COMMENTARY: When it comes to baseball, players, not owners, should get benefit of the doubt


Tony Gutierrez/AP

A view of the Globe Life Field, the newly-built home of the Texas Rangers, with the roof open from a perspective along the third base line is shown in Arlington, Texas, Wednesday, May 20, 2020.

In March, Major League Baseball made the decision to postpone the season because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, with certain states lifting restrictions, the league is looking to resume the season, but has been met with pushback from the players.

The dispute between the players and owners has gone public with ownership following a tried-and-true playbook that all but ensures that in the court of public opinion, fans will take the owners’ side.

The crux of the latest dispute centers around both player salaries and perhaps more importantly, player safety. 

Back in late March, the players had already agreed to prorate their salaries based on the number of games played in the 2020 season. However, according to an article in The Associated Press, that agreement was contingent upon fans being allowed to attend the games and alleged that even with prorated salaries — it would still result in an average loss of $640,000 per game based on an 82-game season.

A new proposal by the owners offered salaries based on a 50-50 split of revenue —  one that the players would never go for because, to them, basing salaries on revenue is akin to a salary cap which is something owners have long wanted but players balked at. It was one of the sticking points in the 1994-95 strike.

Leaks of these proposals and other bits of information have popped up on social media which has inevitably made players seem like the greedy ones standing in the way of the season resuming. Similar to labor disputes in the past, the narrative is taking shape pitting players as the bad guys and a significant number of fans keep buying into it.

“Fans have always taken the side of the owners, dating from the first work stoppage in 1972,” said Bruce Miles, former Cubs beat writer for the Daily Herald. “The owners have public relations professionals working for them. Fans seem to think the players are ‘just playing a kids game,’ ignoring that they are entertainers in a multibillion dollar industry. It’s baffling to me because fans go to see the players play; they don’t go watch the owners in a boardroom.”

Baseball is, indeed, a multibillion dollar industry. According to Forbes, the sport raked in $10.7 billion in gross revenue in 2019 which was up from $10.3 billion the previous year. It also marked the 17th consecutive season that the league saw record growth in revenue. 

What ownership is claiming is that they stand to lose $4 billion even with prorated salaries. Still, considering the gross revenues of the past couple of years, it seems like a loss that owners should be able to handle.

Yet public opinion continues to favor ownership. While some fans may side with players at the beginning, it is difficult to separate the fact that to some it boils down to a fight between billionaires and multimillionaires.

“It’s hard to side with a bunch of multimillionaires refusing to give up a small potion of their riches that could save someone else’s job,” said Juan Pimiento, assignment desk editor at Univision Chicago. “The players make way more than the average fan. It’s only normal that they resent them.”

At the same time, Pimiento acknowledges that if he had to take a side, he’d side with players and staff because they’re the one taking the risk health-wise. It’s a point that some of the players are making when discussing why they would not be comfortable with resuming the season.

Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Blake Snell took to social media to voice his opinion that he was opposed to restarting the season if it meant he’d have to take a pay cut. He cited the health risk he was taking and the further cuts players would have to take on top of the cuts they had already agreed to.

Sean Doolittle, closing pitcher for the Washington Nationals, voiced similar concerns but took it a step further in not only being worried about the health of the players but of their families, coaching staff and stadium workers. He also brought up testing not just for players but for essential workers and if there would be any added benefits with regards to health care should they catch the virus.

The fact of the matter is that in this case, the players, their families and stadium workers are the ones assuming the risk if and when the season restarts. Regardless, even if the two sides come to a conclusion, it may not mean that fans flock to their screens to watch the game.

“I don’t think safety is the issue. If fans don’t attend games, the players are in a pretty low-risk situation themselves and aren’t likely to spread the virus on an unmanageable level,” said Cubs fan Adam Kellogg. “The bigger loss is emotional on a branding/business level. I can’t watch ‘Last Week Tonight’ with no audience. It’s depressing. I’m concerned the same thing will happen to baseball. I’m not sure I want that.”

As Miles mentioned, ownership employs public relations professionals to get their perspective out there. Aside from a few outspoken players like Doolittle and Snell, the players tend to stay quiet and leave the talking to the head of the players’ union, Tony Clark in this case. But staying silent, to some, may come across like they don’t care. 

The concern going forward is that an agreement can’t be reached and that the bad blood may spill into next season and be the catalyst for a strike.

“I’m concerned about the possibility of a strike,” Pimiento said. “These always happen as a result of greed and egos. I feel it’s no different in this case.”

Both sides are set to meet again but with knowledge that lawyers from the players’ union have requested MLB to submit financial documents detailing the industry’s finances, according to NBC Sports. Owners historically did not have to open their books and if successful, it will give an idea as to whether claims made by the owners about the severity of their financial loss holds weight.

This could throw a wrench in the negotiations and whether a resolution can be reached.

“I think this gets resolved and an attempt to start the season will be made,” Miles said. “There’s enough money to go around that some sort of compromise should be within reach. Time ticks quickly on players’ careers and they don’t want to miss a year — or part of a year — that they can’t get back.”

The potential disclosure of the owners’ financial records could turn the narrative on its head and in favor of the players. Not every player is a millionaire. Just take a look at minor league players and how they tend to get the short end of the stick. 

Before buying into the narrative spun by owners, remember that these athletes are still employees, have families and most don’t come from privileged backgrounds.