What a Wednesday. It only began when MLB Network’s Jon Heyman tweeted, “Breaking: MLB and players union are closing in on an agreement to play the 2020 season, via players. Deal expected to be for prorated pay and include expanded playoffs.”
Heyman kicked off what was possibly baseball’s most exciting day since the Washington Nationals shook, rattled, and rolled their way to winning Game Seven of last year’s World Series.
The difference is that the excitement had nothing to do with a gutsy pitching performance, or one manager having to hook a bold starting pitcher whose tank reached empty after surrendering a two-run homer, or another manager calling for a play review so his next pitcher might have a little more warmup time, or the first manager’s best relief option being reached for a foul-pole ringing, coffin-forming home run.
It had to do with baseball itself being exhausted of the unconscionable standoff between owners to whom the good of the game means making or saving money for it and players who don’t like people trying to renege on agreements but whose itch to play the game can be ignored for only so long before they have to scratch it.
On Tuesday came the word that commissioner Rob Manfred and Major League Baseball Players Association executive director Tony Clark met up and talked. Come Wednesday, once Heyman hit the merry-go-round switch the horsies galloped almost all over the place.
Some said the deal might be a 66-game season with a postseason expansion from ten to sixteen teams. Others said a 60-game season. Jayson Stark of The Athletic tweeted get your kicks on route 66: “12 games each vs 4 division opponents. 3 games each vs 4 interleague opponents. 6 games (home and home) vs interleague rival.”
Halt right there, tweeted NBC Sports’s Craig Calcaterra: “16 playoff teams is a joke. As it is I have made a mental distinction between the season and the postseason, considering them different things but if they go to 16 the season starts hurtling toward meaninglessness.”
Slow down, returned Stark, who ran down a quick list of teams who’d have made last year’s postseason in a 60-game season for a sixteen-team field: the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Milwaukee Brewers, the Chicago Cubs, the Atlanta Braves, the Philadelphia Phillies, the San Diego Padres, the St. Louis Cardinals, and the Colorado Rockies in the National League; the Houston Astros, the Minnesota Twins, the New York Yankees, the Tampa Bay Rays, the Texas Rangers, the Boston Red Sox, the Cleveland Indians, and the Oakland Athletics.
You may have noticed, as Stark couldn’t resist noticing, that among the missing in that scenario would have been 2019’s world champion Nats.
Then came the first chink in the chain pulling the merry-go-round in its circles, from Heyman’s fellow MLB Insider scribe Robert Murray: “Two sources with direct knowledge do not expect Major League Baseball’s latest proposal to the MLBPA to get a deal done. If a deal will be agreed upon, as [ESPN’s] @JeffPassan said, it needs to be for more than 60 games.”
Around 5 p.m. Pacific time USA Today columnist Bob Nightengale elucidated on the new proposal also including a universal designated hitter for this year and next. Shortly before that, former major league general manager Jim Bowden noted a likely deal would mean both the owners and the players foregoing grievances-to-be.
Then Heyman weighed in again, around 5:20 PDT: “The framework of the deal between Manfred and union chief Clark included: 60 games at 100% full prorated pay, waiver of grievances, 16-team expanded playoffs for 2 years, universal DH, more. Owner sources say it was agreed to pending constituency approval, meaning owners, players”
Two hours and ten minutes later, Murray slipped another chink into the merry-go-round’s motor chain: “People familiar with players’ thinking believe that they are seeking more games because they don’t feel a 60-game season is worth losing their right to file a grievance. ‘The ability to file a grievance,’ one agent said, ‘is almost worth letting the owners cancel the season’.”
What seems still to be another key is that the players don’t want a too-short season and a too-convoluted postseason but, as Athletic writer Ken Rosenthal posited, they may be willing to settle for 65 games. May. For a nation starved for major league baseball that may yet prove as good as major medical relief. May.
A day earlier, Yankee president Randy Levine, a man not necessarily renowned as a moderate among baseball administrators, struck another bull’s eye when he isolated one key issue other than dollars tied to that March agreement: “From what I’ve discovered, the holdup is not about the number of games or money at this time,” he said.
