Yesterday’s news about Major League Baseball submitting an offer to the Major League Baseball Player’s Association has re-ignited the conversation about a 2020 baseball season. For those who haven’t been following closely, here’s where things stand at the moment.
On March 26, MLB and the MLBPA reached a general agreement about how to handle a 2020 baseball season. As far as money goes, there was an agreement that players would be paid their normal salaries on a prorated basis (i.e. if the season was 81 games long they’d receive 50% of their 2020 salary, etc), but a clause in the agreement stipulated that the sides would negotiate in good faith about the economic feasibility of playing a season without fans if that was necessary.
There is a lot of disagreement about what that clause really meant. Did it mean that the sides would decide if a season could be played at all with no fans? Did it mean that players would renegotiate salaries if there were no fans? I’ve personally spoken with two people who are privy to the agreement who say completely conflicting things about what they think that meant.
Which sort of matters, because it could dictate the MLBPA’s response to the offer Major League Baseball made yesterday.
First, that offer. We learned yesterday that it involved players being paid on a “sliding scale” in which the highest-paid players would receive larger pay cuts than lower-paid players. Yesterday evening ESPN’s Jeff Passan reported just how stark that financial divide would truly be:
Seen another way: 82-game prorated salaries vs. MLB's proposal
— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) May 26, 2020
Those are pretty massive cuts for top earners (i.e. the players whose skills and star power help MLB make most of its money) which, as Bill noted last night, seem pretty calculated to drive a wedge into the MLBPA’s membership, pitting the highest-paid players against the lower-paid players. It may already be working. Hard to say this early. We do know that it’s a proposal that is not sitting well at all with union leadership. In the next day or so, as we hear from more players directly and indirectly, we’ll get a better idea about how it is playing more broadly.
So how does the MLBPA respond? At least one labor law expert is suggesting that they shouldn’t respond.
Eugene Freedman, a labor lawyer and a contributor to Baseball Prospectus, has argued for the past week or so that the March 26 agreement (which he refers to has the “MOU” or “Memo of Understanding”) has settled the matter of wages and that prorated salary has been agreed upon. That the owners have a choice of either playing the season or not playing the season but that, legally speaking, the matter of pay is closed and the players do not have a duty to negotiate it. If they counter yesterday’s offer, however, they have agreed to reopen the matter, he says.
It’s a compelling argument if the March 26 agreement is clear on that point. Which, again, I’m not sure that it is based on what people familiar with it have told me. It may not matter either way, though, because there have been at least some rumblings that the MLBPA will, in fact, make a counter offer. If they do, that part of the March agreement is over and we’re simply at the table negotiating over pay.
As for that negotiation, it troubles me for a lot of reasons that long time readers can pretty easily anticipate.
Baseball has seen nothing but skyrocketing revenues and profits for more than twenty straight years. At no time did Major League Baseball or its owners consider it a priority to share that prosperity with the players. Sure player salaries, generally, have risen, but they have not risen as much as revenues and, in the past few years they have flattened. The important point is that there has been an increasing detach between MLB’s prosperity and player compensation and vast swaths of increased revenue that the league and its clubs have realized has been fenced-off from the players.
Only now, when Major League Baseball faces the first prospect of losing some money — or, possibly, only losing some gains, as we don’t know how bad 2020 will be for the league — in decades are they considering the players full partners in the league’s financial picture. They’re treating it like they’re making a capital call on partners to help guard against losses after treating players like straight wage employees forever. It’s something that the players should, and many likely do, feel to be galling. A lot of businesses are facing losses in the COVID-19 landscape. How many of them are asking workers to take massive pay cuts? Not many. They’re either shutting down and firing workers if they can’t make a go of things or toughing it out, but they’re not premising the resumption of business on massive wage concessions.
In light of that. there is no doubt a contingent of the players who feel that MLB can decide if it wants to play or not in 2020 and, like any other business, make or lose money depending on how things go. There is nothing written in stone saying that every business has to be profitable every single year and Major League Baseball is no exception. Its owners got the benefits of the financial risks it has taken and they should be forced to accept some occasional losses. “Pay us or don’t play the season,” the players may counter. They may take a lot of heat from fans and from the media if they do it, but they shouldn’t be forced to negotiate with one hand tied behind their backs. The owners have upside and downside here too.
We’ll soon see what tack they take. If I had to guess, I’d guess that the players will make a counteroffer on money and that some sort of agreement is eventually hammered out. No matter how that goes, expect the players to be cast as greedy by the press and the public who will say that they are threatening the very viability of baseball. And, what’s more, that their doing so in the face of a global pandemic is appalling.
It’d be nothing new, of course. The players have been the bad guys when it comes to the business side of baseball since there was a business side of baseball. Nothing is going to change that.