I write this late in the day of an ultimatum. An ultimatum that appears it will go unanswered.
I am paraphrasing, but Saturday, after weeks of dickering back and forth between the Major League Baseball owners and the Players Association the players came to a conclusion. That conclusion was that any further negotiations between the two sides would be fruitless. Their effort to bring baseball back to the public for the 2020 season has gotten nowhere. Knowing that the agreement both sides signed back in March allows the Commissioner’s Office to unilaterally impose a season that allows for full prorated pay for the league’s players (their biggest sticking point), those players essentially told the owners to let them know when the season will begin. They don’t want any more offers.
To be fair, their frustration is understandable. Negotiations from the ownership side never showed much good faith. Offer after offer, all seemingly shared with the public before the Player’s Association, essentially amounted to about the same thing: playing a season of games totaling anywhere from about 70 to about 80 contest, while being paid for only a portion of those games played. The owners, in an effort to cover the losses they know are coming by playing any games at all, were trying to pass that cost on to their most expensive employees by trying to get them to pay games for free. Meanwhile, when the owners actually did budge a minute amount, when the number of games they were willing to pay for went up, that benefit came with the caveat that that additional pay came as playoff bonuses. These bonuses hinge on the hope that the COVID-19 pandemic won’t worsen in October to the point where the playoffs would be cancelled altogether. No playoffs would mean no slightly raised percentage of pay, which would mean no guaranteed extra benefit for the players. I could see why they are frustrated.
For me though, the truth from very early on is that these negotiations, and possibly even the entire baseball season, has been doomed from a very early point in time in this process. There is one little detail early in this disappointing story that I point back to and consider the moment things went awry. I think this element will ultimately derail the season when it does inevitably return at the Commissioners imposition, which today seems even less likely to happen that it even did yesterday. But I digress from my point, what was that early moment?
On April 15th on this year, both Los Angeles Angels star Mike Trout and Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw separately and publicly made statements that they were in no way, shape or form interested in playing inside of a “bubble” in order to have a season.
The “bubble” suggestion, an idea touted by disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci, is what the NBA plans to use upon its return (assuming a return is still coming). The NHL also expects to use a modified version where there will be two “hub cities” where teams will be centered. In short, in both leagues travel will be nil. Players will be monitored and tested and kept within the confines of a particular area or campus with minimal interaction with the outside world, all in the name of the safety of league and team personnel as well as the people and environment around them.
It’s important to note with this detail settled early, both leagues are on a pathway to a return. The NBA is planning to be back in late July while the NHL hasn’t announced a date but has announced that training camps will begin on July 10th. A return is on the horizon.
Meanwhile, there are no such dates for MLB. We can be somewhat confident that baseball is coming, but the organization of such matters has suffered while the players and owners fight like cats and dogs over cash. There are other matters that could be pointed to that would be at fault for this, namely the owners’ inability to provide an offer that committed more monetarily to the players than the bare minimum, but ultimately I actually think the hitch in giddy up of both sides was that the bubble concept was thrown away early on.
After Trout, probably the games’ best player right now, and Kershaw, the best pitcher of the last decade, went public about their distaste for the idea it seems to have really lost all traction in baseball circles. To be fair, there were some major obstacles with its execution to begin with. Any type of bubble or hub would have had to have been in some combination of Arizona and/or Florida. There would need to be enough facilities between the pro ballparks, or even spring training and college facilities in those states in order to cover all thirty teams. How would you decide who gets to play where and with what perks? Playing at your home ballpark vs. playing at a college yard vs. playing in your home spring training facility can provide unfair advantages and disadvantages all in their own rights. Additionally, time zones would play a factor, as would playing in the Arizona or Florida heat. Night games would be a must, and with the possibility of east coast teams playing continual 9 PM start times in order to start late enough by Arizona time then fans would bear the burden of late nights.
However, even with all the issues involved, going to a bubble or hub format would have been the best thing for baseball. Why? Because it would give the best opportunity to make sure the season happens from start to finish. Remember, it’s the idea that the disease expert is touting.
With the bubble system scraped, the league intends to try something else. The league will be broken into three groups of 10 teams, based on proximity to one another by location. Home ballparks, albeit empty ones, will be used and teams will travel. The biggest problem Trout and Kershaw appeared to have with the bubble was the inability to see their families. This regional plan will obviously counteract that. They’ll be playing from home like any other season.
