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May 15, 2020

Is baseball shooting itself in the foot? Bryce Harper's comments show the struggle ahead

Bryce Harper Phillies
Bryce-Harper_030520_usa Butch Dill/USA TODAY Sports

Philadelphia Phillies right fielder Bryce Harper.

In 1994 when MLB's players decided to strike, it didn't sit well with baseball fans.

The league returned in 1995 to empty stadiums and low ratings, and it took a roided-up home run duel between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa in 1998 to get baseball back in sports fans' good graces.

Baseball is staring down the barrel of a gun and in danger of possibly repeating history, with potentially much worse consequences.

With coronavirus turning society upside-down, organized sports leagues are just now starting to find their footing, as the PGA Tour is slated to return without fans in June, and the NBA and NHL are inching closer to resuming things as they are starting more seriously to discuss where and how to finish their seasons.

Major League Baseball is also making a push to return, as a plan for an 82-game season was presented by ownership to players this week. Everything, from the re-aligned divisions to the expanded rosters to a universal DH, looks to be amenable on both sides. But... then there's the money.

Baseball's owners, who like everyone else on the planet right now are feeling some pain in their pocket books, are asking for a revenue share with players, 50/50. Without ticket sales and other game-day revenue streams, baseball could lose more than $4 billion even with the proposed season. A revenue sharing system, like the one used in the NBA, NFL and NHL is another word for salary cap — as the amount of revenue creates a maximum spending limit for teams. Baseball has never had one, and players don't appear to be excited to start now.

Players have already agreed to take a reasonable pay cut, which is worth mentioning. The revenue share plan would dilute those salaries even more. The disagreements over player compensation seem to be a little less than civil, however, after the player's association executive director Tony Clark literally accused baseball ownership of trying to take advantage of a global pandemic to implement a salary cap.

Ouch.

The MLBPA is an extremely strong union, and one that has kept a salary cap from interfering with player earnings. Because of that, you see contracts like Bryce Harper's 13-year, $330 million deal, all guaranteed. 

Blake Snell, one of the best pitchers in baseball, was not happy with the MLB's proposal and recently said as much.

"Y'all gotta understand, man, for me to go - for me to take a pay cut is not happening, because the risk is through the roof. No, I gotta get my money. I'm not playing unless I get mine, OK? And that's just the way it is for me. Like, I'm sorry you guys think differently, but the risk is way the hell higher and the amount of money I'm making is way lower. Why would I think about doing that?

"Bro, I'm risking my life. What do you mean it should not be a thing? It should 100% be a thing. If I'm gonna play, I should be getting the money I signed to be getting paid. I should not be getting half of what I'm getting paid because the season's cut in half, on top of a 33% cut of the half that's already there -- so I'm really getting, like, 25%. On top of that, it's getting taxed. So imagine how much I'm actually making to play, you know what I'm saying?

"I'm just saying, it doesn't make sense for me to lose all of that money and then go play. And then be on lockdown, not around my family, not around the people I love, and getting paid way the hell less -- and then the risk of injury runs every time I step on the field."

There's a lot to break down here. Snell's current contract pays him $50 million over five seasons, and he is rightfully concerned with commiserating his risk of getting sick (or his family sick) with being paid. Being scared of the health risk is a very legitimate reason to refuse to play, and the safety of players should be the sticking point, not the money. Players will also have to make sacrifices, like staying away from family members while also interacting with countless other baseball operations people, from front-office members to trainers to bus drives and so on. 

The reasoning matters. If baseball is unable to come up with a way to safely play the season, everyone will understand. If they are unable to come up with a financial structure to satisfy the players and the owners — it will be a stain on baseball.

PhillyVoice is, of course, a Philadelphia-centric website so there has to be a reason we are covering this. And here it is. Harper, while playing video games live on Twitch with fellow Las Vegas area Phillie Bryson Stott, said the following of Snell: "He ain't lying. He's speaking the truth, bro. I ain't mad at him. Somebody's gotta say it, at least he manned up and said it. Good for him. I love Snell, the guy's a beast. One of the best lefties in the game."

Harper has proven to be a complex person, one who values money but also winning, family and being a part of an organization and city in which he feels comfortable and accepted. That Harper is agreeing with Snell is a pretty good litmus test for a lot of baseball's highest-paid players. Why would they take less money to risk their health in 2020, when theoretically they can rest for the entire year (with much less inherent risk) and make their full salaries in 2021?

Well, honestly, 2021 is no guarantee for baseball either — especially if they lose 2020 due to money.

Baseball has been losing popularity with pretty consistent losses in TV ratings for a few years now, with fans lamenting over how long it takes to play a game and the league altering the way the game is played (pitchers having batter minimums, a pitch clock, etc.) over the last few years. If baseball doesn't have a season — particularly because the players won't play for less money — it could be a knockout punch that baseball will regret forever.

Harper wants to be paid what he signed a contract to receive. So does Snell. They each already agreed to take a pay cut, but taking another one may be an unavoidable reality if baseball is to not only save its season, but save its trajectory as one of America's four major sports. Over 36 million Americans have lost jobs. Times are tough for everyone.

A possible disconnect from the reality of the common person is an issue for baseball, a sport that typically is the one that can reach the masses most easily with 162 regular season games broadcast regionally, and 81 home games in gigantic stadiums affordable to lower-income fans. 

Imagine the reception the Phillies, and the rest of baseball would get if they provided a needed distraction and boost to a great many economies by returning (even in empty stadiums). 

This is something baseball has to get right.


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