OK, so the universal designated hitter won’t be coming just yet. That ought to settle the more stubborn traditionalists, who forget often enough that there’ve been a few traditions baseball was better off without and moved to eliminate them appropriately.
But it looks like we’re going to have major league baseball this year, after all. It also looks like it’s going to be nerve wracking, not just because of a sixty-game season by itself but because the continuing coronavirus world tour may make a few more stops baseball isn’t going to like.
The Philadelphia Phillies and the Toronto Blue Jays have had to close their Florida camps when five Phillies-organisation players and one such Blue Jay tested COVID-19 positive. As of Sunday, according to USA Today‘s Bob Nightengale, forty players and/or team staffers have tested positive for the virus.
And when the Show teams return to work a quick-and-dirty delayed spring training, it looks like they’ll be doing it in their home cities instead of at their normal spring training camps in hard enough-hit Arizona and Florida. Which makes things perhaps a little simpler for most but a little trickier for the Miami Marlins, the Tampa Bay Rays, and the Arizona Diamondbacks.
That assumes the players can handle such a brief spring training. The Major League Baseball Players Association has until five o’clock Eastern time today to let MLB know the players can report for such abbreviated and re-located spring training by 1 July, with a projected 24 July season opening. Not exactly the (all things considered) ideal Fourth of July season opening many thought would have been big enough.
While you ponder how not-so-great both sides in the MLB impasse have looked, ponder concurently why there was such an impasse in the first place. The owners and commissioner Rob Manfred tried to renege on a late March deal with the players, plain enough and simple enough, for all the complications that followed. If you want a thumbnail sketch here and now, you won’t get much better than NBC Sports’s Craig Calcaterra:
The terms of that basic framework: the players earned the right to receive prorated pay for however many games played and Major League Baseball would get to decide how many games would, in fact, be played. In light of that, one might’ve assumed that when it came time to set up a 2020 season, it’d be a pretty straightforward thing: the owners, per the March Agreement, would simply say “we’ll play a season of X games” and it’d be done.
Except when the owners first spoke, and proposed an 82-game season in early May, it came with a catch: a demand that the players give up their previously-negotiated right to prorated pay and accept different financial terms. Legally speaking the owners had no right to ask for that and the players were under no obligation to negotiate that. They declined to do so and, instead, countered with various proposals on season length and did not negotiate pay rate. The owners, nonetheless, spent more than a month asking for the players to abandon their rights to prorated pay, proposing multiple alternative schemes. It was not until June 17 — after the players said they would no longer negotiate if MLB kept including pay concessions in their offers and, instead, simply demanded that MLB impose a season and be done with it — that MLB came back with its first offer that complied with the March Agreement.
In shorter words, it took the Show this long to start setting a season because the owners tried—in the middle of a pandemic scaring the hell out of a country that needed the Show to help keep morale alive when nobody knows just when the coronavirus world tour will end at last—to use it as a shield to pull a fast one on the players whose previous inconsistent unity came together the moment they smelled this rat.
Calcaterra also reminds us that relations between the owners and the players weren’t exactly friendly before the pandemic forced baseball’s limbo in March:
The owners had been eating the players’ lunch in recent years, having negotiated a couple of owner-friendly labor deals and, on top of that, putting the screws to players in free agency. In light of that there was already a lot of mistrust and, with the current Collective Bargaining Agreement set to expire in December 2021, each side was already beginning to mobilize for labor battle. Reacting to the pandemic and coming to some sort of an agreement to deal with it would’ve been difficult in even the best of circumstances, and the owners and the players were nowhere close to being in the best of circumstances as the 2020 season was about to get underway.
The players’ lesser cohesion between 2016 and March may have seduced the owners into thinking that, with their continuous tries at reneging on the March agreement, they “could, once again, exploit rifts in the union and get a favorable deal as a result.” Oops. The players hollered foul and stuck to it. For now.
The questions to come include whether they’ll stay so cohesive when it comes time to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement after the 2021 season. Neither Manfred nor Players Association executive director Tony Clark come out of this mess looking better.
Manfred is exposed as a commissioner unwilling to translate his express power to act for the good of the game into acting as though that good is more than making or saving money for the owners . . . who also forgot what a horrible look it would be when they spent so much time trying to trash what they agreed to in March they were seen as ignoring health implications in MLB’s return.
Clark, though, is seen now as a union leader who doesn’t always read pulses properly and doesn’t always see the bigger picture, including the prospect of recent negotiations and owners’ maneuverings leaving free agency to face what some writers call a potential blood bath.
Or, as Cincinnati Reds pitcher Trevor Bauer tweeted Monday, “So we gave up shares of playoff money, eliminating the qualifying offer for 2021, paycheck advance forgiveness, Covid 19 protections, and protection for non guaranteed arb contracts for next year in order to hold on to our right to file a grievance.”
Bauer had tweeted earlier that the pandemic wasn’t the right time for a battle: “If there’s going to be a fight, the time for that fight is after the ’21 season when a new CBA is negotiated. … We’re doing irreparable damage to our industry right now over rules that last AT MOST 16 months. What kind of sense does that make?”
Nothing about 2020 has made any kind of sense so far. The owners looking terrible makes the same sad sense it always has. The players’ union looking foolish now doesn’t. Everyone in and around baseball knows that.
But at least they kept the universal DH from poisoning the pond, right?