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Baseball is risking a lot more than money in this unfamiliar fight

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MLB and the Players Association are in a familiar situation unfamiliarly.

They are fighting about money. Duh. Players and owners have done that since the inception of the game, quite publicly since the Players Association was formally recognized as a union in 1966.

Within that frame what occurred Tuesday is as routine as the national anthem before a game: MLB made a financial offer, the union was irate about it.

What’s different, of course, is that the dispute is taking place within a pandemic, which changes the financial picture now and at least into the near future while putting public and historic pressure on both sides to find a solution in time to play as much of a season as possible.

At this moment the second-to-fourth biggest baseball leagues are either playing (South Korea, Taiwan) or about to start (Japan). The NBA and NHL are inching closer to firm plans for a restart. If somehow all of that happens and MLB does not play, think of the stain on all the leadership involved. Think of the long-term financial impact to both sides of being out of sight until next spring training while driving even the most loyal fans out of their minds. Think about the opportunity missed to be the first major North American team sport to play — even if by just a few weeks — to audiences so sports crazed they are producing record TV numbers to watch two quarterbacks and two golfers play 18 holes.

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Usually what drives an agreement is a deadline, but one problem here is that is a moving target. Reverse engineer: MLB wants to start by July 4, which means to get in three weeks of spring means having players in position by mid-June, but also remember that there is much work to do upon an agreement (not just on money, but health/safety and new rules) to get sites up to code and players there for pre-camp screening.

An empty Dodger Stadium
An empty Dodger StadiumGetty Images

So every day counts because the longer the fight the greater the risk to not just reputations, but bodies. The sooner players can get to camps and the longer they can stay there the better. Because players are routine oriented and routines are going to be greatly disrupted. Over time part of what players have won and often what teams want to provide for upgraded performance is greater comforts in clubhouses and personal coaching, etc. There is going to be, at minimum, a scaling back that will need an adjustment phase.



I suspect if this fight drags on through this week, then don’t be surprised if President Trump — as polarizing as he might be — tries to use the influence/bully pulpit of his office to implore both sides to work it out for public good; to help the economy, to provide entertainment to the country and also to offer televised optimism that with new practices businesses will return to operation.

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But the sides shouldn’t need that. They should be capable of working this out and it is why I think it is so important that the union returns to the table not just saying “no” to what MLB submitted. They need a full proposal in return.

And I write that understanding the anger. The union felt MLB waited two weeks after expectations of presenting a financial plan to use the clock as an ally because the public is going to generally see the players as the greedy side, no matter the realities. The union hates the concept offered in which lower-paid players would receive most of their prorated salary and the top earners would receive less, often less than half. The union views this as an attempt to split the masses. It also is revenue sharing in different clothing — just in this case Gerrit Cole and Giancarlo Stanton would be propping up Gleyber Torres and Luke Voit.

The players are concerned they are in the dark about the true state of owner finances, at a time when management is claiming the bottom line is so bleak that the pain must be shared. This also is not new. Players never know exactly what to think of owner revenue, especially when it comes to what is truly being taken in from regional sports networks and land owned around stadiums. They have heard the owners cry poor even in good times.

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Still, they always come to a deal through their very understandable mistrust. And that players — even while upset — are flocking to spring training sites means they want to play, so the union needs to work through the mistrust. If the owners truly want to play, then the players even have some leverage.

How about trading some short-term loss for big-picture gain? An example: Take 60 percent of prorated salaries now across the board in exchange for raising the minimum wage the next two years to $750,000, then $850,000, which helps the bottom-end players. Then demand no luxury tax thresholds/penalties for 2021 and 2022. The expectation is that the financial downturn is going to impact those seeking larger contracts, particularly free agents. But if the Dodgers or Yankees or Cubs want to spend, let there at least not be an artificial barrier to doing that.

The owners get short-term cash flow they desire without full prorated salaries in 2020, the players receive an avenue to improve their financial lot in uncertain financial times the next two years. It is called a compromise. This is quite familiar to where we end up with these sides. That should even go for unfamiliar times.

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