Union forced to walk tightrope as MLB revenue-share plan resembles cap

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TORONTO – Keep in mind as the looming money fight plays out that, more than anything else, a 2020 baseball season still hinges on workable health and safety protocols. Without a vaccine or treatment for the clandestine contagion lurking in our midst, minimizing the risk that teams pass the novel coronavirus among themselves, or into the communities where they play, will require an enormous amount of co-operation and trust.

Those two qualities, of course, have long been lacking in the relationship between owners and players, which is why Major League Baseball’s approval of a proposal to evenly split this year’s revenues with players, as first reported by USA Today’s Bob Nightengale, is a minefield.

The direct correlation of salaries to revenue is, in effect, a cap, the ultimate non-starter for players. Even if borne from the reality that games played at empty stadiums will sap some 40 per cent of the sport’s financial intake, proposing that players help subsidize those losses by reworking the March deal in which they already agreed to prorate their salaries is a big ask.

Only by leaking the proposal before its formal presentation to the union, guaranteeing that the players will look like greedy bad guys if they push back amid alarming unemployment figures, the owners don’t really seem to be asking.

Instead, it looks like they’re trying to use the pandemic as a pretext to implement the salary cap that has so long eluded them. With the current collective bargaining agreement expiring in December 2021, the union is right to be wary of establishing any new facts on the ground, even under the current circumstances and if the optics look bad.

The owners, rather cleverly, have put the players on quite the tightrope.

“They don’t have a hell of a lot of leverage. And they certainly won’t have the public’s support,” says Buck Martinez, the respected Toronto Blue Jays broadcaster who served as a vice-president on the union’s executive board during his 17-year baseball career. “They have to be careful how they handle this.”

To that end, Martinez – who lived through dozens of labour fights as a player and in December addressed the current union board – believes it’s important for players to not view the current situation as helping out the owners, but rather as helping out the game.

Given the widespread hardship created by the pandemic, the players risk significant public backlash for any perceived intransigence. Further, if other sports manage to return and baseball does not, the damage to the industry may take years to repair, the way the strike of 1994 that led to the World Series’ cancellation reverberated for several seasons after.

Additionally, since the likelihood is that if there are any playoffs this year the stands will be empty, players on post-season clubs won’t be eligible for playoff shares, which are based on gate revenues.

For those reasons, Martinez believes the players’ instinctual recoil at any hint of a salary cap must be reined back “because it’s such a special situation.”

“You have to be open-minded and say we’ve got to come up with a situation where this is a one-time thing, they’re going to have an extra round of playoffs and we have to participate in that revenue,” says Martinez. “There’s always going to be distrust. There was distrust all the way back in 1966 when (the union) started and there’s still distrust because no one has ever opened up the books because of the antitrust protection. That’s the nature of the thing you have to deal with.

“It’s not a time to rattle swords. There are 33 million people in the United States out of work and I’m sure the same type of percentage in Canada out of work. People are hungry for some sort of sport. You’ve got to think about that. You can’t think about collective bargaining coming up in two years. I know that’s what everybody is concerned about, if they implement this now, we’re going to have to live with it. Well, if they implement this now and you allow them to continue to do that, then you’re not as strong as you thought you were.”

The setting of a precedent is a fair concern, especially with the perception that Major League Baseball snookered the union during the last round of collective bargaining.

Martinez says bluntly that the players “screwed that up last time,” by seeking out perks such as extra buses for spring training road trips, nutritionists and food services and the elimination of clubhouse dues, while not sufficiently addressing the restrictions on free agency and failing to push up the luxury-tax threshold, allowing it to function as a de facto cap.

These discussions aren’t the place to win back past losses.

Still, it’s worth remembering that players are the ones putting themselves and their families at risk by coming into work. That’s worth something. So too is the point one agent makes, that since owners don’t pay out dividends when the industry prospers, they shouldn’t expect rollbacks from players when it struggles.

And of course, there’s concern that if a revenue-share plan between owners and players is put in place, even temporarily, it will require a major fight to get it back out.

“If you have short-sightedness to the point where you are worried about an 80-game season impacting the rest of history, then you don’t have much faith in the game and you don’t have much faith in the ability to recoup whatever you lose,” says Martinez. “I know for a fact there will be no sentiment for the players’ side if this gets hung up in negotiations. I don’t think they should bend over. I don’t think they should give in. But when they negotiated that deal (for prorated salaries in March) we all expected to be playing by May 15/June 1, and things changed. It’s a difficult time. It’s not a time for normal negotiations and it’s not a time to say, let’s go back in history and recoup this. It’s a time to be open-minded and free-thinking. The players can say, ‘Hey, the owners always screw us.’ Well, if you’re strong enough, they don’t.”

Now isn’t the time to find out whether they are, or they aren’t. The onus is on both players and the owners to ensure the business gets healthy enough so there’s plenty of money to fight over in the next round of bargaining.

If they can’t do that, and instead engage in a self-destructive fight over this year’s finances, well, it won’t bode well for their chances of working in unison to figure out not only how to get everyone back out on the field, but to keep them out there all summer, too.

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