Baseball’s Plan to Reopen Is All Risk for the Players

A League of Their Own told us there was no crying in baseball. But no spitting? This is just one of the proposed rules Major League Baseball is putting forward in its plan to restart the season in July amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Spitting is to baseball as Gatorade is to basketball: whether masticating tobacco, sunflower seeds, or Big League Chew (for that bubble gum/tobacco feel), when you play baseball, you spit. The barring of expectoration is just one of the cultural changes the league is proposing to keep the spread of the virus at a minimum while still somehow playing an 82-game season. Other ideas being put forward include no more high-fiving anyone on your team, and no more autographs for fans hanging around outside the park. Outside would be the only place a fan could possibly get an autograph, because games would be played in empty stadiums.

The minor league games will almost certainly be canceled, but teams can carry 50 people on a roster, so the top minor leaguers will see action. With all these extra players practicing social distancing, players will be sitting in the stands instead of the dugout, which will be an odd sight indeed. For those 82 games, teams will only play opponents in their division or inter-league opponents within, pardon the expression, spitting distance.

If this plan sounds like a sclerotic facsimile of a legitimate baseball season, it is. If it sounds like a possible health catastrophe waiting to happen, it is. But the fans, desperate for some kind of sports, are ready to see the players risk the virus while franchise owners collect checks a safe distance away. The owners, desperate for their television broadcast payola, are ready to see the players risk the virus. Members of the media, desperate for something to broadcast and hot topics to discuss other than the career of Michael Jordan, are in a full-scale pressure campaign to see the players risk the virus. Many of the players, not willing to burn off a year of their careers, are also ready to risk it all.

It is the players union—and only the union—that is standing up and asking the questions that need to be asked. First and foremost, the owners are proposing the scrapping of the players’ contracts for this season and splitting all revenue with the players 50/50. In March, owners promised that the contracts would be prorated, but now they say that since the stadiums will be empty and they—according to their own word—get 40 percent of their revenue from the live gate, the salaries are unaffordable. This is a big deal, because baseball is the only “uncapped” sport: a sport without a salary cap. The union takes great pride that there aren’t artificial constraints on what players earn and isn’t about to give that up. Union chief Tony Clark told The Athletic that “a system that restricts player pay based on revenues is a salary cap—period.” He said:

This is not the first salary-cap proposal our union has received. It probably won’t be the last.… That the league is trying to take advantage of a global health crisis to get what they’ve failed to achieve in the past—and to anonymously negotiate through the media for the last several days—suggests they know exactly how this will be received.

In other words, the 50/50 proposal is, in the words of baseball insider Jeff Passan, “dead on arrival.”

But unlike what is being said by certain top personalities at ESPN, this is not only about salary for the union and many of the players. There is the question of players being sequestered from their families and how that will be handled. There is also—most glaringly—the question of whether not spitting and the other foofaraw being proposed is really enough to keep the virus at bay.

Sean Doolittle, the relief pitcher for the Washington Nationals, certainly doesn’t think so. In a tweet storm on May 11, he outlined the myriad health risks that players will be facing from being in close contact with one another and the long-term health complications that come with the coronavirus. People should read his concerns. They outline the reality of the chances that the financial forces around Major League Baseball are willing to take with the players’ lives.

This entire restarting operation is a leap of faith built on a house of cards. It is difficult to imagine MLB pulling this off without someone getting sick or even dying. People who shrug off those concerns are conspicuously not the people taking all the risk.

Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to dave@edgeofsports.com.
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