It has been embarrassing watching how the debate surrounding Major League Baseball’s return to play seems to have settled on how it’s all up to the players, either as a subtle under-current from much of the chattering classes or from former players such as Mark Teixeira, a union stalwart back in the day who seems to have no compunction telling players to take a 70-odd per-cent pay cut.
Hey, it’s one thing to demand a long-term view for the good of the game — that is, frankly, a sentiment to be celebrated whether or not there’s a pandemic — and another for a former player to call out current players and say they need to make this work for some sort of wider societal good. It’s also just wrong, because the truth is that in any professional sports labour dispute it is ownership that determines whether or not the game gets shut down, either by using a strategy that forces players into a corner and a strike or through a lockout. Seriously: I have covered sports for 40 years and reported on endless battles between billionaires and millionaires and I don’t ever remember thinking: “man, the players union is just spoiling for a confrontation.”
So, commissioner Rob Manfred and his owners could end this right now by moving boldly toward the players’ counterproposal, which has opened all sorts of doors. Look: if the financials are so bad that some teams will go under if games are played behind closed doors, then it is up to owners to obtain financial assistance or do something beyond telling players to “trust us.” If shutting down the game for a year really will help out some teams more than paying players a pro-rated share, then it might have to shut down. If being able to keep team books away from prying eyes is a hill worth dying on ahead of another collective bargaining negotiation after next year? That is, frankly, the prerogative of ownership and there’s nothing any of us can do about it.
We as sports fans and observers are going down a never-before-taken path and in the process we’re finding out that the virus delights in throwing some very practical hurdles in our way. Chief among those, it is now apparent, is a sense of concern about where/how/when the second wave will hit, most likely in the fall. It’s why this whole re-opening is so fraught. It’s why the NHL and NBA realize the clock is running and want to get as much of their seasons done as early as possible. It’s why the NFL will end up asking its players for relief.
And it’s a particular issue for Major League Baseball, since both the owners and players know the fall is when they will make up whatever they’ve lost — either through expanded playoffs and television revenue or, in a best-case scenario, the gradual return of fans to the stands. That’s why the 114-game player plan, which will carry the post-season to Oct. 31, won’t likely fly. The owners’ plan would see the season end Sept. 30 and would seem to be a pretty strong statement of intent.
Two months ago, we all agreed there would be no games with fans. Florida would be a hellfire. New York would still be burying the bodies. California’s governor and Los Angeles’ mayor said no games — none — even behind closed doors until, maybe, November. Even the Bundesliga, the German soccer league that is the first major circuit to return to a schedule, said that it was likely stadiums wouldn’t be re-opened until the Fall of 2021. Now? Nobody’s sure. New York, Florida and California are lobbying pro teams to come back. The Texas governor said last week that he was OK with that state’s outdoor pro teams playing to 25 per cent capacity. It’s June 1. How is this all going to look on July 1? Hell, how will it look on Friday?
The clock is running for baseball if it wants a glorious 4th of July return. Unlike the NHL and NBA, MLB has no money in the bank from a regular season mostly done. Nothing’s coming in, everything’s going out. Somehow baseball needs to plan for a season that plays out to its conclusion with no fans, plays out to a conclusion with some fans in some markets or some fans in all markets or full stands in the playoffs or yes, is shut down yet again because of a threatened second wave of COVID-19 in the fall. And right now? Owners and players don’t even agree on what they agreed to when the game shut down back in March.
Everybody wants their fair share but remember: in pro sports, it’s owners who determine what goes into the pool from which the players’ share is pulled because the money flows through the team. Logic would suggest a hybrid that sees both sides account for the fact the game’s economics and revenue could swing wildly once it starts up. That’s going to take a willingness to defer this and guarantee that — as much as can be guaranteed — and maybe even punt on something else. If that’s too much? Well, not having baseball when everybody else is doing their thing would well and truly suck — especially since the CBA is in effect for another season.
But that doesn’t change the reality this morning that even though there are two roads — one a dead end — it won’t be the players who make the final call.
QUIBBLES AND BITS
• Was I the only one watching TV this weekend and wondering whether sports events, even behind closed doors, are a great idea while neighbourhoods are burning?
There’s a lot of romance about baseball’s ability to rally folks in a time of despair — the 1968 Detroit Tigers are credited with soothing their community during a summer of race riots and baseball likes to claim it helped heal the country after 9/11 — but this is end-times, cataclysmic stuff multiplied by a pandemic and divided by unemployment and social collapse. Unless somebody in the U.S. heals things, I’m not sure there are a lot of mayors who’d want another potential target tugging at their resources. You’d still have to police a ballpark, even an empty one, especially since many stadiums and arenas are located near urban cores.
If this really is a long, hot summer… well, it might be too hot for sports.
• The NHL could get a lot of love from NBC Sports this summer, seeing as how the U.S. network won’t have the 2020 Olympics to anchor the often-dry sports period. NBC has a year left on its deal with the NHL and has to feel pretty pleased with the way things have worked out. If the NHL and NHLPA can build on their return to play negotiations and craft a new CBA this summer… wow. They’ll be in fine fettle when they approach U.S. networks. As NHL Network analyst Brian Lawton asked us on Writers Bloc, “Hard to believe this is the same league that chose SportsChannel over ESPN, isn’t it?”
• One thing to keep an eye on once soccer’s international transfer period begins? Revenue-shy clubs might spend more time working out actual player transactions instead of simply throwing cash around to open transfer clauses, using players as make-weights.
• Quite a deafening silence from NCAA coaches regarding the murder of George Floyd, eh?
I guess I just assume people are paying attention but, man, it’s remarkable how often I still hear worry expressed that players aren’t going to be able to breathe on each other or will need to wear full face-shields (?) or surgical masks on the field or ice or are going to avoid – yikes! – touching each other or getting in each other’s faces or scrumming in the corners out of fear of contracting COVID-19 in the middle of some basketball, baseball or hockey match.
“My god, how will hockey players be able to sit next to each other, breathing so hard after each shift!” “What if some of Pascal’s sweat gets on the back of Kyle’s hand!”
Geezus: have you not been watching? Is it difficult to comprehend that’s why players will be tested going in and out of every facility? The idea is to turn the playing surface into the safest possible work environment by ensuring that everybody in the vicinity has been tested equally and that where possible contact outside the playing area is limited. Rugby is starting up with full contact and no masks. It’s why Bundesliga players clatter into each other and help each other up. It’s why first baseman and baserunners in leagues in Korea and Taiwan stand as close as always. It’s why – shhh! – some guys still spit. It’s why so far we haven’t seen German soccer players or Korean baseball players keel over.
So, yes, maybe you ensure that players get changed and showered in groups and maybe take out ice-level seats to expand bench sizes. Maybe you make coaches and support staff wear surgical masks. Athletes can’t be given a 100 per cent guarantee they won’t attract COVID-19, but can be guaranteed they’re in the safest place possible. That’s it, really. Stop spreading B.S. Seriously.
Jeff Blair hosts Writers Bloc with Stephen Brunt and Richard Deitsch from 2-5 p.m. ET on Sportsnet 590/The Fan. You can also hear the show live on the Sportsnet app at Sprtsnt.ca/590listen or tell Google or Alexa to “play Sportsnet 590.” Rate, review and subscribe to the show’s podcast here.
Jeff and Dan Riccio also co-host a national soccer radio show — ‘A Kick In The Grass’ — heard Monday night on the Sportsnet Radio Network. A special extended version is available via podcast.