The holdup, as I understand it, is about resolving the other items in the March 26 agreement. They include final agreement on all of the health and safety protocols, deciding what happens if a season is interrupted by a second wave of the virus, which players can opt out and under what circumstances can they, and a host of issues like that.
Exactly. The owners often behave as though they forget it won’t be them at risk if baseball returns while the coronavirus’s world tour continues. The players—you know, the ones the fans pay to see play—will be at risk. So will fans once they’re allowed to return to the ballparks. So will the stadium workers, from the concession stand workers and hawkers in the stands to the grounds crews, stadium maintenance, and scoreboard personnel.
The owners also behave as though getting into baseball is a guaranteed financial bath. As though Jerry Reinsdorf didn’t buy the White Sox for $100 million in 1981 but has a team now worth $1.7 billion. As though David Glass—who’d helped Reinsdorf push for the 1994-95 strike—hadn’t bought the Kansas City Royals outright for $96 million in 2000 (he’d been the team president up to that point) and sold them for $1 billion last year. To name two.
Small wonder the players don’t want to surrender their right to a grievance without a battle, and small wonder the owners want them to agree to such a surrender.
So perhaps when all was said and done on Wednesday’s merry-go-round, the best news was the likelihood of the universal DH for this year and next. Unless there’s a codicil somewhere that isn’t yet known, bank on the universal DH remaining universal. At long enough last, the National League will have what a slightly pre-20th century Pittsburgh Pirates owner first proposed for sound reasons and last year’s collective pitchers’ batting average (.125) justifies: the end of a wasted lineup slot and too many rallies aborted in the womb.
There may be a deal to get a 2020 season, any 2020 season, played yet. Maybe by the end of this week, maybe by the end of the coming weekend. But while we’re at it, there is a suggestion we might make to the players who have, otherwise, done a better job than normal of making Joe and Jane Fan understand just who’s done the most to try hustling them.
The MLBPA’s Player’s Trust has committed $1 million to minor league players whose leagues may not play this year because of the coronavirus’s not-so-grand world tour. Yet there remain a little over six hundred former major league players who played before 1980 whose careers were short for assorted reasons—and who were frozen out of a pension plan re-alignment that year which gave full pensions to players with 43 days major league service and full health benefits upon one day’s MLB service.
Longtime MLBPA executive director Marvin Miller eventually said that not revisiting that mistake was his biggest regret. His successor once removed, Michael Weiner, collaborated with Manfred’s predecessor Bud Selig in getting those players $625 per quarter for every 43 days’ major league service.
It was a beginning, but there were two problems. One is that the players in question can’t pass those monies on to their families upon their deaths. The other is that the ill-fated Weiner—who loved baseball deeply, left no doubt about it, and earned a reputation for reasonableness even in his hardest negotiatings—died of brain cancer before he could have the chance to think about pressing the matter further.
Others have tried prodding Clark toward giving those pre-1980 short-career players a second look and building upon what Weiner and Selig began. Himself a former longtime first baseman, Clark has disinclined thus far. Even when New York Daily News columnist Bill Madden acknowledged, by way of a source inside the MLB apparatus, that Clark “isn’t gonna have any appetite for siphoning money from his rank and file. That’s why he won’t even talk to these old players.”
Legally, neither MLB nor the players’ union is obliged to send another dollar their way. (Neither, for that matter, is the separate Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association, likewise disinclined, especially after forcing three of the 600 plus—former pitchers David Clyde and Gary Niebauer, and former first baseman Eddie Robinson—off its pension services committee.) Morally is something else entirely, when you remember that those 600+ players were Players Association members who stood with their fellows during the moves and pickets that pushed open the door toward free agency and all its riches.
If the Players Trust can send drydocked minor leaguers $1 million for openers, surely the MLBPA can find a way to do further right by those 600 plus who were frozen mistakenly out of the 1980 pension realignment. Assorted current players sort-of strong-armed their teams into taking better care of their drydocked minor leaguers. Such players might want to think about their wrongly frozen-out major league predecessors a little more.
Even a commitment to revisit and readjust the pension plan for those pre-1980 short-career players when the Show gets back into business would be a serious step toward resolving Miller’s regret and finishing what Weiner and Selig started.