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They will be playing baseball in Korea before the U.S.

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The first confirmed case of COVID-19 in the United States and the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in South Korea occurred on the same day. In the two months since then the course of each country’s outbreak has been radically different.

As of a week ago, the United States was reporting around 15 times more confirmed COVID-19 cases and deaths than South Korea despite having only about six times the population. South Korea has likewise reduced its rate of new daily cases to one-tenth of its peak while the United States likely won’t see its peak for some time.

The biggest factor in that disparity is that South Korea began ramping up testing more quickly and implementing preventive measures, such as school closures and stay-at-home orders earlier and in uniform, as opposed to piecemeal fashion as we have done in the U.S. South Korea is not out of the woods yet — they are currently bracing for a second wave of COVID-19 — but they flattened the curve more effectively and are thus ahead of us on the timeline.

This is obviously a phenomenon with society-wide implications, but for our purposes here, it has implications for professional sports as well. To that end, ESPN published a story today about how KBO baseball in Korea is likely to be the first major professional sports league to resume its schedule. The story focuses on former major league pitcher Dan Straily, who now pitches for the Lotte Giants of the KBO. He talks about how his team and league in Korea have approached things there with respect to training and communication and things of that nature.

It’s an interesting read, but my biggest takeaway from it is not necessarily about what we should have done vs. what Korea has done or anything like that. I mean, there are countless ways the United States has completely screwed up its COVID-19 response via incompetence and worse, but this ESPN article does not get into that in a super effective way, nor does it take into account various differences between the U.S. and South Korea, separate and apart from the competence of its leaders, which would likely have led to at least some level of disparate results regardless. That’a a topic best left to a more in-depth article.

No, my biggest takeaway is how precarious and uncertain the return of baseball is even in South Korea, where things have gone better than in most places. As the article notes, one sick player, one sick trainer, and the timeline will be pushed back farther. And even if that doesn’t happen, the normal acts of ballplayers — getting a new ball from the ballboy to the ump to the catcher to the pitcher —  are all coming under new scrutiny and are cloaked in uncertainty and unease.

It’s the sort of thing that makes me seriously question whether professional sports can come back on anything approaching the timeline those in power are currently envisioning. And whether they should be coming back this year at all.

MLBPA: MLB’s ‘demand for additional concessions was resoundingly rejected’

Rob Manfred and Tony Clark
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On Thursday evening, the Major League Baseball Players Association released a statement regarding ongoing negotiations between the owners and the union. The two sides continue to hash out details concerning a 2020 season. The owners want a shorter season, around 50 games. The union recently proposed a 114-game season that also offered the possibility of salary deferrals.

MLBPA executive director Tony Clark said that the union held a conference call that included the Executive Board and MLBPA player leaders. They “resoundingly rejected” the league’s “demand for additional concessions.”

The full statement:

In this time of unprecedented suffering at home and abroad, Players want nothing more than to get back to work and provide baseball fans with the game we all love. But we cannot do this alone.

Earlier this week, Major League Baseball communicated its intention to schedule a dramatically shortened 2020 season unless Players negotiate salary concessions. The concessions being sought are in addition to billions in Player salary reductions that have already been agreed upon.

This threat came in response to an Association proposal aimed at charting a path forward. Among other things, Players proposed more games, two years of expanded playoffs, salary deferrals in the event of a 2020 playoff cancellation, and the exploration of additional jewel events and broadcast enhancements aimed at creatively bringing our Players to the fans while simultaneously increasing the value of our product. Rather than engage, the league replied it will shorten the season unless Players agree to further salary reductions.

Earlier today we held a conference call of the Association’s Executive Board and several other MLBPA Player leaders. The overwhelming consensus of the Board is that Players are ready to report, ready to get back on the field, and they are willing to do so under unprecedented conditions that could affect the health and safety of not just themselves, but their families as well. The league’s demand for additional concessions was resoundingly rejected.

Important work remains to be done in order to safely resume the season. We stand ready to complete that work and look forward to getting back on the field.

As per the current agreement signed in March, if there is a 2020 season, players will be paid on a prorated basis. Thus, fewer games means the players get paid less and the owners save more. MLB has threatened to unilaterally set a 2020 season in motion if the two sides cannot come to terms. It should come as no surprise that the union has responded strongly on both fronts.

There have been varying reports in recent days over the confidence in a 2020 season happening. The MLBPA’s statement tonight doesn’t move the needle any; it simply affirms that the union remains steadfast in its goal to avoid a second significant cut in salaries.

As I see it, the ball is in the owners’ court. The owners can strongarm the players into a short season, saving money but significantly increasing the odds of a big fight in upcoming collective bargaining agreement negotiations. Or the owners can eat more of a financial loss, agreeing to a longer season than they feel is comfortable. The latter would have the double benefit of not damaging overall perception of the sport and would not disrupt labor peace going forward.

The MLBPA statement included a declaration that the players are “ready to report, ready to get back on the field, and they are willing to do so under unprecedented conditions.” If there is no 2020 season, we will have only the owners to blame, not the players.

Update: Cardinals pitcher Jack Flaherty, who has been quite vocal on social media about these negotiations, chimed in: