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To MLB owners and players: Please, please don’t blow up the game’s future

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You have a chance to make baseball a shining beacon of hope. But you’re running out of time. And if there’s no 2020 season, baseball will be in a terrible place.

Photo by @WillByington / www.willbyington.com

Baseball means a great deal to me.

If you are reading these words, it likely means a great deal to you, too.

In a year when we are collectively suffering through a worldwide pandemic that has cost hundreds of thousands of lives as well as millions of jobs, baseball could be seen as something that doesn’t have to resume, not before we have a vaccine for the virus and get people back to work.

That’s a perfectly reasonable position to take. And yet, baseball is also a business that produces gainful employment for many thousands of people, as do other professional sports, and I’m not talking about players, but scouts, other front-office employees, gameday workers, broadcasters, writers... the list is a lot longer than you think.

So baseball is trying to work out a way to begin sometime in the next few weeks. It’s June 1. We should have heard about a deal between players and team owners by now. And yet... all we have is posturing and bickering. There is a new proposal from players as of Sunday night, and I’ll get to that, but first I think it’s important to examine what’s happened up to now.

Buster Olney of ESPN wrote about this Sunday and I’m going to quote from almost the very end of his article because it sums up well how baseball looks to many outsiders at this moment:

Meanwhile, they’re like two second cousins arguing loudly in the back pews during a memorial service. Everyone watching the spat is mortified and embarrassed for them.

Embarrassing is right. The thrust of Olney’s article, as it was for Jayson Stark’s in The Athletic last Friday, is basically: “What the hell is wrong with you? Do you not understand that you’re driving a stake in the heart of the game you purport to love?”

Olney writes:

Sources say there is a group of owners perfectly willing to shut down the season, to slash payroll costs and reduce losses, and the disparate views among the 30 teams have been reflected in the decisions to fire and furlough.

Do they truly not understand that doing this would turn fans off to baseball in a way that they haven’t been turned off since the 1994-95 strike cancelled the World Series? Only this time it’d be worse because they’re arguing about money during a time when — I hate to repeat myself but I will, with boldface added:

we are collectively suffering through a worldwide pandemic that has cost hundreds of thousands of lives as well as millions of jobs

And owners are trying to nickel-and-dime players who have already agreed, essentially, to a 50 percent pay cut? Yes, I am aware that teams are also losing money by not having fans in the stands. I get it, that’s a significant portion of baseball revenues overall.

But we’re not talking about paupers in the streets here. We’re talking about 30 well-heeled billionaires, who can probably afford half a season’s worth of losses in order to the the game we all love back on the field, even if it’s in empty stadiums.

If baseball doesn’t do that and the other North American professional sports do — and they all seem likely to — the anger from baseball fans will quickly turn to indifference as fans turn to the sports that are actually playing. Owners think they’re losing money now? Just wait till fans stay away from baseball in huge numbers. Don’t fool yourself into thinking they’ll just come back, as they did in the 1990s, and even that took a couple of years and a PED-enhanced home run race to bring many casual fans back. People are hurting. People who might spend money on baseball won’t because they don’t have jobs, or even if they do, they would rightly believe that their decades of loyalty are simply being trampled due to greed.

Plain and simple. Greed. That’s what’s at work here, and I know whose side I’m on.

Beyond this year, there’s a labor agreement between MLB players and owners up at the end of 2021, and if they don’t play in 2020 and have to play a 2021 season under the threat of a potential strike or lockout after that... well, I think you can see how well that’d go over with fans.

Quoting again from Olney’s article:

If that doesn’t happen — if they can’t agree on a deal to play in 2020 — baseball will become a loathed presence on North America’s sporting landscape, scorned by many fans.

He’s right. Baseball has a chance to be the shining beacon, the first pro sport to come back on the field of play in 2020, a light in the utter darkness this year has become. Baseball could become a rallying point even for folks without jobs, a sign that normal life could return soon. It would provide a bit of fun and entertainment, even if it’s just on television.

In The Athletic, Patrick Mooney sums up what could happen to the sport if owners and players can’t come to an agreement:

Baseball was already trending as a sport that appealed to older demographics, an activity for kids whose parents could afford personal trainers and private coaches and the costs of the showcase circuit. Slashing the draft to five rounds and wiping out minor-league teams across the country won’t help grow the game.

And for the Cubs specifically:

Why would Comcast carry Marquee Sports Network if there are no Cubs games this year? How would Wrigleyville recover if Chicago’s phased reopening doesn’t include Cubs games until April 2021? When will the Cubs have another group of charismatic homegrown players like this?

I love baseball and have for my entire life, really, since I was just short of seven years old and was brought to Wrigley Field for the first time. Like all of you reading this, I was taken in by the beauty of Wrigley and baseball and soon learned that I could watch that magical place on television nearly every day. It has filled my summers with happiness, joy, disappointment, all the emotions that make human life what it is. It has meant more to me than just wins and losses. I have many lifelong friends who I first met in the bleachers at Wrigley Field. This is the part of baseball that I think some who are in charge of it simply don’t understand. Baseball is not just a product to be purchased, it has a deep loyalty for many who follow it far beyond what people might have for their breakfast cereal, shampoo or toilet paper, to name a product that recently has been in great demand.

There’s an emotional bond to a baseball team that’s different from those other products you buy. In many cases it’s handed down from generation to generation, and for a team as old as the Cubs, it’s quite possible that your grandparents or even great-grandparents felt the same way about the Cubs as you do, or I do.

Baseball team owners seem to have forgotten that recently in their quest to separate us from every dollar in our wallets. I get it, it’s a business, and I certainly do not begrudge them making money.

But right now is a time when, perhaps, they can ease off the throttle just a little and bring the sport back online, play games in empty parks, and show everyone that players, owners, everyone involved in the sport understand the gravity of the moment.

To baseball owners and players: You don’t have very much time. It’s June 1 and things probably have to be settled this week in order to get the practice sessions and season started in the time frame you’ve been discussing. It would be one thing to have to cancel the 2020 season over health or safety concerns for the players; I think everyone would understand that. But over money?

Late Sunday, Evan Drellich of The Athletic posted on Twitter a proposal that’s been made by players to owners:

And Jeff Passan notes the same thing I mention above — time is of the essence:

To me, that’s a good starting point for talks between the two sides, players and owners, who have come to distrust each other far too much in recent years, although a full article on this topic by Passan suggests that owners will reject it.

Both sides are, I believe, going to have to put that aside and come to some sort of compromise. Will it please everyone? Of course it won’t. That’s the nature of compromise, something that seems to have fallen out of favor recently. No one’s going to get everything they want here... but everyone gets something, and the most important thing is that a compromise would mean we’d have baseball.

Don’t blow it, players and owners. The entire future of your sport could be at stake.