A Swing & a Miss for Baseball? Labor Division (Not COVID) Caused Delays

The COVID-19 pandemic brought all professional sports to a sudden and unprecedented stop; Major League Baseball (“MLB”) paused its season during spring training, the National Hockey League (“NHL”) paused shortly before its playoffs were set to begin, and the National Basketball Association (“NBA”) paused its season, notably just after a player was diagnosed with the virus. Since that time, management and unions for players within those leagues have engaged in extensive discussions about how to best resume their seasons. It has been a true test of labor laws and work collaboration necessitating decisive action in a time of great uncertainty, and some fared better than others.

Indeed, many leagues expedited their processes and had relatively smooth negotiations.  The NBA is planning to resume a portion of its regular season and then playoffs in a bubble in Orlando Florida starting July 30, though many key players may not return for the season.  The NHL has announced its plan to have a 24-team playoff in late May.  MLB, however, slow rolled the reopening process, with both Owners and the Players’ Union introducing and fouling off proposals on restarting the season without forming a consensus. Surprisingly, and disappointingly, most of the negotiation revolved largely not around safety issues, but around economics which many believe is an attempt by both sides to set the tone for contract bargaining next year.

The Owners, during this time, used the exigent circumstances to push for bargaining items they wanted in the past but were unable to get through.  The Owners’ wish-list for negotiations included curbing players’ salaries and revamping (and eliminating) many minor league teams.  At one point, the Owners proposed a reduction in games to 82 with accompanying salary proration.  They also took aim at the minor leagues – a dangerous position in that the minors are often the only way for baseball fans in smaller towns to watch live games of professional or amateur players and to grow the sport. Some even took aim at the lowest paid members of the baseball community.  For example, in the Washington Nationals’ minor league system, the lowest paid players are currently on stipends of $400 per week.  The team decided to cut pay there anyway by 25 percent, thinking this was the best way to save funds during the pandemic.  Major League players, led by Sean Doolittle, a reliever for the Nationals, announced he and other players would cover the reduction in the minor leaguers’ salaries.  This announcement caused the Nationals’ Owner to quickly reverse his decision.

The Union pushed for, among other things, a 114-game schedule with an expanded playoff, allowing players to “opt-out” of participating (without necessarily losing salary or service time), and a salary deferral plan if the postseason was canceled. The players refused to take any per game or pro rata cut in pay despite clear decreases in the revenue the sport will face without fans in attendance.

Ultimately the parties never reached a deal.  Three months of posturing from both sides dowsed the hopes of many for an earlier start close to July 4th, and we will have a league imposed sixty (60) games in about 66 days starting late July.  This will be the shortest season in the history of baseball, the National League will have a designated hitter, and in extra innings teams will begin with a runner on second base.  Players will receive about $1.5 billion in pay, and owners and players will likely file grievances over the alleged “bad faith” of the other side.  The time of challenge for the country seemingly did not instill one iota of compromise and each side remains dedicated and positioned for a contract fight in 2021.

Labor strife is as much a part of the game of baseball as sunflower seeds and bubblegum, but it sure does seem there was a bigger picture and opportunity to consider here that was lost in the shuffling of billions.  Indeed, and in comparison, just ten days after the attacks of September 11th, the New York Mets managed to play a game at Shea Stadium in New York City.  It was the first professional sporting event in the city after the attack, and Mike Piazza hit an 8th inning home run to the joy of over 40,000 fans in the stadium and millions watching.  In that case, baseball returned some of us to normalcy for a moment and was a symbol of that great rhythm and tempo which many appreciate in the game.  The fear in the country was palpable, but so was the bravery of the players and fans unwilling to be cowed by fear – needing to live and enjoy.

In 1889 Walt Whitman said of baseball’s relationship to America, “baseball is the hurrah game of the republic”.  We will certainly cheer on July 23rd or 24th when the first baseball game is played for the 2020 season.  But, to be honest, the sport has not lived up to its hurrah obligation and an historic opportunity was lost in a fight over nothing but money.  Sometimes in negotiations there is a longer-term goal. One such goal was presented here, and it was missed by a lot.

Perhaps this observation – or opinion – should inform other employment negotiations at this juncture.  Might a little extra compromise right now serve us all well as it would have served baseball? We at The Boyd Law Group, PLLC are keeping such things in mind – learning with our clients in these changing times.  #BLG