Is MLB's proposal the first step to playing ball in 2020 -- or the beginning of the end?

ByJeff Passan ESPN logo
Thursday, May 28, 2020

Even after a quarter century of labor peace, baseball remains the sport most like the story about the scorpion and the frog. All the years of distrust, of relations frayed and aspersions cast and motives questioned, of the very things that make the relationship between Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association so brittle, simply can't help but reveal themselves. The fighting, the hostility -- it's inevitable, a snap of Thanos' fingers. It's in baseball's nature.

Which is to say that while recent days undoubtedly have looked and felt bad for the game's return, it's a touch early to go full doomsday. The baseball season is not yet lost, not by a long shot. It's simply teetering, which is enough -- as the clock on spring training and Opening Day ticks away -- to nibble one's fingernails to nubs.

When MLB delivered its longtime-coming financial proposal to the union Tuesday, the players greeted it as a biker bar might a cop walking through its doors. Derided by union members as greedy, excessive, misguided and oblivious, the proposal called for massive pay cuts -- something the MLBPA expected, sure, but not to this degree.

For weeks, the sport had awaited this moment: the genesis, perhaps, of its 2020 season amid the coronavirus pandemic. What it got instead was a dead-on-arrival flight of fancy, a plan whose principle -- cut all players' salaries but focus in particular on the richest -- was taken to such an extreme that it alienated, at least for the time being, those who may ultimately shepherd a deal across the line.

On both sides, moderates exist, people who believe in the notions of compromise and partnership. They're supposed to be the ones who occupy the middle ground. An odd cocktail of astonishment and indignation overwhelmed this bloc of players and agents Tuesday. The same people quietly preaching the benefit of deal-making behind the scenes found the offer from MLB so egregious that they couldn't help but stand alongside union hard-liners.

If this was an attempt to bifurcate the union -- players clearly thought it was, while the ownership side preferred to frame it as an effort to do right by the largest number of players -- it had the complete opposite effect. Did MLB really suggest that Mike Trout, the best player in baseball, a paragon for what the sport can and should be, take a pay cut from his prorated salary of $19,065,843 to $5,748,577? It did. The proposed cuts would work on a sliding scale. Young players making minimum salaries would be the greatest beneficiaries, with their pay cut only 10% as opposed to the near 70% Trout would take off his prorated share. Compared to his full-season salary of $37,666,666, it would represent an 85% cut.

The moment that details of the plan were delivered to players, they coalesced around Trout, Gerrit Cole, Max Scherzer, Stephen StrasburgandNolan Arenado. Those making the $563,500 minimum relish the idea that a baseball player can make $35 million a year. To the rank and file, the highest-paid players are paragons, not pariahs.

The offer, multiple players told ESPN, played as an attack on those who earned the right to negotiate their salaries, whether in free agency or arbitration. Players in their first three major league seasons, who compose more than half the league's workforce, can have their salaries unilaterally set by the team. They would be the ones made closest to whole under the proposal, reaping $256,706 (90% of their prorated salaries of $285,228), plus a minimal postseason bonus.

From there, the percentage of money earned decreases by tier. Players who make $1 million would receive about 82% of their full prorated share. At $5 million, it's 56%. For $10 million, less than half. And on and on all the way to Trout, near 30%. The rhetoric in conversations with players centered around him not only because of the drastic nature of his proposed cuts but the recognition that his wife is due with their first child in July. MLB, the players said, should be doing everything it can to incentivize its biggest stars to play right now, to make baseball the first major professional team sport to return in North America. Its offer did the opposite.

The proposal handed the players an easy rallying cry: Not only does MLB want players to take the risk by leaving the comfort of their homes and traveling the country during a global pandemic, it wants the best players in the world to play for pennies on the dollar. Yes, those pennies are still large sums, a fact not lost on players. They readily acknowledge they get paid handsomely to play a game. Too often left unsaid is that teams reap the benefits of that labor and that players are simply in pursuit of their proper share.

Those words -- proper share -- are important going forward. MLB gift-wrapped the union an opportunity to proffer the sort of plan that at least takes a step toward baseball's return. The cabal of hard-line owners in baseball is every bit as obstinate as those on the union side. For the players to answer the initial proposal with a similar one of its own would be the first real sign that the 2020 season might be in trouble.

Someone needs to be the adult in the room. Moving toward the middle here would be a sign of strength, not weakness. It would be an acknowledgment from the players that they're the ones who will bring baseball back. Not just for themselves and owners but for the team employees who will lose their jobs if games aren't played and the fans who seemingly will have the NBA and NHL to slake their sporting thirst this summer and fall if baseball is absent.

Already both sides have run a crash course on how to spoil the goodwill of a potential return. This isn't really material if baseball does make it back, of course, because labor tiffs in times of peace are footnotes. But if the union digs in and asks for more games at a full pro rata, it does so running the risk that hard-line owners will consider the entire operation a charade and push for the cancellation of the season.

And that's when this gets serious. Until then, remember: This was merely a first offer. "There has to obviously be give and take," a veteran starter said, "but that's a lot of take to start with." And maybe that, another player said, was the purpose: to disillusion the players so deeply that when the league comes with another offer, it will look tolerable by comparison. Fair or not, right or wrong, owners view players' positions on a full pro rata in the same way players see cutting Mike Trout's pay by 70%. "It can't also be true," one management source said, "that the only acceptable alternative is to pay players the same rate as before."

So maybe the alternative is playing more games while accepting a slight cut on the pro rata that still would leave them ahead of what they would make in an 82-game season and offer a nod to the league that, yes, the union is willing to budge because the players actually want to play baseball. Or maybe it's a plan in which they get their full pro rata but defer significant amounts of it. Like, say, Mike Trout gets $5,748,577 in 2020 -- and the remainder of his $13,317,266 spread out over a specific period. It frees up cash flow for cash-poor owners and gives players the salaries they have so long said they expect.

Something needs to happen, because the status quo is getting tired. Every day comes word of layoffs and furloughs and pay cuts in baseball. On Tuesday, the Oakland Athletics sent a letter to their minor league players telling them a $400-a-week stipend would stop at the end of the month. Essentially, they said that the 200 players collectively weren't worth the $1 million it would have cost to continue the payments.

It's no wonder there's a dark feeling around baseball, like Tuesday's proposal was a turning point. When all of this is done within the next week or so, we'll have a better sense of whether that's true or it just looked and felt that way. Both sides can shake their heads and point their fingers, but they know ultimately that whatever might be in their nature, they're responsible for deciding which side of this disproportionate binary comes true:

A baseball season in 2020, or a labor war that ended it before it even began.

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