BY Art Thiel 06:00AM 06/25/2020

Thiel: MLB’s cease-fire is no answer for anything

Don’t call the re-start of baseball a settlement. It’s a cease-fire. Resentments linger, nothing is resolved, and the union plots to do its worst. As if life needs more tension.

Commissioner Rob Manfred has looked helpless in the Astros scandal and the attempt at re-starting the season. / Alan Chitlik, Sportspress Northwest

Puke and all, American sports fans will welcome back Major League Baseball.

Always have. Owners are betting fans always will be there — even when they aren’t permitted to attend in person. The belief has been supported by two bedrock truths:

Fans are suckers.

Owners are monopoly operators.

No sport lives off its long past, no sport lives off its sensory appeal (which bypasses the cognitive portion of the brain), no sport lives off its frequency, like baseball. All of those virtues were untouched by the latest bout of sordidness — amid record-breaking national unemployment prompted by a severe public health crisis, owners and players arguing over exorbitant sums of cash.

The principals, nevertheless, remain confident they are bullet-proof.

Yet some latitude must be granted them on this occasion, because the disruptions and sorrows caused by coronavirus have flummoxed everyone and killed more than 120,000 in the U.S. There is no order to be made from this chaos, only workarounds.

That said, in the shutdown time between the March 26 deal between owners and players and Monday’s news of a cease-fire, baseball accomplished virtually nothing except the burning of daylight and credibility.

Almost none of the proposals and counter-proposals amounted to squat, leaving MLB with a 60-game season, shortest in history, that is the default outcome specified in the March agreement. The sides couldn’t even kick the can down the road.

The Mariners and the rest of MLB will open “Training Camp 2.0” July 1 at home parks — how accidentally smart, because Arizona and Florida, the two potential hubs in a discarded MLB plan, are increasingly hostile sites via unprecedented virus spikes — then the regular season starting July 23 or 24, wrapping up Sept. 27. Then they go into a conventional 10-team playoff setup.

If this stubby season, likely pickled with covid-19 absentees as well as increased injuries from players out of condition, doesn’t have much appeal, well, you’re out of luck — the owners know you have no choice for your baseball dollar.

Well, you could always turn to minor league baseball. But be careful — MLB plans to eliminate 40 of the 162 teams with which it affiliates. That was a dubious cost-cutting move BEFORE the virus gave it some cover. The long history of financial starvation of the affiliates, followed by their execution in 40 cities and towns, makes it seem as if MLB seeks to aggravate its customers intentionally.

The lack of a substantive conclusion in the labor-compensation dispute — no strike, no long-term agreement, just a cease-fire — leaves a void that feels similar to what hung over baseball when the adjudication of the Houston Astros’ sign-stealing scandal had no sanctions for the team owner or for the individual players.

Is any part of this industry accountable to any other part? Or is this sports’ first “autonomous zone”?

A couple of managers and one executive were fired, there was a loss of draft picks and a fine. But there were no consequences, other than shame and mockery, for owner Jim Crane and players such as Jose Altuve.

The feckless conclusions to two major controversies do not speak well for the leadership of Commissioner Rob Manfred.

The first substantive breakdown with labor in 25 years came on his watch. While he can try to cast himself as a business victim of the virus, most of the dispute is not about safety concerns or the already wrecked 2020 season, but about positioning for a new collective bargaining agreement when the current one expires after the 2021 season.

By accepting the default version of a deal for 2020, the players denied Manfred what he most wanted — a promise by the union not to file a grievance against the owners over the current shenanigans.

The union will claim the owners bargained in bad faith, which may have cost them up to $1 billion in salaries. There’s a strong chance MLB will lose, and a stronger chance the owners in discovery would be forced to open their zealously guarded books. That’s a pantsing that has never occurred.

SI.com’s Tom Verducci reported that players denied themselves the owners’ offer of an expanded postseason (equal to 156 additional players who would have participated), a universal DH, a guaranteed $25 million in 2020 playoff pool money, and $33 million forgiven of the $170 million of salaries the owners advanced the players in March. That’s how important the right to grieve was for the union. It provides huge leverage in the pending CBA talks.

