A labor/management confrontation isn’t exactly what anyone would expect in the midst of the CoronaVirus/COVID-19 global pandemic, but that’s exactly what’s looming in the world of Major League Baseball. Despite Commissioner Rob Manfred’s overly optimistic sentiments last week when he discussed with reporters the latest MLB plan for relaunching the season, there’s no way one can view what’s about to happen as anything other than a major fight occurring between the owners and players.
The MLB players union has long been rightly viewed as the strongest in pro sports, and one of the things that they cherish the most is that there is no salary cap, soft or hard, in baseball at any level. There are also guaranteed contracts, something that the NFL players union has never been able to get. In addition, past history shows baseball players are willing to sit out as long as it takes to win what they want in collective bargaining, even if means forfeiting an entire season.
What has set the stage for this fight was an agreement that the MLB owners made recently for an 82-game season starting in July. The deal calls for a 50/50 revenue split between owners and players, and it voids a previous deal that had been reached back in March for players to receive pro-rated salaries dating to whenever the season began. Of course, back then everyone thought that this was going to be just a minor delay, and that the season might start in May or June.
No one anticipated wiping out half the season, nor holding the rest of it without fans. Now ownership, staring at the loss of millions of dollars in gate receipts and ancillary profits, wants the players to absorb some of those losses. The union’s response was quick and predictable. They see that agreement as a backdoor salary cap, a first step towards the eventual implementation of a regular cap that puts a limit on player earnings. Players Union executive director Tony Clark has already sounded the alarm, saying that the 50/50 deal represented a salary cap and that it “was and is totally unacceptable.” The owners thought they had sweetened the deal by adding the designated hitter to National League teams, but the addition of a few extra slots didn’t soften the union position one bit.
Granted, there are several other hurdles to the plan that have to be overcome. For one, trying to play home games in states and/or areas that are hot spots like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, to cite only three. A second is making sure there are enough test kits available so players, umpires and support personnel can be regularly tested. Then what happens if someone contracts the virus during a game? Will that player then have to be quarantined and everyone that he came in contact with also placed in isolation?
But those are nuts-and-bolts items that can be worked out. The larger question is what happens if the union simply refuses to accept the owners proposal? Already some big name players have gone on the record saying they were rather see the season go down the tubes than play for less than what they signed for in their contracts. Ownership is looking at projected possible losses of up to $4 billion dollars should the entire season be cancelled, so there’s no way they are not going to push for this plan to be approved.
Considering all the other negative publicity that MLB has received in recent weeks, from the cheating scandal to the plan for minor league contraction and the shortening of the draft from 40 rounds to five, the last thing anyone in the sport wants to see is headlines about labor and salary disputes. But unless there is a major change of heart by the union, or the owners decide to redo the plan and drop the 50/50 income split proposal, it seems there’s no way to avoid another messy fight.