KC Royals: The elephant never left baseball’s room

(Photo by Brian Davidson/Getty Images)
(Photo by Brian Davidson/Getty Images) /

News that COVID-19 has struck baseball adds to the confusion surrounding the KC Royals’ prospects for a 2020 season.

For weeks now, baseball’s club owners and players have waged a sad, too-public battle over when, where, and how to play baseball in 2020. The parties have argued economic issues, each invariably insisting on positions unacceptable to the other, all the while eating up valuable time and jeopardizing the seasons of the KC Royals and all other major league teams.

But the huge elephant that started all this, stomping its way through the world and stopping baseball and the KC Royals in their tracks March 12, has always been in the room. COVID-19 never left; although it’s at times dominated the news and our lives, it curiously took a backseat in prominent media accounts of the players and owners haggling over pay, how many games to play, who should bear the economic brunt of the pandemic, and other economic issues.

But now, the elephant who stopped spring training and then the start of the season is pushing its way back to the game’s forefront. Disturbing news came Friday that COVID-19 has hit the Toronto Blue Jays and Philadelphia Phillies and shut down their workout facilities and that the Giants shuttered their site after visitors displayed symptoms.

Later, the Astros announced a positive player test and the Rangers closed their training facility, apparently out of caution.

Finally, news broke late Friday evening that MLB closed all Florida and Arizona spring training camps until they’re deep cleaned and team personnel test negative for COVID-19 before trying to use the complexes whenever they reopen.

Suddenly, the one thing the players, owners, and baseball commissioner can’t control or stop leads major league baseball news. It never left, but before Friday was usually relegated far below the proverbial journalistic fold, an occasional afterthought at the end of countless pieces describing the labor dispute. COVID-19 had, before Friday, acquired almost post-script status in baseball media, appearing as an irregular but daunting reminder that it could ultimately render moot any agreement the owners and players might make.

COVID-19 striking the game at some place to some extent was inevitable; we knew it would happen sooner or later. Although occasional reports acknowledged clubs and players have been working on health protocols and might be approaching an agreement, the best protocols and procedures mean nothing to the pandemic. Whether, and to what extent, baseball prepared itself for this day is unknown.

Now, the sport must immediately confront how to manage a season–or even a game–now that the pandemic has inarguably infiltrated the industry. There is a new urgency.

Do baseball and the KC Royals move forward with whatever plan to safely play they might be developing? Do they consider “bubbling” the sport in a single location (a logistical nightmare, if not an impossibility, it would seem) or playing games in a few select locales?

These are incredibly tough questions, the answers to which demand the focus and attention the players and owners have previously devoted primarily to their economic war. Like most wars, it consists of battles that could have been avoided and still can be.

The end of that war seemed tantalizingly close over the past 10 days. First, commissioner Rob Manfred announced baseball would be played this year. Then proposals from both sides seemed to bring them closer: the clubs offered Wednesday (among other things) to pay the players full pro rata pay for 60 games, the best salary offer they’ve made yet, and a 25% share of postseason revenue; the union countered Thursday with 70 games at full pro rata and a 50% playoff cut.

Splitting the difference seemed more possible than ever; the parties were on the same page concerning several other issues, so a deal began to make sense.

In the world of negotiations and law, the union’s counteroffer constituted a rejection of the owners’ immediately preceding offer, so the talks are over unless one side or the other makes another offer or they agree to resume talking. That happened last week when the clubs retreated from a similar “no more offers” position and made one. (Manfred said Friday the clubs won’t make a counteroffer; we shall see).

Friday’s developments, however, make this situation different. Citing concern that COVID-19 could surge as the weather gets colder, the clubs have consistently said they want a 2020 season of any length to end before November; now, the virus is indisputably and visibly inside the tent. The owners may simply say playing this year poses far too much risk and, because there is no agreement between them and the players, direct Manfred to exercise a power he has and cancel the season.

At this point then, three things can happen. Manfred could call off the season. The players and owners could quickly get back together and, realizing they need to address pandemic-related issues with new vigor, each give a little and forge a play and pay agreement and move on to the health and safety issues. Or Manfred could, with the clubs’ consent (or at their direction) impose a season; union chief Tony Clark announced late Friday that baseball informed him a 2020 season won’t be longer than 60 games.

No matter what happens, the elephant isn’t leaving and the parties need to address its presence together. That’s why it may now be best for Manfred to impose a campaign with a length determined by how soon the players and clubs can develop and finalize a health and safety plan.

Whether it’s too late for that may be, in the final analysis, up to the elephant. We’re about to find out.

Next. Q&A with Royals draftee Ben Hernandez. dark

Baseball’s ups and downs continue. Hopefully, we’ll end on an “up” and see the KC Royals play in 2020.