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There’s another obstacle in the way of a 2020 MLB season

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As you might guess, it involves money.

Sue Skowronski

The 2020 MLB season would be in its fourth full week if the year had begun on schedule March 26.

Of course, that didn’t happen due to the current novel coronavirus pandemic. It’s not clear when — or even if — we can have baseball this year, even with the plans being discussed regarding playing the game in empty stadiums. Those ideas might work, or not; there are a lot of logistics involved in any such attempt, some of which might not be feasible at all.

But even if the obstacles — and no doubt, they are significant — in the way of playing Major League Baseball this year are overcome, there’s something else that could derail the game. Money, which should surprise none of you.

The issue is neatly summed up in these two quotes in this article by Dave Sheinin in the Washington Post.

From Players Association chief Tony Clark:

“Players recently reached an agreement with [MLB] that outlines economic terms for resumption of play, which included significant salary adjustments and a number of other compromises. That negotiation is over,” Major League Baseball Players Association chief Tony Clark said in a statement Tuesday. “We’re now focused on discussing ways to get back on the field under conditions that prioritize the health and well-being of players and their families, coaches, umpires, team staff and fans.”

From MLB Deputy Commissioner Dan Halem:

“In the agreement reached earlier this spring, the commissioner’s office and the MLBPA agreed that the season would not commence until normal operations — including fans in our home stadiums — were possible,” Deputy Commissioner Dan Halem said in a statement. “If circumstances require, we will, consistent with our agreement with the union, negotiate in good faith over a framework to resume play without fans that is economically feasible for the sport.”

Players agreed to a $170 million payment in that negotiation which concluded just before the original season-opening date. They also agreed that if there were no season at all, that they would accept that amount of money for all players for the entire season. $170 million amounts to something around four percent of what player salaries would have been in a normal 2020 season, about $4.25 billion. (Even that amounts to about 40 percent of total MLB revenues, one of the smallest percentages in years, but that’s a story for another time.)

So the positions of the two sides seem obvious. Players would expect to be paid a pro-rated amount of their total salaries depending on how many games are played in a shortened 2020 season, no matter where and how that happened. In other words, play 108 games (two-thirds of a normal season) and players would expect two-thirds of their salaries.

Owners, though, are taking the position that if games are played in empty stadiums — something that seems the only way to play at all in 2020 — revenues would be lower and thus salaries would have to be re-negotiated. As noted in Sheinin’s article:

The sides are unlikely to discuss the salary dispute any time soon — or any specific conditions for the resumption of play — because any such talks would require significant progress toward a plan for starting the season, a notion that remains muddled by factors outside MLB’s control.

So even though there’s no baseball right now, there’s a sort of impasse between players and owners. It doesn’t seem likely that games will be played in front of fans at all this year, anywhere. Some players don’t care for the idea of being sequestered for possibly several months in order to play, though they have already agreed to ask for no more money if there is no season at all. So, as Sheinin concludes:

In such an atmosphere, it might be considered a welcome development — even a return to normalcy, in a sense — if MLB and the union begin bickering over salaries, because it would mean conditions had advanced to the point where they could start looking at concrete plans to start the season.

But should the whole enterprise be derailed by the most basic and timeless of arguments, a fight over money, it might also be considered an unpardonable sin.

As always, we await developments.