Prior to the start of the 2020 MLB Draft Wednesday night, commissioner Rob Manfred guaranteed that baseball will be played in 2020. Manfred said that during a television interview in which he looked agitated and maybe even a little ashamed that, on June 10, he was being asked questions about when baseball will return.
Now the commissioner knows how everyone else feels.
Guaranteeing there will be baseball this season -- "100 percent" -- is not something to celebrate. Manfred can unilaterally schedule a season of any length as long as the players receive full prorated pay. Doing so would represent a failure, not a win for the sport or a feel-good story for America. It represents a failure to compromise in adverse times.
The COVID-19 pandemic has given way to a full-blown labor war in which, in the simplest terms, the owners want the players to subsidize their financial losses after years of not sharing profits. MLB revenues climbed over $10 billion in recent years while the average player salary has held steady since 2016. .
MLB is a business and it has never been more clear the bottom line is ownership's top priority. The amateur draft was cut from 40 rounds to five rounds to save money -- there is zero baseball benefit to a shorter draft (in fact, it actively harms the game long-term) -- scores of minor leaguers have been released, and the minor leagues will be contracted to some extent.
Let the kids play? Please. MLB isn't giving kids much of a chance to do that. The league is taking opportunities away. It's now harder to get drafted and harder to keep a minor-league roster spot. At times, it's hard to believe MLB cares about the future of the sport.
More than anything, interest in the sport and the potential for growth is being lost to the pandemic and the ongoing labor battle. Baseball had an opportunity to be the only game in town -- no major health or government agency has said sports can't return, so MLB could be playing right now -- before the NBA and NHL return, and NFL training camps inch closer to opening. It could've been all baseball, all the time. That won't happen. MLB blew it.
It's now too late for the perfect world scenario of Opening Day on or around July 4, and each day that passes without a return-to-play agreement is a day of the 2020 season that we can't get back. MLB doesn't want to play postseason games in November in part because securing television deals will be difficult -- the league owns its own network and streaming service, mind you -- so the regular season will end in September.
Absolutely no one wants to hear or read (or write!) about labor issues at a time when millions have lost their jobs and hundreds of thousands are sick and dying. It's crass and off-putting, and there's a chance MLB will lose some fans permanently. MLB had to sell its soul to performance-enhancing drugs to recover from the 1994-95 work stoppage. What will it take to recover from this?
The thing is, even if every single current baseball fan returns, MLB has completely blown an opportunity to grow the game this summer. Baseball could have been the only game in town. There could have been a (relatively) painless economic compromise and the draft could have been the ceremonial start of the new baseball year, with spring training to follow soon thereafter.
Baseball as the only major sport in June and July would have attracted attention from sports-starved fans and their children, and even if only five percent of those folks turn into diehards, it would have been worth it. MLB's fan base skews older and the league desperately wants to cultivate young fans. The only way to do that is to make the game easily accessible.
That opportunity has been lost and there's no getting it back now. Too much time has passed. The 2020 regular season won't begin until mid-July at the earliest, right around when the NBA and NHL pick back up -- with their incredibly entertaining postseasons, no less -- and that'll happen only after months of very public bickering. Baseball has made itself easy to tune out.
"The one thing I know for sure is baseball will be back," Manfred said in March. "Whenever it's safe to play, we'll be back; our fans will be back; our players will be back; and we will be part of the recovery, the healing in this country, from this particular pandemic."
Those words really ring hollow now. Baseball will happily take credit for helping the "healing in this country" (whatever that means), but MLB is making it clear the game will only return on the owners' terms. Losing the season to the pandemic for safety reasons would have been sad, but understandable. Now that we're losing part of it to a labor fight, it's infuriating.
Here's a question: does baseball feel an obligation to play games? The players are ready and willing to play, even in the middle of a deadly global pandemic, but do MLB owners want to put on games? I can't tell and that's a bad, dangerous thing. I also think it's a natural extension of widespread tanking, in which teams have shown no apparent obligation to field a competitive roster. What a shame.
It's hard to be a baseball fan right now. Two of the last three World Series champions are confirmed cheaters, we have no idea how the ball -- literally the single most important piece of equipment in the sport -- will play this year, and all that is happening while MLB gets into bed with casinos and legalized gambling. The league's credibility is shot. Distrust is as high as it's ever been.
Manfred and the owners are supposed to be stewards of the sport. They are businessmen and behave as such, no doubt, but they also have an obligation to do what is in the game's best interests. We haven't seen that. Any chance to build goodwill with fans and come out of the pandemic with a feel-good moment is pretty much gone, and it was all totally unnecessary.
There are times baseball doesn't seem to care about baseball very much, and the fans -- the paying customers -- pay the biggest price. Eventually that will come back to haunt MLB. Maybe the league won't lose fans during the pandemic, but it's hard to see them gaining any new fans after all this.