know both of those sports are returning in August — and without subjecting everyone to weeks of acrimonious debate about billions of dollars against the backdrop of historic unemployment, civil rights upheaval and a global pandemic.
Baseball is playing a dangerous game right now. The complete lack of self-awareness exhibited by the sport during this maddening “negotiating” process — through the proxy of commissioner Rob Manfred and union chief Tony Clark — is the behavior of an industry that views itself as bulletproof, thoroughly protected from any hurt feelings boiling over in the paying customers. They believe all their loyalty is an indestructible, infinitely renewable resource. That fans can’t ever be insulted enough to turn away.
What else are we supposed to think?
Major League Baseball had to be shut down on March 12 because of the COVID-19 outbreak. There was initial hope that it might come back around mid-May, but the pandemic raged to a frightening degree not seen in more than a century. Manfred was able to get the owners to formulate a return-to-play proposal, starting with 82 games, and then engaged the Players Association on May 12.
And here we are. Nearly four weeks later, it seems as if baseball is as far away from resuming the season as it was in March, our ears ringing from the constant name-calling spewing out from both sides.
Admit it. When spring training abruptly ended, you didn’t think it was possible to survive a week without baseball. Not after longing for it all winter. I thought the same. This is my job. What would we all do?
It’s now been 87 days, and somehow, life has gone on.
During that time, you’ve wrestled with teams to get ticket refunds for games that already had been canceled or we knew were never going to happen. You just wanted your money back, especially in these difficult economic times, and many teams did everything within their power not to give it to you before relenting (if they ever did).
You also got your hopes up that baseball could be back by July 4, which really wasn’t so bad, because that’s the unofficial start of summer anyway. Given the circumstances, the nation’s birthday felt like the perfect fit for Opening Day. The people who run the sport told you baseball was ready to do its part in the recovery, just as it had throughout U.S. history.
They’re apparently in no hurry.
The best-case scenario when the negotiations began had teams starting spring training 2.0 later this week. Instead, based on the labor stalemate, it’s possible that Manfred will give the union another 10 days or so for an agreement before rubber-stamping his own 50-game schedule that begins in August — just in time to compete with the NBA and NHL, with the NFL soon to follow.
Fifty games. Think about that. Because the owners want to minimize their losses and the union insists on prorated salaries, what is baseball’s gift to a fan base starving for the sport this summer?
A few dozen games is better than zero. Hard to argue with that. But if the players are pushed back to work without a deal under Manfred’s plan, as a punitive gesture, they’re not likely to give their approval for expanded playoffs (and the big cash payoff).
With all the pain and protests going on right now, what is your appetite for this level of aggravation from baseball, which is supposed to be the escape?
“In this time of unprecedented suffering at home and abroad, players want nothing more than to get back to work and provide baseball fans with the game we all love,” Clark said Thursday in a statement. “But we cannot do this alone.”
Clark’s words came in response to Manfred rejecting the union’s first-and-only proposal of a 114-game season, running from June 30 to Oct. 31, with expanded playoffs and the potential for mic’d up players, as well an offseason All-Star Game and Home Run Derby.
On paper, it sounds great. So of course, MLB said it couldn’t happen. The 114-game schedule was a non-starter because of the cost in prorated salary and the health concerns over a second wave of the coronavirus.
Deputy commissioner Dan Halem went as far as to say in MLB’s reply that an 82-game season was no longer possible, either.
Just another slap in the face.
A few days ago, a Twitter poll run by 98.5 The Sports Hub, a popular Boston station in one of the sport’s strongest markets, asked a simple question: Do you want Major League Baseball to come back and play in 2020?
Of the 13,522 people who responded, 59% said no.
Truly stunning. But that had to be the frustration speaking, the unheard voice of a fan base exhausted by having their hopes stomped on repeatedly by a sport that has never felt more out of touch.
When everyone could use a hand, baseball is keeping both in their pockets. The longer this goes on, the harder it gets to forgive.