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Column: MLB team owners willing to let players shoulder the blame if season doesn’t start

It appears Major League Baseball is determined to not let the coronavirus outbreak completely derail the 2020 season.
(LM Otero / Associated Press)

Baseball’s proposal is a non-starter and not just because the players’ union is against anything that resembles a salary cap.

The owners have never opened their books to the players and they aren’t expected to start now. In that case, how can they expect the players to accept a 50-50 split of revenues instead of prorated shares of their previously agreed-upon salaries? Do they really think the players will blindly trust them?

Never mind the union is convinced the dispute was settled in an earlier agreement that outlined what would happen if the season is canceled.

Major League Baseball didn’t make the union a formal offer Tuesday, when the two sides opened talks on how to salvage a season that was disrupted by the coronavirus outbreak. But the details of the league’s impending offer already were widely reported, leading to speculation around the industry on why the owners would bother to prepare a proposal they know will be rejected.

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The prevailing view is that everyone involved knows how much the game would be damaged if the season is canceled for financial reasons. If baseball loses fans now, it might never win them back.

The Anaheim City Council has granted Angels owner Arte Moreno more time to determine whether he wants to walk away from Angel Stadium development deal.

“I think both sides understand the importance of playing this season,” said a player agent, who spoke under the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.

A particularly optimistic theory was offered by another agent, who speculated the league’s impending offer was merely a vehicle to buy time for teams to resolve their problems. The supposition was that middle-market teams that are more financially dependent on their gates want big-market teams with more lucrative television deals to cover their losses, and the commissioner’s office is performing what is essentially due diligence by trying to pass that cost to the players.

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In this version of reality, enough teams still would have an incentive to stage a season. Players could help cash-strapped teams by agreeing to defer some of their salaries.

The more cynical perspective is that this is entirely a setup, a public-relations stunt to position the league favorably to negotiate the next collective bargaining agreement. The current CBA expires at the end of the 2021 season.

If the owners have a problem with the players’ skepticism, they have only themselves to blame. They welcomed an analytics movement primarily designed to reduce player salaries. They have become thriftier on the free-agent market, even though baseball’s compensation system has long been an implicit agreement to reward players for how they were underpaid in their first six or seven years in the league.

And it’s not as if the owners have shown they prioritize the long-term health of the sport over their short-term bottom lines.

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The draft, for example. This year it will be only five rounds, even though this is a sport in which the futures of players are famously difficult to forecast.

Major League Baseball owners have given the go-ahead on a proposal to the players’ union that could lead to the coronavirus-delayed season starting in July.

An argument could be made that drafted players would have nowhere to play this year. Coincidentally or not, however, there were plans for teams to reduce costs by eliminating some of their minor league affiliates, many of them in communities that otherwise wouldn’t have baseball.

So much for the good of the game.

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Of course, most fans don’t want to hear this. They never have. What they want is to watch baseball. And if that’s taken away from them, it’s much easier for them to fault players they feel they know intimately than an owner they barely recognize.

And this is what the owners are counting on.

They have always tapped into public hostility toward the millionaire laborer, a resentment that finds its loudest and laziest voices in fellow millionaires. Tuesday was no different. Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, a Democrat and member of the family that owns the Hyatt chain, invoked the familiar trope of player greed when he told reporters: “I’m disappointed in many ways that players are holding out for these very, very high salaries and payments during a time when I think everybody is sacrificing.”

An even more egregious scold was by ESPN analyst Mark Teixeira, a former players’ union leader who reaped more than $213 million in his 14-year career: “Players need to understand that if they turn this deal down and shut the sport down, they’re not making a cent. I would rather make pennies on the dollar and give hope to people and play baseball than not make anything and lose an entire year.”

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And if players don’t return to the field and help create the appearance the country is returning to normality? The owners know where blame will fall.

In samples taken last month, an estimated 0.72% of MLB employees tested positive for antibodies to COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus.


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