If you’ve been following the blow-by-blow of the Owners / Players Association negotiations - and if you’re a masochist like me, I know you have - this week was one of the bleakest yet. Commissioner Rob Manfred, in the span of five days, went from guaranteeing there will be a season to saying he was not confident there would be one at all.
Whether this is a serious threat or just bluster, we really don’t know - and let’s set that aside for a moment. What has baffled me throughout this drudgery of a process is the number of fans I see saying “they should just cancel the whole season.”
It’s an opinion I’ve seen around Twitter, in the comments here, and even in some major sports publications. It is an opinion I can only see as wrongheaded and naive.
Life is too short not to hope for a baseball season.
Now to be clear, I’m not talking about those who would argue that baseball should not be played expressly for health and safety reasons. There’s much to be debated about what we should or should not be doing right now, whether it’s playing a baseball game or going to a restaurant. If a player or a fan believes that baseball should not be played strictly because it is not safe, I respect that.
What I’m talking about is the notion “they should just cancel the baseball season” because it won’t fit your definition of what a baseball season should be.
I’ve seen fans complain that if there’s no fans in the stands, it won’t be real baseball. But the more pervasive argument seems to be that, as the number of hypothetical games has shrink from maybe 100+, to 80-something, to likely something around 50, a shortened season won’t be “real” enough to be worth playing.
Eno Sarris took an extended look at how predictive of true-talent various shortened season lengths might be. Of course, the results get more reflective of true-talent the longer the season goes. As many have pointed out, last season’s World Champion Washington Nationals would not have even made the playoffs had the season ended after 50 games.
Sarris shares my conclusion that, while more baseball is better, any baseball is better than no baseball. And there could be real joy in the oddities of a shortened season. Baseball could have its first .400 hitter since 1941. Sure, folks would argue that it wasn’t meaningful given the shortened season - but that discussion itself is part of the fun. While a Museum Piece like George Will can continue to argue (as he did on ESPN’s Long Gone Summer) that “once upon a time” you could compare eras through baseball statistics, any sophisticated fan knows that eras are distinct for a variety of reasons.
2020 would be an outlier of a season, just like 1994 and 1995, 1981... and so on. But we talk about those seasons more than most others because they were outliers.
The strike of ‘94/’95 was the bleakest I’ve seen Major League Baseball before this year. But does anybody really wish they hadn’t started the ‘94 season at all? That abbreviated season gave us the potential for an Expos World Series, for Matt Williams hitting 62 home runs and Tony Gwynn hitting .400. No champion was crowned, but weren’t those feats and what-ifs worth playing the games they did?
And what about 1995? That season only lasted 144 games. Should it have been cancelled outright until they could execute a full season? There goes the championship for the Braves dynasty of the 1990s.
I cannot hear these arguments that a season should be cancelled because it would not be “legitimate” and not think about a child at the dinner table, demanding that Mom take their plate away because their pizza touched their peas.
This argument also seems predicated on the assumption that “everything will go back to normal” next year. I sure hope that’s the case, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Even if our ability to manage COVID-19 has improved by next spring, it’s fairly likely that various mitigation strategies will still be in-place.
Will these fans who want to see the 2020 season cancelled want to see 2021 cancelled as well? Are they planning to forego baseball until it looks exactly like the way they remembered it? Are they still boycotting airlines until they can smoke a cigarette and carry a knife on with them again? Grow up.
The world is changing, and if you’re a true baseball fan, I think you have to want to see baseball be a part of that world in whatever form is possible.
Will we get a season? It’s more in doubt now than ever, but my prediction is still ever-slightly on the side that we will. It seems clear ownership has set a number they are willing to pay out in player salaries that equals roughly the full pro-rata pay for about 50 games. All of their leaked proposals were basically asking the players to play more games for 50 games worth of money.
Tony Clark and the Player’s Association have told Manfred to simply set the length of the season. He surely wants to set it around that 50-game mark. The problem is, were he to set the season today, even after the 3-week Spring Training and ending at the usual time, the calendar would allow for MORE THAN 50 games. And their March Agreement reportedly compelled the commissioner to act in good faith to schedule as many games as possible.
So if Manfred set a 50-game season this week to appease his Ownership Handlers, he would be in violation of that March agreement and potentially face a grievance. That is reportedly and logically the reason owners have insisted the Player’s Association sign a guarantee that they will not file a grievance for MLB breaching their contract.
All of this is cumbersome and gross and sure to only get more so, but the endgame looks the same as ever: The owners will only agree to pay players for 50(ish) games.
Players rejected the idea of paying more games that they were not being paid for, because why the hell would they do that? So now it’s on Manfred to set the season at that length. If the regular season is going to end roughly Oct. 1, they will need around 60 days to get in 50 games. That would have the regular season begin approximately August 1. And assuming they stick to the 3-week training period that has been bandied about, that means Manfred will likely set the season by around July 10.
Yes, it’s possible they could reach a mutual agreement before that. Yes, it’s possible the parameters could change. Dr. Anthony Fauci said yesterday that baseball should avoid playing deep into October, which could be used to justify ending the season sooner and thereby allow Manfred to impose a 50-game regular season sooner, without looking so clearly bad faithy.
But barring a shift like that, I expect we are in for three more weeks of extremely gross hand-wringing around the issue of when or if there will be a baseball season. But if we reach the end of that and we have a baseball season, at whatever length... I think we still have to hope for that.