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MLB’s latest startup proposal

The league still wants to stick it to the players.

Major League Baseball drew the ire of the players’ union Tuesday with an economic proposal that called for a significant cut in salaries that would affect all players and particularly the game’s highest paid, sources familiar with the proposal told ESPN.

The long-awaited plan, the first volley in an expected back-and-forth that will determine whether baseball returns in 2020, proposed a marginal salary structure in which the lowest-paid players would receive close to a full share of their prorated salary and the game’s stars receive far less than expected.

Players immediately bristled at the proposal, which includes an 82-game schedule that would begin in early July after a 21-day spring training, sources familiar with the plan said. Teams would play three exhibition games in the final week before starting a regular season that would finish Sept. 27.

The MLB Players Association is expected to reject the plan and counter in the coming days with a proposal that could include a longer season, according to sources.

The league’s proposal, which includes bonuses if postseason games are played, offers lower-salaried players a higher percentage of their expected wages and would give some of the game’s biggest stars a fractional cut of their salaries. The formula the league offered, for example, would take a player scheduled to make the league minimum ($563,500), give him a prorated number based on 82 games ($285,228) and take a 10% cut from that figure, leaving him with a $256,706 salary.

[…]

Although the proposal would keep a larger proportion of players close to their whole salaries — about 65% make $1 million or less and would receive more than 80% of their prorated salaries — players young and old objected to the plan, which they believe runs in contrast to a March agreement with the league that they believe legislated that players be paid full prorated salaries upon the return of baseball.

The league believes language in the deal calls for good-faith negotiations with the union about the economic feasibility of playing with no fans, which MLB expects to do upon a return. The league initially considered proposing a 50-50 revenue split with the players, citing massive losses due to the coronavirus pandemic. MLBPA executive director Tony Clark immediately rejected the idea, equating it to a salary cap.

See here for the background. Basically, this PR move by the owners is to stick to the highest-paid players, in an attempt to divide the union and make the players look as unsympathetic as possible to the public. I’ll outsource the analysis of this to Jay Jaffe, who sums it up as follows:

While this proposal does bear some resemblance to a progressive taxation scheme, the question that needs to be asked is why it’s the millionaires, whose careers have limited windows, bearing the brunt of the economic impact instead of the billionaire owners for whom annual profits — and for MLB, which has seen revenues grow for 17 straight years, there have been a whole lot of those — and losses pale in comparison to escalating franchise values. That’s without even considering the disproportionate risk the players are assuming by returning to play amid the pandemic. It’s not just their livelihoods that are at risk, it’s their lives. They can’t write those losses off.

Here’s a convenient timeline of the action so far, with some fact-checking as needed. By the way, while the owners as a whole are targeting the stars, one franchise is also sticking it to their minor leaguers, always a classy move. I’ll give a last word on this to Joe Sheehan:

More insidious, though, is the principle behind the plan. It’s asking Mike Trout to give money to Arte Moreno. Trout is rich; Moreno is wealthy. When Moreno had leverage, he paid Trout as little as he could. Now he’s asking Trout to give him back basically all the money Trout made in the first four years of his career.

Of course, any possibility of baseball or any other sport relaunching at this time is highly dependent on testing and keeping the players and coaches and umpires and staffers and everybody working at the stadiums COVID-free. Michael Baumann digs into what that means.

I asked Abdul El-Sayed, an epidemiologist and the former health commissioner for the city of Detroit, whether we know enough about COVID-19 to plan for games in October and November. “Yes, we do know enough about the virus,” El-Sayed says, “to know that we can’t make decisions five to six months in advance.”

One thing baseball has going for it compared to other major team sports—football, basketball, and so on—is that the actual gameplay isn’t particularly conducive to COVID-19 transmission. “An outdoor sport like baseball where [players are] not breathing heavily in each other’s faces seems like a good candidate for a sport that can return,” says Laura Albert, an associate professor of industrial and systems engineering at the University of Wisconsin whose research includes the optimization of emergency and public health systems.

While Albert isn’t worried as much about the in-game component of MLB’s plan to return in July, though, she has other concerns. Namely, even if the league prohibits sunflower seeds, tobacco, and spitting, there would still be plenty of scenarios during which a player with the virus could spread it to others. “There will be positive cases and there will be transmission between players,” she says. “And I anticipate it happening on airplanes and buses, in the locker rooms or bathrooms. It’s not totally clear how we can change those spaces to be safe if there’s a bunch of people using them.”

[…]

MLB’s return, whenever it happens, is already being heralded as a sign of things returning to normal. Indeed, as much as baseball fans miss the game itself, that touchstone to a more comfortable time is a huge reason why even a limited season is such an attractive proposition. But MLB has already accepted that if the league is going to have a prayer of making it to the World Series this year, the game won’t look, feel, or sound the same as it has in the past.

“Our lives are not going back,” Albert says. “They’re not returning to what they were like before, and there’s not one way we could really control the spread of COVID-19—there’s many things we have to do. And so it’s great that the leagues are embracing this. It’s not window dressing. I think it’s important for us to get used to these things.”

There’s a limit not only to what MLB and the MLBPA can do to ensure that the game is safe, but also to what they can know and predict. It will certainly be difficult for such a powerful industry to comprehend that idea, but it will be necessary for the baseball world to understand and embrace it. Given how COVID-19 works, the data on infection rate leaves investigators and public officials to work on a lag.

“We’re not dealing with linear dynamics here. That’s the hard part that I think is confounding so many of our best efforts to respond reasonably,” El-Sayed says. “You’re talking about exponential growth. Everything that we see today is information about the dynamics of the virus two weeks ago. And so all of a sudden you could be having exponential growth dynamics that only start showing up after it’s too late for you to act to stop them.”

As much as everyone is tired of having the course of the country and the economy determined on a fortnightly basis, [Thomas J. Duszynski, the epidemiology education director at the Richard M. Fairbanks School of Public Health at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis] says that’s about as far ahead as we can responsibly plan right now. He’s open to the idea of MLB coming back—but only if the league is willing to stop the season if conditions change. “If they go down this road and start to play games, which personally I hope they do, and we see a shift in that science that says, ‘Hey, wait a minute, the disease is getting worse again,’ is MLB going to be able to pull this back?” he says. “Are they going to be able to shut it down and still survive?”

Both El-Sayed and Duszynski believe that it’s possible that a leaguewide infection could progress to the point where MLB simply can’t press on.

“God forbid a player dies because of this,” Dusynski says. “What kind of ripple effect would that have through Major League Baseball?”

I’m actually not that worried about a player dying. It could happen, but it would be unlikely. I’m much more worried about a coach, or an umpire, or a stadium staffer dying. Or a member of a player’s family, or a family member of one of these other groups. That could happen regardless – about 0.7% of players have already had COVID-19, per the MLB antibody study. Clearly, the risk is greater if the games are played. The players have the most leverage to assess and try to mitigate the risk to themselves and their families. I hope that’s sufficient for everyone else.

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3 Comments

  1. Jason Hochman says:

    The owners are rich, but the players are no paupers, either. There is this saying going around that “we are all in this together,” but that is obviously false. While small business is struggling, and 30 million are unemployed (and nearly half of US households have virtually no savings), we see the talk show hosts in their nice homes, baking cookies with their kids, living it up. Obviously some are more in this and others are more together.

  2. brad says:

    Well, why don’t we just get the cities that have the baseball stadiums to pony up more tax money for these hurting team owners?

    I mean, that’s what public taxpayers funds should be use for…subsidizing extremely wealthy owners…right?…what am I missing here?

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