SAN DIEGO — There’s still a chance to salvage this, baseball. Despite the greed. Despite the absurd posturing. Despite the deaf ear to fans. Despite stepping on the rake, like a 1960s comedy sketch.
Once MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred dots the I’s and crosses the T’s on the amount of games and start date — thought to be 60, potentially starting July 24 — owners and players will face a fractured fan base. What do you plan to do about it?
Damage has been done, without a doubt. How much remains to be seen. You’ve pitched yourself into a bases loaded jam. Stumble now at everyone’s peril.
“You shut this down and get enough fans angry at you, you’re looking at four or five years of damage,” said El Cajon native Bret Boone, the three-time All-Star who played for the Padres in 2000 during a 14-year career and lives in Rancho Santa Fe. “Baseball always bounces back, but that’s what’s at stake.
“You see players and (ownership representatives) arguing about millions of dollars on Twitter while people wait for their stimulus checks. People don’t want to hear that. This isn’t the fight to go to the mat on.”
That’s the reality of negotiations during business as unusual, baseball tailspinning along with the other corners of our lives because of an unflinching global pandemic.
Now’s the time to focus on ditching egos and grabbing a mop to clean up the mess as best as possible. That starts with owners. There are two sides of the bargaining table, but one side that clearly must and should do better — including the Padres.
Fighting over lost dollars now — at a time when COVID-19 has claimed, according to the CDC, more than 120,000 Americans and unemployment hemorrhages money and futures — is infuriating. Move on.
Player salaries remain flat at around $4.4 million, according to an annual Associated Press survey, for the fifth year in a row. The “stagnant stretch is unprecedented since the free-agent era dawned in 1976,” AP reported. Meanwhile, Forbes now estimates the average MLB team is worth $1.85 billion, or 4% more than a year ago — signaling the smallest year-over-year growth since 2010.
The Padres, according to Forbes, jumped 7% to $1.45 billion to rank among the largest increases in the game during 2019. Though there are more business complexities at play, it’s impossible to ignore Forbes also pointed out revenue a year ago hit $299 million.
You expect players in their 20s to be competitive and a bit temperamental. You expect owners in their 50s, 60s or 70s — the majority born on third base — to know better than play the mock poverty card as negotiating leverage as talk shifts to games without fans.
It’s fine to line your bank account as long as you understand and genuinely participate in being stewards of the game during the craziest of times. The job of owners is to build and maintain relationships that propel the game, not toss matches into a bag full of fireworks.
Players are not blameless, of course. Landing a year of service time, no matter how short the schedule, moves all of them closer to a shot at a life-changing contract. And if the plan stops on 60 games of fully prorated salary, that’s more than the 48 once whispered.
Those things are not insignificant.
Owners pushing ideas like a universal DH when the focus needed to be on playing, period, only muddied the dysfunctional discourse. This is not the time to tack on a rider like pork-barrel legislation ramrodded through in the middle of the night — even if both sides generally agree.
“After the 2021 season, now you’re negotiating seven, eight, nine years out (with a new collective bargaining agreement),” said Boone, who served as an assistant player representative for the Reds when the 1994 season and World Series unraveled. “That’s when it’s worth fighting about. If the owners can plug their nose and take a sip and players can do the same, that’s great for baseball.”
Get it right moving forward and a mulligan awaits, Boone argued.
Slumping interest after 1994 was reignited with the epic home run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa in 1998. Life was pumped back into the game, one moonshot at a time — steroid regrets be damned.
“That’s kind of a history lesson,” he said. “There was a lot of damage and we lost a lot of fans from (the work stoppage). The initial reaction was, ‘I’ll never watch another game’ and ‘I’m going over to football.’ Baseball has shown it’s not perfect, but it’s very resilient.
“As long as they give the fans a show with a great postseason, I think this will be a footnote.”
Boone acknowledged the acrimony behind closed doors, however. Though just entering his third season, Boone was able to experience the messiness of the sausage being made while serving under player rep Hal Morris.
“It’s surreal,” he said. “The owners would walk in and it was like a performance. (Commissioner) Bud Selig’s chair was strategically placed higher than ours. They’d lecture us, like we’re children. Established players would get up and yell in the face of owners.
“One time we had a meeting set up in Arizona at a resort. Everyone flew in the day before. We’re sitting there in a big room and the owners just decided not to show up. Next thing we know, owners are at the podium saying we couldn’t reach an agreement. Then Bud walked to the podium saying the World Series was canceled. I was like, ‘What?’ We didn’t know that was going to happen.”
Imagine the Hatfield-and-McCoy flavor that the sit down for the next CBA in 2022 will take. The owners need to mend that relationship, too. The lack of trust from a vital, risk-taking workforce must continue to ring in the ears of those signing paychecks now and two years from now.
The grating irony: Owners might not get the chance.
As the coronavirus continues its march across America, positive tests shut down MLB camps of the Phillies, Blue Jays, Giants and Rangers. The rest of baseball quickly followed. LSU, college football’s defending national champions, has 30 positive cases according to Sports Illustrated. Stars in tennis (Novak Djokovic) and the NBA (Nikola Jokic) contracted the virus.
Baseball’s margin for error already was razor thin. Owners need to navigate the path forward as flawlessly as possible — no matter the gripes and legal grievances.
You’ve got one more shot at this.
©2020 The San Diego Union-Tribune