Bill Koch: Let's hope MLB players, owners don't strike out

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A baseball with MLB logo is seen at Citizens Bank Park before a game between the Washington Nationals and Philadelphia Phillies on June 28, 2018 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. - Mitchell Leff/Getty Images North America/TNS

Leave it to Major League Baseball’s owners and players to squabble in the face of a global pandemic.

This relationship has never been what you would describe as warm and fuzzy. Strikes and lockouts were the norm for decades, including the shameful cancellation of the World Series in 1994.

It feels like we’re building toward another flashpoint this week.

Owners have put forth a proposal to the MLB Players Association that would involve restarting spring training in June and a return to the diamond around the Fourth of July. We’re about to find out exactly why it was never as simple as signing and moving on.

First, the obvious — the coronavirus. There are varying degrees of suffering depending on the state you call home. More than 81,000 Americans have lost their lives and nearly 1.5 million have tested positive.

With that in mind, the players are right to have some reservations about leaving the safety of their homes. Washington Nationals relief pitcher Sean Doolittle voiced several worthwhile concerns in a thoughtful Twitter thread on Monday — clubhouse configuration, testing frequency, considerations for family members, accommodations for game day staffs and much more. What protocols MLB puts in place and how it plans to address a positive test among a certain team or ballpark staffer would seem paramount.

Owners rightly sense a chance to seize the empty sporting marketplace and provide a much-needed diversion. The nightly ritual of baseball — on television or as radio background — has a unique appeal when attempting to pass the time. Salvaging a share of the healthy national and regional television network cash would give clubs a cushion going into what could be another difficult year in 2021.

Arriving at that mutual conclusion won’t be easy. When “salary cap” and “record profits” and “back to business” are among the phrases involved, watch out. Those are classic buzzwords meant to make the other side squirm.

It has felt from the start like Tony Clark was looking for a fight. The executive director of the MLBPA debuted with the Tigers in 1995, which also happens to be the year after the sport’s last major work stoppage. Clark consistently declined to comment on the possibility of a 2020 season until being presented with a formal proposal from the owners.

That’s wise negotiating, certainly, but it does nothing to move the conversation forward. Clark could have opted for some diplomacy by suggesting what players would prioritize in this next round of talks. Instead he erected an invisible wall as high as his 6-foot-8 frame and ceded the battlefield.

Owners took the lead by suggesting an 82-game schedule in empty stadiums, with regional matchups — American League East versus National League East, for example — in place. The postseason field would expand by four teams to 14 and active rosters would jump from 26 players to 30. The two sides would agree to a 50-50 split of all revenue generated.

Going first allowed owners to put some public pressure on the MLBPA, but don’t lose sight of who really controls the majority of the wealth in this equation. Only the Marlins were valued at less than $1 billion according to a study published in April by Forbes.com. Minor leaguers still live in relative poverty and salary arbitration still denies players a chance to earn anything close to their real worth through the first six years of their respective careers.

What this boils down to is a bad marriage between two parties who simply can’t divorce, and it’s playing out like an opening salvo ahead of the Collective Bargaining Agreement’s expiration in December 2021. There is little trust between them, and anything resembling constructive communication is done through intermediaries and media sources in the form of trial balloons. Any perceived opportunity to press an advantage in the court of public perception is immediately pounced upon.

It’s hard to think of a recent time period where the United States would have less collective tolerance for any sort of public disagreement between these two entities. Unemployment claims are approaching 35 million and Michael Jordan dominates the sporting conversation despite playing his last basketball game 20 years ago. MLB owners and players can’t possibly be so tone deaf to haggle themselves out of the chance to record what would be a rather timely societal save, right?

Let’s try to do what we all should whenever hard times hit.

Let’s hope.

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© 2020The Providence Journal (Providence, R.I.)