To many baseball fans, the arcane details of the negotiations don’t matter, which is an understandable feeling right now. In heavy seas, we grope for handrails, and the return of baseball looks like one. But this one is made of balsa, not mahogany.

Since any cease-fire settles nothing, resentments remain. Because the pandemic has rendered most everything vulnerable and bewildering, any number of health issues among players can turn into flashpoints with management.

To cite a single example for the current season, if positive tests erupt among certain teams, forcing multiple teammates into quarantine, who decides how much competitive loss is too much to continue play?

That’s already happened in the National Women’s Soccer League, when the Orlando Pride, with 10 positives among players and staffers, bailed out of the league’s bubble tournament underway this week in Utah.

Yes, the NWSL isn’t MLB, which can say it’s preparing for the worst by creating a 60-player pool for each team, about 30 of whom will be training in nearby minor-league facilities. But if those lost to quarantine include key varsity players, their 14-day absences, filled by kids and 4A talents, will likely ruin a team’s chances in an intense 60-game sprint.

An already compromised season could deteriorate quickly into a competitive joke. In the poisoned atmosphere, how do Manfred, the owners and players find enough common ground to decide the game’s best interests, especially if a decision to suspend infuriates the owners’ pal in the White House?

The collateral damage from the negotiations failure will have a blast radius through this season and 2021. By then, after a season out of the ballpark and two years into face masks, many fans may tell the monopolists that baseball finally has exhausted their capacity to be suckers.

 


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YourThoughts

  • bevdog

    Good article Art on the current state of baseball. Your points are well taken. I believe I may have been one of those “suckers” you mention but no more!

    With all that is going on in our “new” world from the Covid 19 pandemic, I have begun to look at many things in a far different light.
    Some things that were so important before now are not so much.

    Baseball is one of them. The fact that the Mariners have sucked for so long I feel you can now add the word ambivalent to their equation. I do not resonate with the “poor players” plight regarding compensation nor do I sympathize with the owners and their monopoly.

    I am a HUGE sports fan and I must admit have been missing the wonderful spectacle of sports competition which have been greatly lacking lately.

    We all have had to make “adjustments” to our everyday lives. The basics health, food and shelter seem to be more important in our daily thoughts that what some baseball player is being paid or how much money owners are making or may lose.

    These are difficult times. Thoughts and priorities are changing. Baseball for me has taken a seat in the back of the bus.

    • art thiel

      Thanks for this, bevdog. My guess is you’re not alone. Lots of people are having reckonings, be it regarding race, health, relationships, money, politics. Priorities for many are changing. Perhaps for the first time since 9/11, America’s vast middle class feels vulnerable. But this is worse, for all the obvious reasons.

      Baseball, and really all sports, assuming fans will be the same, do so at their peril.

  • Brent Hannon

    spot-on as usual, Art. baseball reflects society: two sides that can’t stand each other, don’t trust each other, can barely talk to each other. And the owners, being rich, have power, so they have appointed a lackey commissioner who they can boss around. as for abandoning baseball: never! it’s badly run, and unfair to small market teams, and our local outfit has been crappy for nearly the entirety of its existence, but when they come back, I’ll be there. not entirely sure why, but I will. – ps I’m using my real name, formerly known as Tian Biao.

    • art thiel

      Thank you, Brent. It may seem to others a small gesture, but I appreciate a reader who uses his or her name. I’m used to taking the responsibility, but I don’t require it, because people are entitled to their reasons for privacy.

      As for your loyalty to baseball, you’re hardly alone, But since you brought it up, I encourage you to think a little harder about why. The appeals of the sport are obvious, but I liken it to being seduced by the creature comforts of a new car, then discovering over time that the vehicle shortchanged you on important stuff.

