Players, owners can't try to fight 2021 battle in 2020

There are problems with Major League Baseball's economics system. Big problems.

Yes, the sport brings in as much as $11 billion a year, but that doesn't mean the economic state of the sport is healthy.

Players have been making this argument for two years now. How can owners be making so much money while free agency remains stagnant? How can so many teams be profitable while still claiming they need to cut payroll as part of a long-term rebuilding plan? And how can the best players in this game often be paid significantly less than their much older, post-peak counterparts?

These are all valid points, and players have been trying to make them for a while now. Trouble was, they knew they had little leverage to try to address them before the sport's current collective bargaining agreement expires after the 2021 season.

So what you heard from veteran players this spring were the usual gripes about free agency and tanking and big changes that need to come, but mostly you heard about how they were starting to gear up for what they expected would be a big labor fight with owners next year.

And then the entire world had to shut down because of the novel coronavirus, and nearly three months later, the players and owners have decided now is the time to have this fight.

The handful of proposals each side has presented in recent weeks have gone nowhere. Players still insist the agreement that was hastily put together March 26 - which promises them a prorated portion of their 2020 salaries based on the number of games played in 2020 - is the only plan they'll accept. Owners insist there was language in that deal allowing them to ask for further reductions in salary if the season needed to be played without fans in attendance.

Suzuki-Tag-Out-at-Plate-White-Sidebar.jpgThe league has tried to extend what it claims are legitimate counteroffers, most recently Monday's proposal - a 76-game season with players offered 75 percent of their prorated salaries, plus some other concessions - but the union continues to say it will not accept any proposal that reduces salaries beyond the already-agreed-to amount.

To date, there has been little indication either side is willing to move toward the other in any kind of meaningful way. Both parties appear to be digging in and refusing to give up ground.

Why? Because they've been gearing up for this fight for two years. And now they think they can wage it under these unexpected circumstances.

Here's the problem: They can't solve baseball's larger economic problem, not right now. Not unless they're willing to tear up the current CBA and start all over, something that's never been done before.

Besides, how far are the players willing to take this? If they refuse to play this season, are they suddenly going to agree to report next spring and be content with the system as it currently stands? It's not outrageous to suggest they could just continue the fight and sit out the start of the 2021 season as well, especially if owners try to claim they have to cut back on payroll after losing billions of dollars in 2020.

Which isn't to say the owners are right and the players are wrong. The players have a legitimate, compelling argument. They just risk taking the lion's share of the blame if it's portrayed as though they're refusing to play after the owners offered them a 2020 season.

The players, for whatever reason, have never been great at messaging when it comes to labor disputes. Fans seem more inclined to side with owners, which doesn't make a lot of sense considering how much wealthier the owners are and how they often treat the players as assets, not human beings.

But fans view these disputes as: "The players are so greedy that they can't accept playing for only a few million dollars, all while average Joes in this country are out of work and struggling to make ends meet!"

The onus is on the players to make a better public case for themselves, to explain that this isn't about the $20 million-a-year stars but the rank-and-file players who are still trying to make - and then stay on - a big league roster. The guys whose career earnings might never top $500,000. They need to refashion this dispute as not between players and owners but between employees and management, and not so much about money as it is about working conditions and fair treatment. Fans might just find some sympathy for them if they can frame their case in a more sympathetic manner.

In the meantime, it's long past time for both sides to start making real concessions in an attempt to find a middle ground that allows the season to begin. This can't be about winning the larger fight. This has to be about finding a temporary truce to avoid disaster and push the larger fight down the road a bit until it can be waged for real. Both sides have to be willing to lose more money than they want this year. There's no way around that.

The reckoning does need to come eventually, though. The players and owners need to acknowledge the sport's economic system can't continue down this same path. Major changes are needed for the long-term health of the game.

But that battle can't be waged until 2021. Right now, everyone needs to be focused on a compromise that makes the 2020 season reality before it's too late.

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