MLB wants to return without absorbing any of the fallout

This article is free for anyone to read, but please consider becoming a Patreon subscriber to allow me to keep writing posts like this one. Sign up to receive articles like this one in your inbox here.

Major League Baseball might lose money this year if the season were to open up without fans, and players were to be paid prorated salaries based on their current deals and the number of actual games played. “Might” is the key word from the previous sentence: MLB says they’ll lose money, but all we have is their word. We certainly don’t have access to the data saying this is true, given they don’t open up their full books to anyone, not even the Players Association, and the year-end rankings for revenue that come by way of Forbes are essentially stitched together from reporting and sourcing.

The MLBPA considers any revenue-sharing plan with MLB to pay their salaries for 2020 to be a “non-starter,” as it’s too much like a salary cap to be acceptable. While I’m down with that reasoning, there’s another one: MLB isn’t about to fully open their books — books that have been closed since before the union existed — to the PA to save money in a single year, so the chances that whatever figure they split is the truth about what was made are essentially zero. Do you think MLB’s owners want to do away with the secrecy they’ve established around their full revenue in order to keep themselves afloat in 2020 without fans, or do you think it’s more likely they’d continue to hide revenue data and expenses in order to maintain a long-standing advantage in that arena over the players (and fans), and just lie about what they’re pulling in to both reduce what they owe players for 2020 and keep said advantage in the future, including in next summer’s collective bargaining talks? This one isn’t meant to be a brain teaser.

As Craig Goldstein wrote (as did Craig Edwards) teams privatize their profits but want to socialize their losses. The players already agreed to a pay cut in the March agreement when they accepted prorated salaries as a condition of a shortened season. A further cut when the pay situation, from their point of view, is already settled, and, per Craig Calcaterra’s reporting, will start a “war” with MLB, is not an option. And it shouldn’t be, either. The players are already making a sacrifice on their guaranteed contracts to ensure there is some form of a 2020 season: what have the owners agreed to sacrifice, besides some service time for veterans they would rather not be paying, anyway?

The Ringer’s Michael Baumann, who is not named Craig, summed it all up tidily in a single tweet on Tuesday:

It’s wild how one of the central defenses pro-owner folks have for sports owners (and rich people in general) is that they deserve these wild profits, because they’re the ones risking everything for their team/business. And yet, when a moment of real risk actually appears, who is supposed to absorb the fallout? Just something to think about the next time you see or hear that kind of logic.

The owners might lose money. And? So is everyone else! Never mind just the players and this one industry, but what about others? What about those who had to take pay cuts to avoid a layoff, those who were furloughed, and those who were straight-up laid off? Those who can’t get to their much-needed unemployment checks, because the infrastructure is so broken as to make it impossible for everyone who needs access to UI to get it? Even industries that remain open are having issues — do you think restaurants are making the same kind of cash as curbside pickup/delivery services that they were able to when they were fully open to the public? No one is suggesting the people making and delivering those meals take a pay cut. If they did, they’d risk no longer having access to those services.

There’s also this to consider, as well. What the owners consider lost money is more likely the loss of potential profits. They are not necessarily going into the red by playing the 2020 season — television contracts, all of the BAM revenue, the absurd advertising money MLB would be able to pull in as some of the only live and new programming on every single night — would still be billions of dollars. MLB’s owners are upset that the money they expected to make in 2020 will be less than it was. They don’t want to make just a little bit of money this year by playing the 2020 season: as usual, they want to squeeze every bit of profit they can out of the year to line their pockets, and to pay their current investors while attracting new ones. Can you think of a better sales pitch to people on the fence about investing than to show off how much money investors in a team were still able to make during a pandemic-shortened season?

Despite all of this, it’s the players you’re going to see described as greedy and as holding up the works here. Never mind that they haven’t actually seen an economic proposal yet: that didn’t stop the governor of Illinois, J.B. Pritzker, from saying that he’s “disappointed in many ways that players are holding out for these very, very high salaries and payments during a time when I think everybody is sacrificing.” Again: who is the “everybody” here? It certainly isn’t the owners. And Pritzker, worth $3.4 billion himself as a member of the family that runs Hyatt hotels, should probably keep his mouth shut about who exactly is going without in some form during a pandemic.

It’s not just people who can afford baseball teams sticking up for the people who do, though. You’ve also got former MLB star Mark Teixeira doing the owners’ work for them, by going on ESPN to say that, “I would rather make pennies on the dollar and give hope to people and play baseball than not make anything and lose an entire year off their career.” Sure, why not, create external media pressure on the union that will only make their already difficult job even tougher while speaking as a trusted expert on the subject. Maybe now you can let the people who will actually be impacted, both financially and by placing themselves at risk by playing instead of self-isolating, take it from here.

I already went into detail about the dangers of making things appear “normal,” both in this space and at Baseball Prospectus, so I’ll spare you the full discussion here. But that’s all Teixeira is aiming for, a sense of normalcy, and without the proper safety and health protocols and conditions in place, feigning normalcy is nothing but a dangerous lie.

Ken Rosenthal reports that MLB will soon be giving a proposal to the players on how to safely come back to the field. That’s the real focus here, and the angle the MLBPA needs to lean on the most. The money is a legitimate issue, but that’s not going to be a good-faith discussion, not when you’ve already got unrelated billionaires and even former players coming out to say or imply the current players are greedy for not wanting their pay cut twice: just wait until MLB itself gets in on that round of messaging, then things are going to get real ugly. Safety and health, and the risks to both posed by coming back, are going to have to be the key public messaging from the MLBPA during these talks. That will resonate with regular people the most, not discussions of how the owners are lying about their take home. Save that stuff for me, and apparently everyone named Craig.

Visit my Patreon to become a supporter and help me continue to write articles like this one.