Against a backstop of protests across the country, even the world, in reaction to the death of yet another African American man, this time George Floyd, at the hands of a white policeman, the fate of baseball this season seems much less important. However, sports can preoccupy us and provide welcome relief from grief and anger and fear — if just for a few hours.
Because baseball and other sports blend a variety of colors and ethnicities, they showcase people of different hues working together for the common good.
Of course, Major League Baseball did not integrate until 1947 when Jackie Robinson took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Branch Rickey selected Robinson for several reasons, including his strength of character and willingness to withstand the inevitable jeers, humiliations, and the outright danger he would face.
The percentage of African Americans in the grand old game grew until the early 1970s and peaked at 19 percent but has decreased to 7.7 percent by 2018. However, the number of Latino players has reached a high of 31.9 percent.
Multiple players have spoken out against racism and police brutality. Some, like Touki Toussaint (Atlanta Braves) and Sean Doolittle (Washington Nationals), took to the streets. Others have used social media to support the Black Lives Matter movement, including Braden Bishop (Seattle Mariners), Taijuan Walker (Mariners), Andrew McCutchen (Philadelphia Phillies), Byron Buxton (Minnesota Twins), Bo Bichette (Toronto Blue Jays), Jake Diekman (Oakland Athletics), Bryce Harper (Philadelphia Phillies), and Marcus Stroman (New York Mets), as well as Padres’ minor leaguer Taylor Trammell.
Padres prospect Taylor Trammell posted this message on Instagram: pic.twitter.com/1t309ukXMZ
— Dennis Lin (@dennistlin) June 2, 2020
Unfortunately, a spirit of cooperation and shared purpose has not characterized the negotiations between Major League Baseball, represented by Commissioner Rob Manfred, and the Major League Players Association. According to the latest reports, the owners have reduced their expectations to a 48-game season, while the players’ union continues to support an 82-game season.
The disagreement comes down to money. Fewer games mean lower revenue, as does the original plan to play in ballparks with no spectators. But at least one state, Texas, may allow fans to attend games, which further muddies the waters.
While owners contend they will lose as much as $640,000 a game, the players dispute that estimate. MLB has indicated a willingness to lose approximately $460 million in total if the MLPA agrees to a season of 48 games. So far, the union has refused to take an additional pay cut in the event they agree to the number of games.
The contentious nature of the impasse highlights the state of the relationship of the MLBPA to Manfred and the owners he represents. The National Basketball Association, which has a more harmonious relationship with commissioner Adam Silver, has come to tentative agreement to resume games on July 31. The National Football League, the National Women’s Soccer League, and Major League Soccer have all made tentative plans to begin play.
Early on in the Coronavirus shut down, it appeared that baseball would be the first sport to return to the field. At first, health concerns slowed down negotiations, but those have taken a back seat to the almighty dollar. Players who earn hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars have far less incentive to risk their health and that of their families, than those on the front lines like health care workers or people who need every dollar for basic living expenses.
Fans, stuck in limbo and facing difficult choices between staying healthy and paying the rent, will be turned off if the impasse between MLB and the players union continues. The sport has seen a decline in attendance in recent years, and mud wrestling over money will further alienate aficionados of the game. In a letter in the shrunken sports section of the Los Angeles Times, Saturday morning Kevin O’Bar of Santa Barbara spoke for many fans.
It looks like COVID-19 could be claiming another victim with a preexisting condition. The condition is green. The Victim is Major League Baseball.
Meanwhile, COVID-19 has not magically disappeared in this country. Instead, the increase in testing nationwide has led to a rise in reported daily cases of Covid-19. By the end of May, the United States surpassed a staggering total of 100,000 deaths. Since states have enacted different methods of dealing with the virus from orders for most people to shelter in place to a more business-as-usual approach, the location of games could also become an issue. Agreements on travel, accommodations, testing have not been reached either.
In August 1994, baseball players went on strike and did not return to the field for 232 days. The disagreement then came down to money and led to years of enmity between the union and the players. Fans reacted then as now with disgust over greed in the game they had loved. Disagreement over health risks resonates with Americans facing their private dilemmas. However, billionaires facing off against millionaires just leads to disgust that could affect baseball for years to come.
Baseball owners, as well as players need to look outside their narrow worlds to human beings suffering from illness, police brutality, and unemployment (42 million have filed for benefits in the last three months). However, the onus falls to the owners whose teams range in value from $5 billion for the New York Yankees to $980 million for the Miami Marlins (the only team measured in millions rather than billions).
After all, the players and their support staff will be taking the risks. They should be paid accordingly.