In a pandemic world, baseball stays pragmatic
There’s a world out there in which a young man in Minneapolis died in police captivity, millions have lost their jobs because of the coronavirus and many thousands more have lost their lives.
Then there’s the world of sports. Which at times — and now is one of those times — seems disconnected from the other world. Dare we call that the real world?
Maybe the mess in which baseball finds itself entrapped at the moment is no worse than any negotiations through its tumultuous history. That strike of 1994, which wiped out the World Series, was both historic and an alarming end to our bubblegum fantasies.
Still, we were surrounded by normalcy. We could enjoy friends, go to dinner, go to ball games and concerts. Masks were for catchers or goalies.
No more. Now everything is shaped by social distancing and frustration. Basketball, hockey, golf, European soccer apparently have found ways to return — yes, they already were into the seasons. But baseball, America’s Game, the National Pastime, so far is unable to figure out a way to start.
It’s a free country, right? Just because the owners make a proposal based on reduced salaries for a reduced schedule — at best play begins in July, the halfway mark when things are normal — doesn’t mean the players have to accept it. And as of yet, they haven’t.
Where all this becomes emotional more than financial, although the contracts for the big boys, with rows of zeroes are very much financial, is the way athletes are viewed: lucky guys so many of us wanted to be as kids.
As the late Wilver Stargell said, “The ump doesn’t yell, ‘Work ball.’”
But baseball is a job, one that doesn’t pay much until you reach the majors, which very few do (the MLB minimum is $563,500 annually) and pays enormously if you’re one of the greats. Supply and demand, as they taught us in Econ 101.
So much of the problem with baseball as for everything is the virus — COVID-19, if you please — controlling our lives. Spring training was suspended after a couple weeks. Facilities were closed. Money from Cactus League and Grapefruit League seasons was stopped along with the games. Some teams returned regular-season ticket payments.
In March, players agreed to prorate their 2020 salaries based on the number of games played out of the usual 162-game schedule. And the MLB Players Association believed that was that. Basically, we understand we’re all in this together, farmers, merchants, team owners, team members.
Then the owners said the agreement allowed them to reopen negotiations over the probability that games would be played in empty stadiums without fans — as now is the situation in the Korean and Japanese leagues. With no gate receipts, no concessions and no parking came a request to cut the already prorated contracts by another 20 percent.
It doesn’t seem bad for the highest paid, Mike Trout, Clayton Kershaw. According to the very well tuned-in Jeff Passan of ESPN, Trout was to earn some $38 million this season, which may or may not be played. Shortened to 82 games, he would get $19 million. After the new reduction, the figure would be $6 million.
A bit more than the rest of us, but also a great deal less than $38 million he was supposed to get.
Teams such as the Yankees and Dodgers are loaded. Yet the rich, maybe most of all, don’t want to lose money. And the bottom feeders are trying desperately to stay in business. The Oakland Athletics two days ago cut or furloughed a majority of the office staff.
As far as playing personnel, the super agent Scott Boras, whose clients include Gerrit Cole ($36 million a season) and Stephen Strasburg ($35 million), told the players to refuse additional salary cuts.
They shouldn’t have to bail out the owners, he contends. "Let owners take some of their record revenues and profits from the past several years," said Boras, "and pay you the prorated salaries you agreed to accept or let them borrow against the asset values they created from the use of those profits players generated.”
That sort of thinking is more pragmatic than pandemic.