The most predictable, easily ignored labor-vs.-management argument in the history of American sports took its first two unsurprising steps this week.
First, Major League Baseball owners proposed a plan to start a half-season of games in early July, provided that the players agree to a percentage-of-the-revenue deal on salaries that would be exactly the kind of de facto salary cap they have rejected in every labor negotiation I’ve covered since the 1970s.
Very amusing, owners. What, you thought the players wouldn’t notice?
Yes, the NFL, NBA and NHL have percentage-of-revenue pay and salary caps. But that’s what the MLB Players Association always fights against in favor of a system it likes better: a free market. Yes, irony: The union wants a system akin to capitalism while MLB owners would love the security of less-competitive semi-socialism.
The MLBPA then made its own show of posturing by rejecting the owners’ idea before it was even presented, calling it a “non-starter.”
Silly us. We thought the players and owners had resolved their problems about seven weeks ago by agreeing to pay players prorated salaries based on the number of games that were played. Then it turned out that both sides had, maybe conveniently, never clarified the issue of whether those games would have fans in the stands — you know, the fans who provide about 40 percent of MLB’s revenue with tickets and whatnot.
At least we get a good laugh. Now, both sides say, with a straight face: Oh, we thought you knew. We decided to do it our way. You didn’t get the memo?
Hopefully, while they fuss, both sides keep in mind that there are millions of baseball lovers (such as me) who, for the first time in their lives, do not give much of a hoot whether there’s a 2020 season. Got bigger worries. Would 78 games be better than none? Yes.
But fans aren’t the ones with a big problem, because we know 2021 will come. And the novel coronavirus eventually will go. Baseball will return, just as it did after the 1918 influenza pandemic, World War II and the 1994 strike. We may even save a few bucks that we could use elsewhere.
The people who really care whether there is a 2020 season are the owners and players. They face a choice that is not a choice at all. They can fight, waste time and end up with zero games and $0.00 in total revenue for the year, as opposed to the $10.7 billion they split up last year. Or they can figure out how to play those 78 (or whatever) regular-season games, plus a postseason with as many as 14 teams and additional TV revenue. Then they would probably end up with nearly $4 billion this year. That’s a lot better than $0.00.
So if it turns out that the coronavirus recedes enough in the next 50 days while safety measures and testing reach a point where a half-season could be played but isn’t because of bickering, I’ll be fascinated to see how anyone explains that to fans.
Just when its customers needed it most — as a distraction from boredom; as a change of mood after a 14-hour hospital shift; as an escape from the pain of a lost job, an empty wallet or worry over a sick relative; as a chance to laugh or share a sense of community with others — baseball would be putting up a sign that says: “No Games in 2020. We’re rich. We’re safe. We couldn’t agree. See you next year, suckers.”
Oh, yeah, that’ll work. You’ll be explaining to ex-fans.
So how could you frame a deal that would not set a salary cap precedent? Maybe the owners say: “We’re going to get killed. We can pay you one-third of your 2020 salaries if you’ll play one-half of the season, plus a slightly expanded postseason.” Then you negotiate from there.
For once, fans can ignore squabbles between billionaires and millionaires. They are both in a tough spot. If it looks like a July 4 Opening Day is possible, they will race to fold their bluffs. Neither even has jacks to open. They know it.
There are, however, stats and trends to watch in the next 50 days that will tell you the likelihood of a facsimile of an MLB season in 2020: the COVID-19 stats.
Anyone who watched the congressional testimony of Anthony Fauci, ardent baseball fan and the nation’s top infectious disease expert, and other public health officials Tuesday understands that no one knows, even broad brush, what path the pandemic will take between now and July 4.
For example, in mid-March, Italy was devastated by the virus. It still has big problems. But in the past 50 days or so, new daily cases of the coronavirus have decreased by 89 percent and daily deaths by 77 percent (to 179 on Monday). Italy’s active cases — a key curve that turns downward when more people get well each day than get sick — has rolled over by 24 percent since its peak in April.
Italy’s progress shows how fast the picture can change. But so far, we’re no Italy. On April 15, near the peak in new cases and daily deaths in the United States, Fauci talked optimistically about ways MLB might resume by Independence Day in parks without fans. But that cautious optimism was based in the assumption that this country soon would see improved stats.
On the day Fauci’s interview aired, new cases and daily deaths in the U.S. were at 29,280 and 2,722, respectively. Fast-forward almost four weeks: On Monday, the seven-day moving averages in those categories were 23,751 and 1,699.
In four more weeks, if the stats continue to improve at this sluggish pace, it’s doubtful the public mind will be focused on any sport. If, as Fauci warned Tuesday, “premature openings” around the country in states where the virus has not been sufficiently contained lead to new outbreaks, new fears and more bad stats, you can kiss MLB in 2020, in any form, goodbye.
The coronavirus got out to a big lead in the United States when some other better-prepared or better-led countries were keeping the game close. Now we’re playing catch-up, so far with little success.
It’s the COVID-19 stats, not the MLB stats, that matter now. If they don’t get better fast, or if they even get worse, then canceling a baseball season will be among the least important of our losses.