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Sara’s Diary, Day 61 without baseball: Will MLB return in 2020?

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The price the owners are asking may be too high

Willson Contreras rounds the bases after hitting a home run against the Cincinnati Reds
Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images

A few weeks ago when talking about the proposed Minor League Baseball contraction I wrote an entry about Naomi Klein’s theory of Disaster Capitalism and the ways crises are used to institute unpopular changes at times when people are too traumatized by events to effectively mobilize against the people who hold power in an organization:

The MiLB contraction plan fits this blueprint almost a little too perfectly:

The powers that be in baseball had a highly unpopular plan to eliminate jobs and baseball teams for those on the lowest rung of baseball’s socio-economic ladder, however they faced enormous opposition to that plan and looked like they may need to table it. Meanwhile, a society-wide disaster happened and they just quietly dusted off the plan they already had to eliminate jobs, baseball teams and opportunity from small town America under the guise of crisis management while no one has time to organize or push back on it because the non-billionaire team owners among us are all struggling to survive in a pandemic and the biggest economic downturn since the Great Depression.

This is disaster capitalism at its finest and we all need to keep our eye on the ball because it will not stop at 40 minor league baseball teams.

I almost wish I was wrong about this, but today Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich of the Athletic reported that Major League Baseball and the owners tried to backdoor a salary cap into their negotiations with the MLBPA. A move that fits the Disaster Capitalism sequence almost too perfectly (emphasis mine):

Said MLBPA executive director Tony Clark: “A system that restricts player pay based on revenues is a salary cap, period. This is not the first salary cap proposal our union has received. It probably won’t be the last.

That the league is trying to take advantage of a global health crisis to get what they’ve failed to achieve in the past — and to anonymously negotiate through the media for the last several days — suggests they know exactly how this will be received.

And I get it, someone is already typing some version of “read the rest of the article, Sara, it’s only for one year...” into the comments, but that misses the larger picture. These changes are always sold as temporary, or merely necessary for a small amount of time. They are then used as leverage to force players into a worse position than owners. I’d like to remind people that the Collective Bargaining Agreement expires in December 2021. It seems unlikely players would want to enter that negotiation with a revenue-sharing cap as Maury Brown of Forbes reports:

If the owners stick to the cap system in the proposal, it’s bound to be a poison pill. Depending on how hard the owners stick to the proposal threatens not only 2020, but the upcoming labor negotiations when the current CBA expires in December of 2021. The proposal for the pandemic-shortened 2020 season acts as a mini labor agreement. And while the owners can say aspects being presented are only for this season, once you go down a path it is very easy to use that as a jumping-off point for future negotiations.

Brown’s piece also references the idea of hazard pay, which seems more than reasonable in the current environment. It is galling that the owners want players to commit to substantially higher risk for themselves and their families, a cut in pay and a revenue structure that kneecaps them for future contract negotiations. That really isn’t how any of this is supposed to work. Generally when people are asked to do the same job in riskier circumstances I would expect them to be paid more not less.

It’s worth noting that the MLBPA is in a strong position to fight back against these proposals because of the strength of the player’s union. MLB’s plan to return to action in 2020 impacts thousands of people who are not represented by that union. While some teams, including the Cubs, have done an admirable job taking care of their workers at least through May others have not.

Yesterday, I wrote: “I want baseball to return safely more than just about anything on the planet, but we shouldn’t live in a world where baseball players can be tested multiple times over the course of a summer for the sake of a game while everyday people can’t access tests.” By a similar token, owners demanding changes that hurt their workers won’t be isolated to baseball and as much as I’d like to see baseball in 2020, I’d like baseball to resist the worst impulses of owners taking advantage of a crisis to backdoor solutions that hurt workers.