TORONTO – Even at the best of times, MLB labour talks don’t tend to sit well with the baseball-watching public. When billionaires argue with millionaires, who can really relate?
That was the case in 2016, the last time baseball’s CBA expired. It was the case in 2002, the last time a work stoppage seemed like a real possibility. And it was certainly the case in 1994-95, the last time a labour dispute led to the cancellation of games.
Now, amidst a global pandemic and ongoing civil unrest in response to systematic racism, there’s even less tolerance than usual for perceived pettiness from players or owners. Under those circumstances, MLB’s decision to reject the players’ offer for a 114-game season could be interpreted as a sign that baseball’s in trouble.
It would be fair for fans to wonder if the sides are now too far apart, and many within the industry are asking the same question. Especially since there are no plans for MLB to make a counterproposal, according to Ken Rosenthal of the Athletic. And especially since the news broke mere hours after the NBA’s return-to-play plans leaked. The contrast is jarring.
At the same time, this was a $10.8-billion industry last year. Dividing that revenue fairly poses a real challenge, especially given the wide range of health and safety questions related to COVID-19. We shouldn’t be surprised that this process is taking time. Eventually, the sides will pass a point of no return — but they aren’t close to that possibility yet.
In the meantime, players and owners each have good reason to work toward an agreement. For players, a season would offer a chance to compete while making millions – just not as many of them as anticipated. For owners, there may not be fans in the stands but regional TV deals hang in the balance and an additional $787 million in postseason broadcast revenue is at stake, according to the Associated Press. As one industry observer noted, “Both sides have a lot to lose.”
That holds true across the industry, and the worst possible outcome is a cancelled season that keeps baseball out of the spotlight for a year and a half. The damage caused by an absence that long might rival the aftermath of the 1994-95 strike.
And if the sides can reach an agreement? The profits might take a hit, but the entertainment would be welcomed at a time that people are encouraged to stay home. More importantly, baseball’s most prominent voices will have more ways to end racism and bring about social change if games are played.
While some are skeptical that the sides will agree, Brewers president of baseball operations David Stearns struck a decidedly more optimistic note Wednesday afternoon, telling reporters, “I firmly believe we are going to have baseball this season.”
What that looks like is another question altogether. While the players suggested a 114-game season, owners rejected that idea and have suggested far shorter campaigns in the 50-60 game range. Setting aside how bizarre it seems for owners to be pushing for fewer games, this would lead to a season unlike any other. To this point, the shortest season in baseball history is the strike-shortened 1981 season, when teams played an average of 106 games. In 2020, MLB could cut that record in half.
Across the league, the impact of such a short season would be wide-ranging. On an individual level you might see a .400 hitter, a home run champ with 18 dingers or a pitcher lead the league with six wins.
At a team level, the increased randomness would make it far easier for a projected .500 team such as the Blue Jays to become a playoff contender. Consider that last year’s World Series champions started the season with a dismal 50-game stretch in which they went 19-31. Or that the Giants went 31-19 at one point last summer while on their way to a sub-.500 finish.
Plus, the Blue Jays will have to give strong consideration to playing the entire season with Nate Pearson if a season does take place. With no minor-league season expected, there’s only one place for top prospects to develop in game settings: the majors. More specifically, the Blue Jays would prefer to play their home games in Toronto, but have also given serious consideration to their spring site in Dunedin, Fla.
Either way, a rotation including Pearson and Hyun-jin Ryu would be legitimately intriguing, especially if MLB expands the playoffs. The Blue Jays would begin the season with a real chance, and after three straight years of sub-.500 finishes, that would represent considerable progress.
Of course, we’re getting ahead of ourselves right now. At this point, with the players and owners seemingly far apart, there’s no guarantee of any baseball at all. But it’s June, not August, and multi-billion dollar negotiations take time.
To many, this back-and-forth is tiresome, and even in poor taste. Fair enough, but there’s still plenty of time and if a 2020 season can safely be played in the end, players and owners will have ample chances to make up for the unpleasant back-and forth that’s unfolding before us now.