When I saw this originally, I didn’t think it was the worst. To me, it felt like MLB was trying to create three Koreas. Allow me to explain. The Korean Baseball Organization has been playing games since May 5th, while using fan-less home ballparks. It’s a ten-team league that is permitting team travel. Does this all sound familiar?
But then I thought about it a little more. Korea has been able to perform this plan for several reasons. For one, at most traveling in the KBO means 4.5-hour bus rides from home to the opposing ballpark. Teams don’t fly at all. On top of that, Korea has just generally done a better job than the US at containing the spread of COVID-19. They haven’t been perfect, but they have certainly been better.
So while breaking MLB up by its three divisions would likely mean travel between cities like Pittsburgh and Kansas City, trips that would be around 13 hours long if done by bus, even with these shrunken footprints it’s likely that air travel would not be eliminated. That means increased exposure for players and personnel. That means upping the likelihood of contamination between those same players and personnel as they live in their homes and behave likely differently than they would if they were being monitored from hotels. When you factor in that the majority of the NBA and NHL seasons are done and the playoffs are on the horizon, it all means that chance that something will go wrong is a lot more likely in baseball than it is in basketball or hockey. At some point the law of averages will come into play.
And here is what I think its ultimately the crux of the issue. The MLB owners are doing their darnedest to do two things. Those things are minimizing the financial loss of operating a season without attendance and making sure that the playoffs happen because that’s when their TV contracts pay out the most cash. No playoffs mean even worse losses. Not playing in a bubble raised the likelihood that something will go wrong, therefore raising the likelihood the season doesn’t get played in full and therefore raising the likelihood that the owners don’t get that playoff money. Its why they wanted to tie more money for the players to the playoffs in the first place. With that situation placed in front of them, with the added carrot of the fact they would also be having to maintain their regular facilities (I would assume having to upkeep your spring training park or the University of Arizona’s facility would cost less) it became apparent to them that they needed to play, or at least pay for fewer games.
On the other side, the Player’s Union refuses (and rightfully so) to play any more games than the playoffs for free (players don’t get paid for the playoffs in a regular year anyway). They don’t want to set a precedent that would be used against them in the approaching Collective Bargaining Agreement.
Rock? Meet Hard Place. I hate to think that perhaps some of this heartache could have been avoided if Trout and Kershaw had not been so steadfast in their early refusal to go into a bubble.
After all, LeBron James has agreed to go into a bubble. Maybe you’ve heard of him? He’s only the most famous and impressive American athlete on the face of the planet right now. His brand outweighs that of Trout or Kershaw by leaps and bounds. If he’s not too good for a bubble, then why should they be?
Yet, it’s not that simple. Trout’s wife is expecting and honestly, the owners in MLB never really did a good job of selling the idea of a bubble to begin with. In contrast, the NBA sold it marvelously by comparison. It’s not a bubble, it’s a campus. It sounds like players and personnel will be allowed to mingle about and socialize among their facilities quite well as long as they just don’t leave. Further, the league is allowing family visitation once a certain number of teams are eliminated from the remainder of their season. Maybe most importantly, the bubble idea was suggested for Major League Baseball while the hope still existed that the season could be several months long. Kershaw mentioned this directly, not wanting to be deprived of his family for months on end.
Which leads me to my final point. The season is no longer going to go on for months on end. On Saturday Jeff Passan suggested on SportsCenter that a perceived season of about 50 games wouldn’t even have to start until August in order to be completed by the end of September. For example, had the regular season gone as scheduled, the Cleveland Indians would have played their first 50 games in less than eight weeks. We are no longer talking about locking players away for five months at a time. Should the bubble concept be back on the table for baseball? If they want to ensure they get their season in, then it should be. This spring has already been a sham for the league and its players, the last thing the owners and players need now is to have drug each other through the mud for a month just to return, have something go wrong and have the remainder of the season cancelled. The NBA laid a blueprint. Play your regular season in Arizona and Florida and allow family in the bubble once the regular season ends.
It’s the best solution that you have, and it’s been staring you in the face for months now.