KC Royals: Weekend increases baseball’s uncertainty

(Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images) *** Local Caption ***
(Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** /

Prospects for a 2020 KC Royals season grew more uncertain over the weekend. Labor negotiations stalled again and COVID-19 concerns increased.

As business closed late Friday and the world prepared for the weekend, major league baseball remained mired in uncertainty, its prospects for a 2020 season hanging by an ever-thinning thread. News came that players from the Blue Jays, Astros, and Phillies had tested positive for COVID-19, MLB closed all spring training complexes, and commissioner Rob Manfred informed the players that 2020 baseball won’t exceed 60 regular season games. The chances of seeing the KC Royals this year seemed fewer than the day before.

Weekend developments increased the uncertainty and shrouded the game in more confusion. News Saturday that the union will vote sometime in the next few days on the owners’ 60-game, full pro-rata pay proposal and would, in the meantime collect more pandemic-related information, undoubtedly frustrated some and worried others. Delay, even for the best reasons, rarely triggers optimism.

Then came reports that the union had decided to accelerate the vote and hold it Sunday.

That plan was short-lived, apparently derailed by a telephone conversation between Manfred and Major League Baseball Players Association chief Tony Clark. ESPN reported the call and subsequent communication from Manfred to Clark in which the commissioner told the union leader that, should the 2020 season be canceled, or begin but end before completion, the proposed two-year playoff expansion and extension of the designated hitter rule to the National League would not apply to 2021.

The genesis of Sunday’s Clark-Manfred communications could be nothing other than some concern the players have about 2021. Whether they worry that no 2020 season, or one discontinued after it begins, takes expanded playoffs and a universal DH off the table, or that those circumstances wouldn’t take them out of the 2021 picture, wasn’t immediately clear.

The players probably want more playoff teams and games and the DH in the National League, and for good reasons. Unions exist to promote employee interests and to create and maintain as many jobs as possible–postseason expansion means more playoff opportunities (an attractive prospect for the KC Royals as they move toward contention) and more money for union members. And, no matter how one feels about the DH, it prolongs careers and eliminates pitchers hitting. (The DH doesn’t create a lot of jobs, but it’s the responsibility of unions to take as many as they can get).

So, as of late Sunday night, the game remained stalled, with no votes and no decisions to lead it into a new business week.

It’s up to the players now–accept the 60-game schedule, with the full pro-rata pay they’ve insisted on all along, then get down to the business of finalizing health and safety plans with the clubs, or reject that slate and have the owners, through Manfred, impose a shorter schedule. The clubs prefer the former because the deal also includes a mutual waiver of claims, meaning the players won’t be able to grieve anything that happened during negotiations, while a league-imposed campaign doesn’t take away the union’s right to file grievances.

At this point, the players know the clubs will (rightly or wrongly) never agree to play more than 60 games. Manfred told the union that in no uncertain terms Friday. The players will get full pro-rata pay whether they play the proposed 60 games or the fewer number of contests the owners tell Manfred to schedule. For the union, then, it’s now a matter of short-term maximization of player compensation (60 games’ pay vs. less), or the uncertain opportunity to reap more through baseball’s grievance procedure.

But it’s time for the players to decide, or for the parties to talk a bit more. As I wrote here Saturday, the elephant–COVID-19–is still in the room; as of Sunday night, it had hit 10 teams with 40 players and staff members testing positive. Labor and management need to resolve the schedule and compensation issues immediately so they can devote their full, collective attention to determining how baseball can proceed safely.

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Time is running out. The clubs and players must make important decisions. Only then will we know whether the KC Royals will play any baseball in 2020.