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Baseball Olympics Reach ‘High Hurdles’ Event

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MLB owners send players a formal proposal, which players will inevitably reject

Boston Red Sox v Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

You’ve been waiting months for baseball finally to stage the fierce competitions you have been craving, and it looks like today is Opening Day — of the squabble between millionaires and billionaires as they endeavor to agree on the terms of a baseball season that would begin in early July.

Today the owners will send players a formal proposal, which players will reject. That’s not me playing Nicodamus, that’s every negotiation ever. The question is whether each hurdle will be cleared, or whether one of them will prove to be insurmountable. (In real high hurdles, if a runner’s testicles graze the hurdle is the count officially “2 balls and one strike”?)

Here’s is a rundown (aww, man, I miss rundowns!) of the key issues that will be debated back and forth this week in an effort to agree on the foundation of a season that would have players reporting to Spring Training The Second One within a month. Each comes with a Nicodamus prediction and analysis of how likely this hurdle is to be cleared, and why...

Revenues

Probability of clearing hurdle: High

Revenues, otherwise known as “money,” are usually what creates the longest impasse but these are not ordinary times (if you hadn’t noticed). The reality is that if the season is canceled, both sides stand to lose so much that you have to think they are not going to let money be the factor that precludes a season — especially when a fight over a lot more money is ahead just 18 months from now when the current CBA expires.

Players will dig their heels in that if MLB plays half a season they are entitled to 50% of their normal salary, which they will point out was already established in the earlier agreement that spread initial salaries of $170M across all players for April and May. Owners will counter that the agreement included possibilities of fan revenue, even though that was already known to be unlikely and even though that slim possibility still exists at some point in the summer or fall.

There will be much posturing and much negotiating on the revenue issue, but in the end remember that players stand to leave $2billion on the table if they walk away, and owners risk watching baseball lose popularity going forward into a COVID-less world — as happened following previous work stoppages that centered around money. And as a cherry on top, with unemployment numbers rivaling the Great Depression and the entire country anxious about the economy, this is probably not the best time for millionaires and billionaires to be seen depriving America of its beloved pastime because they are both tugging at “million dollar bills” and won’t let go.

Bottom line, it may be a contentious battle but ultimately I think the two sides find common ground.

Testing/Safety

Probability of clearing hurdle: Moderate

The players have already indicated that issues of safety are as important, if not more important, to them than the financial questions. Athletes want to play the game they love, but no one wants to get deathly ill, or expose their small child to a deadly virus, just to play ball and earn cash. You can chide players and owners all you want over the money issues, but it’s hard to begrudge players who dig their heels in with regard to safety.

Safety and testing are somewhat synonymous because with adequate testing most issues can at least be identified, and kept from the greater group, whereas absent sufficient testing the risk of outbreak rises to worrisome levels.

If you listen to meanderings from the Rose Garden, there is “plenty of testing for everyone right now!!!” But if you listen to scientists, infectious disease experts, or, well, pretty much anyone else, you learn that we need to be testing about 5-10 million people a day right now in order to truly get ahead of the virus and we are not coming anywhere near that. By a factor of 100x.

So players have two understandable concerns: Will there be enough testing for them, and if so will it be at the expense of testing desperately needed by ordinary folks? That’s not a good look, yet adequate testing looks like thousands of tests each day for the pool of players and associated individuals.

One can hold out hope that by the end of June, the testing landscape will look different than it does mid-May. One can also look back 6 weeks, or 6 weeks before that, when infectious disease experts were screaming from the rooftops about the dire need for testing to be a first priority, and see that it just hasn’t happened so far — so should players make an agreement now based on the assumption that things will be different then?

In a way, however, this issue may actually come back to the first one: money. Maybe it shouldn’t be this way, but in reality many obstacles can be overcome with sufficient funds. MLB/MLBPA could privately fund its own testing program, and given the billions of dollars in the pot they might be able to do it in ways that don’t compete with public access, certainly not with budgets allocating resources for local hospitals and health care programs.

The question then becomes: who pays for it, owners or players? Owners may say, “We’ll pay for it, but then we can’t pay that 50% salary you insist on” — essentially passing the cost on to the customer in a roundabout way. Or owners may need to really take it on the chin this year, paying salaries and then on top of that paying for a comprehensive testing program to keep their employees safe.

Again I don’t know that money, alone, is going to stop the two sides from coming to an agreement but on the other hand, salaries could be as far as owners are willing to bend and the cost of keeping venues safe, and keeping personnel effectively tested, could be very high. I could see this one going either way.

Venues

Probability of clearing hurdle: Very High

Each team needs a home ballpark and city, and there is a non-zero chance that this issue could become a threat to baseball’s return. For example, California’s governor, Gavin Newsom, has been non-committal about the prospect of allowing major league baseball, even without fans, saying that ideally it will work out, but “We’ll see where we will be in July.” That could potentially leave 5 teams (Angels, Athletics, Dodgers, Giants, Padres) searching for a home.

However, enough governors are probably on board, and enough “Plan B” options exist, that all 30 teams can most likely secure an acceptable home town and venue. Spring training complexes in Arizona and Florida will almost certainly be available to teams in want or need. Dunedin, FL, has already been floated as a likely landing spot for the Toronto Blue Jays.

State-of-the-Virus

Probability of clearing hurdle: Moderate

A final consideration for whether baseball can and should start up in July is where we are, as a country, with regard to the virus. The hope was for baseball to rise as the virus was moving steeply in the other direction.

Summer may bring national relief from the virus, and many states are flattening the curve at this moment, but there are also warning signs to suggest we may not have turned any corners as a country.

The lack of sufficient testing is one big concern and the possibly premature opening of the economy, in certain states/counties, is another. It remains to be seen what the landscape looks like, come June, in specific regions such as Florida and Arizona, or in the big cities which normally house major league teams, or just in the US as a whole.

It would be one thing to enjoy a baseball season “between waves” and another to try to cram baseball onto the surf board of a newly or continued raging pandemic. And while undoubtedly some regions are going to be savvy and successfully flatten curve, just as undoubtedly some will not — and it’s a big country.

It may be a somewhat last minute decision, but before any Opening Day baseball is going to have to take a look at the country’s landscape and decide whether or not it makes sense to start a season.

None of which answers the question of what happens in the event the season begins, and positive tests come back from a given player — or heaven forbid, players. But while it needs to be anticipated, it also suggests that a season began and “beginning at all” is the focus of this piece so we will leave this particular “what if” for another day.

Presumably any safety and testing plan includes provisions for effectively identifying and quarantining, as needed, so as to avoid the probability of one infection begetting dozens. But as we know, it’s a rascal of a virus and we haven’t really been ahead of it yet.

Some quickie spitballing math...If we were to put the odds of success for these hurdles at 80%, 70%, 95%, 70%, respectively, you’re not going to like the conclusion. That yields a probability of 37%. Of course the numbers are made up estimates whose margin of error is roughly “sideways eight”.

But the sobering fact remains that there are multiple hurdles to clear, with the caveat that yields hope: The two sides are about to hunker down together in the trenches in an effort to find that common ground. From six feet apart, of course.