UNLESS you’re a fan of the Washington Nationals, it’s almost impossible to remember the last bit of good news you heard about baseball.
Since the Nationals clinched the franchise’s first World Series title—and D.C.’s first baseball championship since 1924—last October, consider what has transpired:
The Houston Astros fired manager A.J. Finch and general manager Jeff Lunhow following revelations of a sign-stealing scandal that taints their 2017 crown. Both had been suspended for a year by Major League Baseball. This came after the Astros dismissed an employee during the 2019 World Series for verbally accosting two female reporters.
Two former Astros, Boston’s Alex Cora and the New York Mets’ Carlos Beltran, lost their managerial jobs for their roles in the scandal. Beltran, who had recently retired as a player, never got to manage a single game--and now, perhaps, never will.
The worldwide COVID-19 pandemic wiped out virtually all sports barely two weeks before baseball’s scheduled 2020 opening day.
None of that rings as negatively, though, as the acrimonious negotiations between baseball’s billionaire owners and its players, many (but hardly all) of whom are millionaires.
Their tone-deaf talks, which sound increasingly like what you’d hear at an elementary school playground, may not cancel the 2020 season. But they’re sure to abbreviate it, and will only widen the chasm between the sides as the sport’s labor agreement expires after the 2021 season. They will also greatly increase the odds of a strike or lockout in 2022.
In a sense, baseball may be fortunate that the coronavirus won’t allow fans to attend games this summer--at least not immediately. If they were in the stands, they’d likely let both sides know just how little they appreciate the squabbling just as we’re thirsting for a return to normalcy.
Neither the NBA nor NHL has resolved all of its safety issues, but both sports are moving ahead with plans to resume their interrupted seasons in July. The NFL and college football, which have the slight luxury of time to evaluate logistics, are hopeful of starting their seasons on time. Major League Soccer and the WNBA are also planning to return soon. Golf and auto racing already have begun, and tennis and horse racing plan to follow suit.
Each sport faces unique obstacles to its product, but wise heads are working on the details. Baseball’s COVID problem is lesser than it’s brethren’s: they sport is played outdoors, where the virus should be less contagious, with far less physical contact than other sports. Most players sit for nearly half of each game.
It might not surprise you, then, to know that the sticking point is cash.
Despite local and national TV revenue, team owners insist they’ll lose money for every game played, and that a shorter season is in their best interests. Interestingly, they’re in no hurry to show the players their books to prove it.
Players, whose career biological clock begins ticking the moment they’re drafted, want their contracts honored—even as national unemployment reaches levels not seen since the Great Depression and many of those fortunate enough to have jobs endure furloughs and pay cuts.
On Saturday night, players union executive director Tony Clark rejected the owners’ latest offer (72-game season with 70 percent of prorated pay) thusly: “Further dialogue with the league would be futile. It’s time to get back to work. Tell us when and where.”
That was an admission that commissioner Fred Manfred has the power to set the terms of a truncated season. Experts expect teams to play roughly 50 games, with players earning less than one-third of their contracts.
If that comes to pass, neither side will be happy. Nor will the fans. And whoever survives the expanded postseason (even if it’s the Nationals again) won’t be considered a legitimate champion.
It’s ironically fitting that the union’s withdrawal came barely 24 hours before ESPN’s presentation of “Long Gone Summer,” a documentary on Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa’s 1998 chase of Roger Maris’ single-season home run record.
A similarly bitter labor dispute cost baseball the 1994 World Series and forced owners to consider using replacement players the following spring. To win back disaffected fans, the sport first turned to Cal Ripken’s pursuit of Lou Gehrig’s consecutive-games record, then basked in a power surge that turned out to be steroid-induced.
McGwire, Sosa, Barry Bonds and Rafael Palmeiro saw their reputations take a beating. So did their sport’s. It makes you wonder what lengths baseball might have to go to if the current dispute can’t be solved.