There are games that are louder, faster. Some that rattle the bones and others that rattle the mind. There are those you can play — or if it better suits your fancy, observe — in fantastical realms online. But baseball is still America’s pastime. (Pastime: “something that amuses and serves to make time pass agreeably.”)
So let us stipulate that in a period characterized by splendid isolation, escalating tragedy, enduring uncertainty and a murkiness to the passage of time, the metronomic routine of Major League Baseball games and schedules would be a very good diversion to have back.
The league is on it. A proposal team owners presented to the players union this week sets forth an 82-game season beginning in July, with no fans in the stands — at least to begin with — but a healthy audience at home, hopefully. All that’s left is for the two sides to work the details on logistics, safety and, well, money.
Safety first. Speaking to CNN on Thursday, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred described a regimen the rest of society can only pine for: Multiple tests a week with rapid results and supplemental antibody testing, daily temperature checks and symptom analysis, contact tracing in the event of a positive test, and quarantines that could end before the typical 14 days with a succession of negative tests. If the players aren’t comfortable with the arrangement, Manfred said, they won’t be forced to return.
Logistics: Games would be played in the usual stadiums, but spring training sites would be available as alternatives. There’d be no minor leagues, but teams would have an expanded roster of active and reserve players. The schedule would favor regional competition, limiting travel. The number of teams eligible for the playoffs would be expanded, sustaining intrigue.
That leaves money. It’s the main sticking point. Understanding why requires knowing a few things:
First, that an agreement reached in March called for players to get 1/162nd of contracted salary for every game played in a delayed season (a normal season consisting of 162 games). Now the owners want instead to share revenue 50-50. The players fear that would mean they would get less money, and they aren’t eager to reopen the discussion.
Second, that the players union sees any revenue-sharing arrangement as an implementation of a salary cap, which it has long resisted but which exists in other pro sports. The union and owners may both be positioning for the expiration of the current collective bargaining agreement in 2021.
Third, that the endeavor of Major League Baseball is indeed going to suffer financially this year. Manfred has said that about 40% of operating revenue is derived from attendance. He also told CNN that the league’s owners will endure a $4 billion combined loss if there’s no season.
Which makes this an opportune time to relay a memory.
In the 1970s, a Minnesota Twins television commercial featured a young talent named Butch Wynegar. The narrator declared: “He loves baseball so much, he’d probably play for free.” To which a jovial Twins owner Calvin Griffith was shown responding: “I really like that kid.”
Neither comment was really true, of course. In 1981, Wynegar signed a five-year, $2 million contract, and in 1982, Griffith traded him to the New York Yankees. Wynegar said he was “convinced Calvin is getting rid of all the high-priced players,” which Griffith denied.
Wynegar’s better-than-average salary of $400,000 a year was 46 times more than Americans’ median individual income in 1982 (both numbers adjusted for inflation). Going into the current season, a major-leaguer in the middle of the pack was set to enjoy a similar advantage. Salaries range from the minimum $563,000 to a pinnacle haul of $37.7 million (Mike Trout, Angels). Baseball’s economy is a different world, but whether the players get half or something less in a shortened season, they ought to be OK.
Owners don’t do so poorly, either. According to Forbes, the average value of an MLB team in 2019 was $1.85 billion, up nearly fourfold from a decade ago. The league also hit a record $10.7 billion in revenue for the 2019 season. Such lucrative franchises, managed well, also ought to be able to handle a hit.
Sentiment so far appears to favor the players, but it’s not wise to rush to pick sides in an evolving labor dispute. So we won’t, except to say to both sides: A great many people are making a great many sacrifices during this pandemic. You can make their lives a little better.