On July 31, the NBA will return for a brief eight-game sprint to the finish line at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Fla. After all the dust settles, there’ll be playoffs and a champion crowned.
That’s a day normally reserved for the MLB Trade Deadline, though the potential remains for another league to give baseball a nudge further down the food chain as it springs into action to fill the void felt by baseball fans.
The NHL expects to return with a 24-team melee to determine a Stanley Cup Champion, and there’s little doubt the NFL — where cash is king — will figure out something, be it with or without fans.
But it’s again MLB flagging behind with more bad news than good in recent days and weeks.
On Saturday, Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic wrote ($) that a July 4 target date to begin an abbreviated MLB season was all but off the table based on time needed to get camps up and running again and roughly three weeks needed to knock off three months worth of rust.
In the story, he suggests a 50-game season as “carrying little credibility” but it’s been clear since Jeff Passan of ESPN went on Sportscenter last week that owners are angling for a 50- to 60-game season.
But here’s where the owners show themselves to be painfully unaware of the game that helps them be rich beyond any of our wildest dreams:
Baseball is built on the day-to-day over the long haul. You can argue whether 162 games are necessary rather than something like 144 or even the 154 they used to play, but it takes a ton of time to weed out the haves from the have nots. Then, when playoff time comes, it’s playing a multi-game series rather than a one-and-done.
The COVID-19 pandemic shoots a big hole into that. There’s no denying it. But instead of making the best of a bad situation with as many games as possible, that’s proven to be one of — if not the — biggest points of contention as things currently stand.
As far as players are concerned, a 50-game season would prove very little. Players have slumps that last half of that, or more. Starting pitchers would spend three weeks ramping up — and even that might not be enough — to make 10 starts, at most?
And as Rosenthal noted in his piece, the 2019 Washington Nationals won just 19 of their first 50 games last season. No matter how expanded the playoff system proposed would be, the Nationals wouldn’t have been anywhere near it.
Hell, they needed a lot of help to even win the National League Wild Card game last fall.
Of course, players have ulterior motives for wanting to play as many games as possible. It means more money in their pockets. Who wouldn’t want that?
But former Minnesota Twins third baseman Trevor Plouffe made a really, really interesting point on Twitter. Check the date on the timestamp, too:
Here’s a theory that makes too much sense not to post:
Owners want to play the least amount of regular season games possible. 60 is the number baseball needs to have a full postseason. They will continue to run the clock out until 60 games is the only possibility.
— Trevor Plouffe (@trevorplouffe) May 28, 2020
That’s over a week-and-a-half ago.
And why do the owners want that number?
It’s pretty simple, really.
Sixty games means the owners don’t have to pay the players for 114 games, or 81, or 75 or whatever number found floating in the ether might suggest. It means likely paying a salary that’s likely less than a prorated one-third of what players were owed in 2020.
Again, this is keeping in mind the idea of trying to make the best of a bad situation.
It also means the owners will still reap the public relations benefits of getting the game back on the field as fans grow more and more agitated about the game’s state of flux — something that, to be fair, does cut both ways when it comes to benefit.
But the reason the owners want it that way is simple — it also means they’d retain the upper hand in the upcoming negotiations for the collective bargaining agreement, which is set to expire after next season.
So to recap, if MLB comes back with 60 games as the owners want — something commissioner Rob Manfred can mandate in his role, as selected by team owners — here again are the benefits:
- PR boost for getting the game going again
- Paying the players less money for fewer games
- Upper hand in future negotiations
- Minimal financial downside, all things considered, and all of that can be amortized into justifying yet another depressed free-agent market
So there’s not really any downside here for the owners. But as we’ve seen with ownership groups willing to nickel and dime minor leaguers for every last penny in recent days, they will stop at nothing to minimize even the slightest downside while retaining all the upside.
The difference between paying players for 60 games or 80 is fairly minute in the grand scheme of things — and that 80, or 81 if a half-season is desired, is a good compromise for both sides — but at this point there’s no indication the owners are willing to budge.
Here’s to hoping for labor harmony and peace. There’s too much money — and future good will — at stake for it not to happen.