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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Might it actually be possible? No MLB in 2020?

Second base sits in its place in an

Second base sits in its place in an otherwise empty ballpark where grounds crew members continue to keep the Seattle Mariners' field in playing shape as the ballpark goes into its seventh week without baseball played because of the coronavirus outbreak Monday, May 11, 2020, in Seattle Credit: AP/Elaine Thompson

Fast-forward to July 4. On America’s birthday, life has crept back closer to normalcy, with busy beaches, backyard cookouts and even socially-distanced partying for fireworks.

Finally, it feels like the traditional start to summer again, made complete by the return of the national pastime.

European soccer.

Not a Premier League fan? Don’t worry. By then, the NBA will be less than a month away, with the NHL to follow in August. NFL camps should be in full swing, with the start of the regular season still penciled in for September.

And what about baseball? Well, under this nightmare scenario, MLB’s owners and the Players Association wasted too much time waiting for the other to blink. Then negotiations simply collapsed for good, with neither side willing to budge on economic issues inflated to monstrous levels by the pandemic.

We initially dismissed this as a potential outcome, based largely on the premise that these warring factions simply had too much to lose by folding on the 2020 season. To use a Cold War term: the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction.

But if you boil it down to strictly a numbers game, with the owners drawing a line in the sand at what they’re willing to spend on a truncated season and the Players Association sticking to prorated salaries agreed to in March, what if this ultimately becomes a hard-line business decision, amplified by the COVID-19 outbreak?

“I would frankly be surprised at this point if they were able to bring it together to play,” said Vince Gennaro, associate dean at NYU’s Tisch Institute for Global Sport. “I don’t believe this is posturing. I believe these are the economic realities.

"The one factor that seems to connect the dots here and solve the equation would be if the players say they would accept some portion of less than half the salaries for half the games.

“Are the players more motivated to get X% of their salary and play some games or not, because there’s also risk in it from the player side, and a lot of personal factors go into that as well. So I think there’s enough obstacles to see how this might not come together.”

Gennaro, an expert and author on baseball economics, is referring to obstacles that were on full display this past week, a turbulent few days that began with MLB’s low-ball first proposal of a sliding scale for pay reductions. The deepest cuts were reserved for the highest-paid players; those at the lower end had their prorated salaries kept closer to whole. A similar system already has been used by some teams in chopping front-office salaries, in addition to furloughing other employees and releasing hundreds of minor-leaguers.

That first pitch was greeted with derision by the Players Association, which has yet to deliver a counterproposal on the economic front. Just as the idea of 50-50 revenue-sharing was considered a non-starter because of its off-putting odor of a salary cap, the union scoffed at what it termed “massive” pay cuts without proof of proportional financial distress from the owners. To date, MLB says it is taking a 40% hit without gate-related revenues and would lose, on average, $640,000 for each game if players were paid their prorated salaries for an 82-game season. 

According to a Players Association memo obtained by The Athletic, the union characterized MLB’s first economic proposal as asking for more than $800 million in additional reductions, on top of the 50% already lost to the season’s first half being wiped out by the coronavirus. Union chief Tony Clark has insisted for weeks that negotiations are closed as far as player compensation is concerned, sticking to what the union says was spelled out by the prorated terms in the March 26 agreement.

Max Scherzer, a member of the union’s eight-man executive committee, was the only player to respond publicly.

“After discussing the latest developments with the rest of the players, there’s no reason to engage with MLB in any further compensation reductions,” he wrote in his statement on Twitter late Wednesday night. “I’m glad to hear other players voicing the same viewpoint and believe MLB’s economic strategy would completely change if all the documentation were to become public.”

While the Players Association keeps asking for more pertinent economic data, MLB has declined to go beyond what is dictated by the collective bargaining agreement. Part of that issue is likely what agent Scott Boras alluded to in his email to clients (as reported by The Associated Press) that implored players not to “bail out” the owners for their debts incurred by capital improvements to the franchises.

In the meantime, the two sides continue to discuss the health/safety protocols, which are daunting enough on their own to require a 67-page operations manual. Those guidelines need work, too. It’s a lot to accomplish in a shrinking window, framed by a long history of labor mistrust, and last week was a discouraging start.

“We’ve been thrown for a loop with this pandemic,” Gennaro said. “It’s created a level of complexity not only on economic and financial levels but on life-or-death issues. Even if there was a perfectly symbiotic relationship between the owners and the union, I’m not so sure this could get done. Even under the best of preconditions, this would be a big problem.”



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