Last week was supposed to be a pivotal week for baseball’s return, with time running short and plenty of work to do.
Instead, MLB and the Players Association did little more than trade blows on the all-important economic issues, further extending the labor stalemate.
So what does that make the coming week?
Considering that Monday is June 1 and MLB ideally would like to have Opening Day around July 4, every day from this point forward takes on greater significance.
Still, there hasn’t been the sense of urgency one might expect, and the Players Association has yet to offer a counterproposal to MLB’s pitch for sliding-scale pay reductions, which was delivered last Tuesday. The union bristled at those steep cuts for its highest-paid players, estimating that the plan called for more than $800 million in additional givebacks after the 50% lost when the pandemic wiped out the first half of the season.
The Players Association has treated any additional salary cuts as a non-starter in this round of negotiations. The owners insist they can’t pay the entirety of their prorated contracts. The ongoing debate involves the “economic feasibility” of taking the field again, and ESPN reported Sunday that some owners would rather cancel the season to save money on payroll costs and avoid further losses.
The question: How many owners truly feel that way? MLB needs 23 teams for any proposal to be approved, so it would require eight dissenting clubs to effectively tank any shot at restarting the season.
There’s no doubt that plenty of owners are pleading economic hardship, based on the pay cuts and furloughs to front offices as well as the release of hundreds of minor-leaguers (cost: $400 each per week). The owners also insist they’d lose $640,000 per game, on average, if they had to pay the players prorated salaries over an 82-game season.
“It does feel like there's a fairly large gulf,” said Vince Gennaro, associate dean at NYU’s Tisch Institute for Global Sport. “And I'm not sure if there is a middle to be found.
"I guess part of it is, I am wondering what leverage the players might have. I mean, if you're losing a bunch of money as owners by not playing, and then you're losing a bunch more by playing, then I’m not sure why you would play.
“There is a reason, independent of the financials, and that is to command the stage for sports again. The country is yearning for that.”
In addition, baseball has to avoid the scenario of being the only sport that doesn’t make it back, if the NBA, NHL and NFL all start up again. That wouldn’t be a great look for MLB and certainly could do irreparable damage to its long-term popularity.
“You don’t want to be left out — the league that missed the whole season when everybody else got something in,” Gennaro said. “There should be a price the owners are willing to pay for that.”
That would figure to be a wise investment. But the baseball industry has shown a tendency to be short-sighted in some areas — perhaps reflective of a league worried about its weakening position in the sports marketplace. And with MLB taking up to a 50% hit because of the lack of gate-related revenues this year — games aren’t expected to be played with spectators — the owners probably aren’t going to waver on the need for further salary concessions from the players.
They tried last week, with a startling first proposal that asked for percentage cuts up to 77% for top earners such as Mike Trout and Gerrit Cole. That was summarily rejected in a Twitter statement delivered by Max Scherzer, the only one associated with the union to say anything publicly regarding MLB’s first pitch. The only update since then was the union’s internal memo to players that said it was weighing a response and had yet to receive any additional financial information from MLB.