Can Baseball Make the Best of a Crisis?

Matthew Beckwith

At the end of last month, Major League Baseball ("the League" or "MLB") and the Major League Players Association ("MLBPA") reached an agreement to avoid any potential litigation around the suspension of the season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This agreement helped to avoid a major conflict between the league and the players union in the midst of a public health crisis, but it also could signify a positive shift towards a more pragmatic perspective by both sides in advance of negotiations for a new baseball collective bargaining agreement ("CBA") next year. The current CBA is set to expire on December 1, 2021, and while they were expected to be contentious, the current situation may allow baseball to pivot away from its ongoing problems. 

The recent deal struck between the League and the MLBPA was necessary because the current CBA didn’t provide guidance as to what would happen in the event of a COVID-19 like catastrophe. However, there was a worst-case scenario provision within paragraph 11 of the uniform player contract ("UPC"). Paragraph 11, which was agreed upon by the League and the MLBPA, stated that the contract was subject to federal/state legislation and declarations that “may directly or indirectly affect…the League,” and protected the “right of the Commissioner to suspend the operation of this contract during any national emergency during which Major League Baseball is not played.” In effect, this meant that since President Trump declared a national emergency on March 13, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred had the power to suspend League operations, and teams could suspend all payment to players without being liable for backpay.

Last month’s deal avoids a worst-case scenario. The League committed to advancing a non-refundable $170 million in salaries to players and promised that the shortened season would not damage the accrual of service time for the purposes of determining free agency, both of which can be seen as major victories for the players. The League won concessions in the form of a more flexible arbitration process for next year as well as an abbreviated draft. This flexibility may help the League as it turns to sorting out how to handle potential contractual disputes with sponsors and networks.

But the final consideration about this deal, that can only be considered from an extra-legal perspective, is the reputational advantages of this deal. Baseball, more so than other sports, is a sentimental game. In movies and literature, baseball is not portrayed as a business. It is a more romantic enterprise. Even the Supreme Court has reflected the sepia-toned perception of baseball: In Flood v. Kuhn, the Court held that baseball and its reserve clauses in employment contracts were immune from antitrust clauses at the state and federal level. The opinion is notable for the extensive opening by Justice Blackmun, where he lists nearly 100 legends of the game, quotes poetry, and celebrates the place of baseball in American life.

But today, baseball is going through an extended period of dwindling national popularity, even while its economics remain as strong as any major American sports league.[1] The causes are not entirely clear, but one of the largest contributing factors has been that for over two decades baseball has faced a consistent headwind of negative public attention, almost entirely self-wrought. In 1994, a month and a half of the season (plus all of the postseason) was cancelled due to a players strike, and didn’t end until future-Justice Sonia Sotomayor ruled on the validity of the strike in 1995. [2] For years, the common narrative around this strike was that it was so deleterious from a public relations perspective that the public love of the national pastime wasn’t restored until Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa captured the national imagination with their 1998 home run race.

In reality, baseball was entering a decade where steroids and congressional inquiries would define its character in the public eye. Seven of the top seventeen home run hitters in history, including McGwire and Sosa, tested positive for steroid use between the late 1990s and early 2000s. The all-time MVP leader and the all-time Cy Young leader were both brought up on perjury charges for lying to Congress about their steroid use. Annual Hall of Fame voting is even dominated by steroid allegations. Former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell had to be brought in to investigate the extent of the corruption. And just last year, it was revealed that the Houston Astros (the team that defined the late 2010s with their success) had engaged in a multi-year effort to steal signs from opposing pitchers using a complex system of video cameras, electronic buzzers, and trash cans. The Astros scandal was continuing to develop into the early months of this year, resulting in a series of firings, manager suspensions, lawsuits, and concerns about opposing pitchers intentionally trying to hit Astros batters with pitches.

So maybe, just maybe, baseball can try to take time in the middle of this national pandemic to move past its own flaws. By moving away from the high stakes labor disputes that defined the mid-90s, the recent deal opens a door for a potential rebranding after a generation of bad press. Basketball went though a similar rebranding process in the 1980s, when after a decade of drug scandals and corporate reorganization, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, and Michael Jordan led to a worldwide basketball resurgence. Baseball isn’t suffering from a lack of good players, in fact, Mike Trout may be one of the best players since Babe Ruth, and he is in his prime. But the League and MLBPA should realize that its interests don’t lie in contractual one-upmanship, but a rebranding focused on talent. As the former MLB commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti once said, “[Baseball] is a dream of ourselves as better than we are.” It's now time to dream of a better baseball.