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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

With public feud over money, MLB players are losing the battle for hearts and minds of fans

Tony Clark, head of the Major League Baseball

Tony Clark, head of the Major League Baseball Players Association, speaks with the media in Dunedin, Fla., on Friday, February 24, 2017.  Credit: AP/Nathan Denette

With friends like these, who needs the owners?

Alex Rodriguez, who earned $441 million during his 22-year on-field career, took to Twitter on Friday to condemn “billionaires fighting with millionaires” and “urge” the Players Association to agree to MLB’s revenue-sharing proposal.

Mark Teixeira pulled in $213 million during 14 years in the bigs, but now, in his second act as an ESPN voice, he says he’d take “pennies on the dollar” to accept MLB’s return-to-play pitch.

Way to throw the union under the bus, guys.

Listen, the Players Association hasn’t done a great job handling the PR side of this from the get-go, when both union chief Tony Clark and agent Scott Boras blasted away publicly at the revenue-sharing idea. That’s always been a radioactive concept for the union — it’s akin to a salary cap — but these COVID-19 times call for a more diplomatic approach.

Behind the scenes, it’s difficult to tell how the negotiations are going as far as a restart for the season. But in the court of public opinion, based on the past week, the Players Association took a big L, from Boras to ex-players to the “bro”-addled Twitch rantings of Rays pitcher Blake Snell, who maybe got his message across but flunked the delivery.

And for those of us closely monitoring this stuff, a group that includes the all-important fans of this sport, perception matters. When A-Rod and Tex leave tire tracks on the next generation, the “greedy player” chorus cheers. When Boras and Clark try to pass off their well-heeled constituency as victims, it comes off as tone- deaf in a seriously wounded nation that has 30 million people out of work.

Meanwhile, as the players state their case on Twitch and the Gram, commissioner Rob Manfred gets the CNN stage Thursday night to coolly express the collective pain of MLB owners, who he says are set to lose up to $4 billion if no games are played.

Manfred’s number elicited a “that’s incredible” even from unflappable host Anderson Cooper, so the prime-time viewers at home certainly reacted with slack-jawed amazement as well. From a baseball perspective, that’s called winning the hearts and minds of the audience. In this labor tussle, it landed like a Tyson uppercut to the jaw.

I don’t doubt Manfred’s figures. MLB pulls in about $10 billion annually, and if 40% comes from gate-related revenue (tickets, concessions, sponsorships), that’s some pretty simple math. I’m not sure how the billions in multimedia deals will shake out if there are no games to broadcast this year, other than MLB having to further negotiate with those partners to figure out a financial solution.

Everyone in the sport is hurting, to varying degrees, and that in no way is meant to suggest baseball deserves more sympathy than the many, many others suffering around the United States and the world. But in relation to this particular industry, Manfred immediately swiped the high ground from the Players Association, whose disjointed response — and flat-out betrayal by former card-carrying members — has them scrambling to present their own legitimate concerns.

The union had a clear path to make this all about the health-and-safety challenges of trying to play during a pandemic. Even with this nation’s small gains on the containment front, the players are likely to significantly enhance their chances of contracting the virus — and passing it on to their families — by traveling around in large groups playing baseball.

That’s an unassailable position. The risk is life-or-death real, with young players still vulnerable (to a lesser extent) and older game-operations staffers potentially in the danger zone. But the Players Association got baited into a public fight over money when the owners lured them onto the third-rail topic of revenue-sharing.

For decades, the union has successfully thwarted MLB’s efforts to implement such a system — one that is used by the other three major North American sports — but some of those battles took a lasting toll on baseball’s popularity. In this desperate climate, the Players Association has to recognize it can’t shift into that same labor-war mentality. Not for public consumption, anyway.

Nationals reliever Sean Doolittle had the right idea this past week with a thoughtful Twitter thread that smartly outlined the players’ health concerns. Doolittle not only brought up staple issues that revolve around testing but stressed the importance of protecting the sport’s “essential workers” such as hotel personnel, pilots, flight attendants and bus drivers.

“We need to consider what level of risk we’re willing to assume,” Doolittle tweeted. “[80%] of cases are considered mild, but what if a player, a staff member, an auxiliary worker, or a family member gets a case that’s in the 20% and they develop severe symptoms or chronic issues? One] feels like too many.”

People can empathize with that. We’ve all worried about infecting parents or grandparents. Maybe we feared standing too close on a socially distanced backyard visit. The players stress out about this stuff, too, and that anxiety will multiply to much greater levels once they start playing and exponentially increase their risk of exposure to the coronavirus.

Yet this took a backseat to salaries and contracts, because once everyone starts yelling about money, it’s nearly impossible to rationally discuss anything else until that part gets resolved. The Players Association, which by now should know better, had to be reminded of that again.

First and foremost, this is about figuring out how to play baseball during a pandemic. If that can truly be done safely, it’s hard to imagine the players not agreeing to take the field. And I’m sure they believe they can do it without the armchair moralizing from A-Rod and Teixeira.

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