Today I watched my 9-year-old nephew play a baseball game at a local park. During a normal year (remember those?) his game would be just one of hundreds of baseball games I’d be following throughout the summer. There would be dates to Bee’s games and Yankees highlights at night. I’d be getting alerts on my phone any time Aaron Judge launched another moon shot. I’d be following the Phillies so I could know just how to needle my roommate. Though I wouldn’t talk about it, I’d be keeping secret tabs on the Red Sox, taking silent satisfaction each time they drop a game. But this is no normal year, and thanks in small part to a worldwide pandemic and in large part to some very rich, very stubborn people, hometown little leaguers may be the only baseball we get this season.
In case you haven’t been following MLB labor negotiations (between pandemics, riots, earthquakes, and murder hornets, who has the time?) let me give you a quick rundown of the situation. What we think of as “Major League Baseball” is really made up of two organizations, namely, team ownership and the MLB Player’s Association. Ownership consists of team owners. The goal of these billionaire-baseball fans is to bring money into the organization. They negotiate (or delegate) TV contracts, payments to players, and how much to charge for tickets. The players association is made up of players (obviously), usually with a former player serving as head of the organization. The goal of the PA is to negotiate on behalf of the players, trying to set up agreements with ownership that ensure high salaries, specify how soon players can become free agents, secure pleasant and safe playing conditions, and claim other benefits that one would want from an employer (paternal leave, minimum salaries, etc.).
Now, the relationship between these two sides is tenuous at best (The Office fans, think Michael and Toby). Each side wants to squeeze as much out of the other side as it can while giving as little ground as possible to the other. On November 30, 2016, after months of negotiation, the two sides were able to hammer out a deal for the next five seasons that specified pay rates, working conditions, and some travel plans. That means all should be well, right?
When the coronavirus struck (do viruses strike?), baseball, like just about everything else, was put on hold. Players were sent home from training facilities and owners were left twiddling their thumbs, waiting to see how things would play out. Now, as restrictions have started lifting, it has become clear that we could, with a few precautions, play some baseball games without posing a huge health risk to players and fans. The only problem, however, is that the current agreement between owners and players, the one from 2016, said nothing about what to do if a worldwide pandemic shortens the season, cuts playing opportunities, and limits ticket revenue (what kind of agreement doesn’t include a virus clause?).
So that brings us to the present predicament. Players and owners are now tasked with negotiating a new deal that both sides can agree on in a matter of weeks. The longer they take, the fewer baseball games we’ll see this year. Owners want players to take a pay cut to help save some revenue, which isn’t entirely unreasonable… especially for the players making upwards of $25 million per year (looking at you, Bryce Harper). Players want to extend the season into November. That would mean more games, more money, and smaller pay cuts, but also higher odds of another Corona outbreak, which could shut down the season again and cost owners millions. There are several other ins and outs to the arguments of each side, but at the end of the day, it comes down to millionaires fighting billionaires about who gets a bigger slice of the pie, all the while America is left without its pastime, forced to watch professional athletes play each other in televised video games.
And so, we wait, watching little leaguers, squeezing in some backyard wiffleball after work, and praying that owners and players can swallow their collective pride and give us the one sport that makes summer feel like summer before it’s too late. @MLB, the clock is ticking.