      • Brent Hannon

        fair question. it’s the essence of the game that I like: the pitcher trying to get the batter out any way possible, and the batter swinging, and the randomness that results from that swing. i like the pace, relaxing in the bleachers with friends, watching the action unfold. I don’t hold players or owners to any particular moral standards as long as they stay within the law and the rules. I fully expect them to reflect society itself: there will be cheaters, jerks, philanderers, gamblers, drinkers, racists, whatever, in ownership and on the field and in the stands. there will also be fine human beings, in ownership and on the field and in the stands. how could it be otherwise? the game reflects America. So I don’t really see myself as being shortchanged. I wish owners were more enlightened, I hate the cheating by the Astros, I didn’t like PEDs, and the way this Covid negotiation has unfolded is aggravating, but the game has never been perfect. I have my issues with baseball and the way it is run, but I still like to watch it.

        • Brent Hannon

          having said that, I did abandon the NBA for good when Schultz sold the Sonics to OKC. so I guess nothing is forever. I should add: I like minor league, college, and semi-pro baseball, just as much as MLB. It’s not so much the Mariners that I’m loyal to, more the game itself.

          • art thiel

            As baseball moves up to the highest stage with the most money, the less able it is to respect its audience.

        • art thiel

          Can’t argue with any of that, Brent. I don’t hold baseball to higher standards than any other endeavor. But the inability of principals to set their own house in order, to take advantage of all the adoration that you expressed, is exasperating. All big-time pro and college sports have their moral, legal and financial troubles; but baseball seems to injure itself more readily in more ways than the other shops.

      • DaveinSeattle

        Enjoyed the piece as usual, Art. I’m a little surprised, however, that you are singling out baseball as the worst offender in sports as far as mismanagement or playing their fans for suckers. While I mostly agree with everything you said above, I find that the NFL is a far worse offender because of its blatant lying and disregard for the health of its players when it came to the concussions/CTE issue. At least baseball didn’t actively put its players’ lives at risk as a matter of policy, denying science and hard evidence. (I’m putting aside the PEDs issue, because I don’t think that rises to the same level, and only some players chose to use them.)

        This doesn’t even get into the shameful way Goodell and the league treated Kaepernick and the other players who were making a silent political protest before games, kowtowing to Trump and conservatives for years before suddenly having a remarkable change of heart about racism in recent weeks. I’ve stuck with the NFL for the most part, but very reluctantly — it’s more hate than love at this point. I have no such qualms about being a baseball fan (though my interest in this farcical season is pretty limited, further constrained by the fact that I’m living out of the country). Although at this point, my tolerance for pro sports as a whole is wearing pretty thin. Thank god for the Sounders.

        Keep up the great work! I always feel I get my subscription’s worth — such a deal at $2 a month :-)

        PS I fully expect that the NFL will bend over backwards to play a full season this fall, even if COVID-19 continues to rage unchecked across the country. After all, it’s what Trump and the owners want that matters, right? And the money, of course.

  • coug73

    Baseball owners have always played hardball with players and fans. Motivated by greed owners and players have created childhood fantasies enjoyed by fans. A sucker for baseball is like opium to the masses of baseball fans. In my youth, living in the Bay Area, I have fond memories of games watched in Candlestick and what a strange trip its was with Charlie’O and the Athletics.

    • art thiel

      As with nearly all fans, childhood memories of sports remain frozen in time. The realities of time and cultural changes generate inevitable resentments. A pandemic and economic recession upends nearly everything.

  • James

    you mad bro?

    • art thiel

      Just taking care of my mentals.

  • Charlie W

    Great article as always, Art. The handrail metaphor is spot on. You have a gift there.

    • art thiel

      Some might say it’s a curse, but thanks.

  • disqus_bDYEptNH5o

    Does anyone really care if the season is cancelled?

    • art thiel

      A lot of people care. However, way more than usual, don’t.

      • Chris Alexander

        I’m actually glad the season wasn’t CANCELLED. But I’ll also be paying attention to roughly 162 fewer games than I did last year. Had the idiots on both sides NOT acted like such big-ass babies, I might have only paid attention to 102 fewer games but ….

        Glad the season wasn’t cancelled; couldn’t care less about the results.