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Baseball players deserve better than MLB's proposal to restart the season mid-pandemic

Owners are asking players to put their long-term health at risk for massive pay cuts, just so we can be amused. It's not worth it.
Image: Seattle Mariners' field
Seattle Mariners' field is empty as the ballpark goes into its seventh week without baseball played because of the coronavirus outbreak, in Seattle on May 11, 2020.Elaine Thompson / AP

The inherent romance of baseball is apparently playing heavily into the perceptions of Major League Baseball's proposal for allowing teams to play again this summer. That proposal has several components, including things baseball fans want to hear — a renewed spring training in June and opening day in early July — and interesting things, like a 14-team postseason rather than the usual 10, and a universal designated hitter in both the American and National Leagues. Other parts were more expected: No fans will be allowed in the stadiums initially, and teams will play only rivals in their region.

But the most contentious piece of the proposal was the idea of a 50-50 revenue split between the players and the owners, instead of paying players their full salaries, which the Major League Baseball Players Association pushed for, staunchly denouncing the revenue-sharing idea.

Players have started to speak up on social media, with some saying that asking them to work at reduced wages under risky conditions isn't fair, that the deal could impede contract negotiations in the future and threatening not to return to the fields of dreams unless the league meets their demands — putting even a truncated season at risk and inviting criticism from people eager for baseball to return.

Former Yankees player Mark Teixeira, for instance, claimed on ESPN that he wouldn’t fight the owners on their proposal, saying that baseball coming back would give people hope — which is a convenient view for someone to take when he has no personal stake in it. At the end of the day, though, none of us are owed a baseball season. Is it disappointing to be without one? Yes, but the loss of one baseball season should be the least of our concerns when more than 86,000 Americans (and counting) have died so far.

Most people want baseball to carefully return (and, in the first game back, watch a player on their team hit a home run — echoing Mike Piazza’s shot for the New York Mets in 2001 after 9/11 — allowing them to feel like maybe we’re turning a corner from despair back toward joy; I do, too). But asking players to sacrifice income while gambling with their health isn't fair.

The same way that all our essential workers who are showing up every day — at hospitals, at grocery stores, delivering packages and bringing us our mail — should be paid exponentially more than usual right now, baseball players should be paid at least their regular salaries if they're required to return to play for our entertainment.

Team owners are in a far better position to take a hit financially than the players — and they won’t be doing anything to potentially jeopardize their health. That's the point that Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Blake Snell made when he said he wasn't amenable to taking a pay cut to play baseball this season.

On Monday Sean Doolittle, a pitcher for the Washington Nationals, the defending World Series champions, and an all-around benevolent human being, eloquently threaded tweets explaining his concerns about the plans for baseball's return this summer. Among the many salient points he addresses was that there might not be enough tests for players, team employees and stadium workers, as well as noting the unknown longer-term health risks that exist should someone contract COVID-19.

If a player becomes infected, the league has yet to address what it will do if he experiences permanent damage to his respiratory system or other organs. (The league has also not yet publicly addressed what it plans to do about any players with underlying health conditions that would put them in high-risk categories were they to contract the disease.)

But Doolittle — and other players and their representatives — are asking good questions: There is a great deal we still don't know about the disease, and how it could affect anyone who contracts it in the long term. For baseball players, whose physicality is their livelihood, those questions are of paramount importance. Can the league then bring baseball back with all these questions unanswered? Let alone can bring the season back while coaxing players to buck up and take a pay cut in the process?

As a lifelong baseball fan, specifically of the Mets — the team that’s all heart (and tends to break mine) in Queens — I’ve heard no shortage of commentary over the years that run along the lines of “shut up and play” toward players. Coming off an injury and still experiencing some muscle tightness? Shut up and play. Didn’t get the contract you wanted? Shut up and play. Have some thoughts on politics or capitalism or the state of the world in general? You’re just an athlete, kid, shut up and play.

And I was in high school for the players' strike in 1994, which yielded all sorts of “shut up and play” comments (replete with expletives) everywhere you went.

It’s an easy attitude to adopt from your recliner watching your MLB TV subscription or ESPN+ — and maybe even more so from a bleacher or mezzanine seat. (Remember going to baseball games live? What a time!) Many players make millions of dollars, and you and me spend our hard-earned money on tickets and then transportation to the game, then $9 for a hot dog that’s gone in two bites and $13 for a beer to wash it down. Of course we get an opinion and we want to speak our piece.

But the pandemic created a situation most of us have not seen before, in which the season had to be put on hold for a significant period of time for everyone's safety — the players, the employees and the fans.

And now, well into the third month of sheltering in place in the United States, there is still widespread confusion about the virus, its effects and how it will spread from here on out, making it difficult to know whether the plans for reopening the country, let alone bringing back baseball, are adequate to protect ourselves. There still aren’t enough tests or contract tracing being done to really know your current risk wherever you are, and what works in Florida may not be the way for New York.

But there are teams, and fans, everywhere. That's part of what makes baseball great — and what makes even a truncated, socially distanced season potentially dangerous for players

So the argument that baseball players are being greedy for not wanting to reduce their salaries even further than the pro-rated amount already in place (and holding up the agreement to restart the season) doesn’t fly with me. I love baseball and miss it so much that there’s an ache in my gut when I go to turn on the TV at 7:10 p.m. and realize there’s no game on, and the same when I wake up and see there are no highlights to catch every morning. It hurts that this whole summer may go by without me being able to spontaneously jump on the 7 train to Citi Field and see a game, just because I got out of work early and Jacob deGrom happens to be pitching.

Every winter, baseball fans bemoan the cold months we slog through with no dingers or bench-clearing brawls, and yell about trades or trade rumors that make us sad or giddy — all in anticipation of the upcoming season. And now we don’t have one. But the health and safety of the players (and employees) are what should be most important to all of us, baseball lovers or not.

It’s not greed giving these players pause; it’s showing real concern for what they’re being asked to do. (Greed is not refunding people the money they spend on season tickets — don’t pull that “here’s a credit for the 2021 season” nonsense.) And to every player on every team concerned about their health, or being asked to risk their health for less than their full salary, I say: Don’t shut up. And don’t play if doing so doesn't make sense to you.