If professional sports teams sell hope, baseball stands alone as the most hopeless sport in North America.
Negotiations to begin a 2020 season are going sideways at best. The Major League Baseball Players’ Association formally proposed a 114-game regular season Sunday. MLB team owners want a shorter season, reportedly close to 50 games, before the playoffs begin. Wednesday, multiple outlets reported that owners are not interested in countering the 114-game proposal. Commissioner Rob Manfred can begin a season without the players’ consent; his authority to do so is what passes for hope in early June.
Meanwhile, NASCAR is already running races. The National Hockey League is moving forward with its postseason, with only a few key details still to be set in stone. The National Basketball Association will reportedly invite 22 teams to Orlando to continue its regular season in July, under a plan that could be ratified Thursday.
Baseball owners and players, meanwhile, have been arguing through the media about what is fair ground for negotiation. One star player is pitching for full public transparency of league revenues, not the defending World Series champions.
The timing of this rhetoric amounts to salt in an open wound. This week, all 30 teams issued statements in support of communities of color in response to the death of George Floyd and the civil unrest that followed. The Cleveland Indians’ statement read, in part, “in our role as a civic institution, we strive to unite and inspire our city with the power of team.”
The problem with that sentence is that professional sports teams act as both civic institutions and big corporations. Sometimes, the goals of the civic institution and the corporation run in conflict. Want to unite and inspire your city with the power of team? How about green-lighting a 117-game season tomorrow?
Since most owners aren’t as outspoken as the most vocal players, it’s unfair to pick on the Indians. (The Indians are owned by Paul Dolan, who hasn’t outlined his preferred terms for a 2020 season.) Their statement was in the context of Black Lives Matter demonstrations, but it might well have applied to the Covid-19 crisis in America. We miss sports. We could use more unity and inspiration, even in times of relative peace.
Profit is not the only concern of baseball players or owners right now. Athletes cannot practice social distancing on the field. They must fly across the country, entering and exiting airports, and sleeping in urban hotel rooms, during a global pandemic. According to multiple reports, however, negotiations over safety concerns have been mostly, quietly, agreed upon. One source close to the players’ union told me they will not accept a 50-game season through negotiation. However, he sees the possibility for compromise if owners can agree to stage “close to 90-100 games” excluding the playoffs.
While teams have reportedly insisted they will lose money on every regular-season game played in an empty stadium, staging a longer regular season means more money for the players. That appears to be the tension preventing a 2020 season from beginning in labor peace.
It might not be that simple.
“Each collective bargaining agreement is its own animal. Parties deal with whatever baggage has carried over from the previous term,” said Eugene Freedman, a labor lawyer who has written about the ongoing labor negotiations in baseball. “There are a lot of issues from the players’ side as far as service time manipulation, the arbitration process, the free-agent process. Those are all things they’re already dealing with. I have no doubt those things will be key issues in the next negotiation.”
Baseball’s current Collective Bargaining Agreement is set to expire after next season. If there is to be a 2020 season, players should set aside concerns about “baggage” from this negotiation and realize that any season, however short, is better than none at all. Teams, meanwhile, must place their “civic institution” function ahead of their “big business” model for the next five months.
Here’s why: Anyone old enough to recall the cancellation of the 1994 World Series remembers how far afield a profit-seeking institution can stray from its sense of civic duty. Once that lesson sinks in with fans, it is difficult – if not impossible – to reverse.
In 1998, researchers in Israel conducted an experiment. A group of 10 daycare centers was considering fining parents who were late to collect their children at the end of the day. Six of the 10 centers, chosen at random, posted a sign on their front-facing bulletin boards notifying parents that fines would be issued for tardiness. Twelve weeks later, the fines were rescinded. In the other four centers, no fine was implemented.
Paradoxically, the centers that instituted a fine caused a significant increase in the number of late-arriving parents. And once the fine was rescinded, the rate of tardiness remained high. What happened?
In his book The Moral Economy: Why Good Incentives Are No Substitute for Good Citizens, author Samuel Bowles argues that the parents’ thinking had shifted. Once the fines were implemented, picking up their children on time was no longer an moral concern (“I’m going to try to be on time because it’s the right thing to do”) but an economic one (“I’ll try to be on time, but I can afford to be late”). The thought process literally moved from one region of the brain to the other.
Great. What does that have to do with baseball?
Before free agency, before television changed a sport into a business in which players rightfully demanded a fair stake, players and owners often negotiated their financial concerns on their own, without representation from outside agents. In his monumental book “The Lords of the Realm,” author John Helyar describes a scene from the late 1940s, when Indians owner Bill Veeck left 25 blank contracts on his desk for players to assign themselves salaries for the season. One player reduced his annual salary by $5,000.
“Decades later, that story is still told with horror at the players’ union,” Helyar wrote. “But it was a stance that reflected the values of the time and relationships with management. Many players had warm relationships with their owners, who, in the words of one baseball man, ‘would do anything for them but pay well’.”
In 1994, fans who pined for the pre-free agency baseball of their youth were aghast to learn how big a business the game had become. They couldn’t, or wouldn’t, sympathize with a player or owner whose thinking focused on economic rather than moral concerns. Many fans were lost for life.
Now, a new generation of fans is being forced to reckon with the same burden, a burden that feels weightless when we’re focused on the games on the field. The health-related concerns of an immunocompromised player are relatable; these tap into our moral centers of reasoning. But the monetary concerns of an owner or player are truly mind-wracking if you view baseball only as a civic institution. Yet monetary concerns are what is holding up a new season.
The effect is a hopeless fan base held hostage. It’s time to play ball.