As we await a potential agreement between MLB ownership and the union to play the 2020 season, there is still a long bridge to cross between policy and reality. In the end, it is a negotiation, and history tells us there must be compromise if there’s going to be baseball this year. During this coronavirus pandemic, safety has no compromise, of course, but there are elements on the table that leave more room to meet in the middle.
For my entire big-league career, I was deeply involved in the Major League Baseball Players Association. Yet, nothing could have prepared me, or anyone, for the time we are living in now. The weight of deciding a policy might have life-and-death consequences. Historically, the MLBPA could band together and face the owners with a united front. Now more than ever, though, each player’s individual circumstance will impact his position: Does he live with older or otherwise high-risk family members? Does he have health issues of his own? Is this his only window to make his mark in the big leagues?
Tapping into my union experience, I know there is more than one way to look at this.
So I asked myself: Under what conditions would I play and under what conditions would I not play? And yes, it is personal.
Three reasons I would play this season
1. To protect the past and preserve the future.
I came up to the big leagues in 1996, but I was in the Chicago Cubs‘ system since I signed in 1991. This was a time when many of the biggest player voices in union history were still audible in the locker rooms. They were battle-tested in negotiations and had seen what it looked like to sacrifice the present for the future. The message was loud and clear: Protect the past and the sacrifices made by the players who had come before — players who had less and gave up more. In fact, those players practically handed me a system in which I could thrive economically. There is a sense of duty that comes with being their beneficiary. And this sense of duty travels forward in time also. A decision today shapes what system I’d leave for the next generation of players.
Given the most recent public proposal from MLB, the players are facing a steep challenge. A sliding pay scale can be framed as showing sensitivity for lower-paid players, but it’s also potentially divisive. According to the proposal, players with salaries in the lower tiers would retain more, but it would hinge on higher-paid players taking a far more substantial hit. Sure, the higher-paid players make a ton of money, but the proposal does go against the all-for-one, one-for-all ideal of the MLBPA. If the players open this door, it would risk the credibility of their core mission.
If all of this comes together in ways that maintain the equity the players’ association has tried to operate under since its inception — not just for the present, but for the future — then I would play. Worst-case, I’d work on terms that allowed us to live to fight another day — or another year, when we are past this unprecedented circumstance. This sliding scale proposal, though, should be rejected out of hand. If accepted as is, it would be a recipe for internal division among the players. The superstars versus the rest. A more productive approach (and more on the shoulders of the MLBPA), would be if the players’ association collectively decides how to equitably apportion any division of funds, and then works it out in conjunction with the owners. The players should lead the movement.
2. It’s a truly historic opportunity … and responsibility.
Baseball has an opportunity. The players have an opportunity. It is difficult to tell a player, even when he is part of a time when labor peace has existed for 25 years, that he still must look at the big picture when facing a crisis. But this big picture is not just for the game and the players anymore, but for our larger society. As we saw with the NBA, once Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19, everything flowed from there. Sports shut down, a wave of acceptance washed over most of our country, and a new era took over. Baseball can be the reversal of such a moment. The game can open the door, carefully, knowing that all are watching. If baseball can do it, so can we, could become the prevailing attitude across all sports — and beyond.
Being part of a thought-out return to the field that can heal, educate and improve the lives of others outside of the inner circle means baseball players would become leaders off the field. This could be a powerful opportunity for the game — and as a player, this would be a direct way to help our recovery, not just in our country, but across the world. It would take transparency and the understanding that it won’t be a linear recovery. As we saw post-9/11, it would be an honor for the game to be at its best, but also at its most selfless to set a new tone of what sports can be. I would welcome that chance.
3. If my family were on board.
One reason a unified message from the players is complicated is because each player’s circumstance is unique. When I was called up in 1996, I was 25, single and could think of my intimate circle through my parents and my brother. By this point, I was living alone, sometimes 1,000 miles away, so it would have been fairly easy to be isolated. In fact, isolation was part of the life in this game. It was familiar. Yet today, I see this through the experience of having my own family. My wife and children change my perspective completely. If they felt safe and it made sense for all of us, then I would play.
Although baseball players are nonessential workers, I can’t say whether being paid is personally nonessential for every player. Not all of these players have eight-figure contracts. Some are on the doorstep of making it after toiling away in the minor leagues. They might have financial concerns that make this less about safety and more about making a living. That circumstance still exists in the land of such privilege. For me, though, if my family and my family circumstance green-lighted it, I would play.
Three reasons I would not play this season
1. If it were too much of a risk for my family.
The opposite of my family giving me the green-light is a situation that makes the risk an impossible hurdle. In 2000, just as the season was about to start, my father had a stroke, the first of many to come. He was diabetic, and later developed lung cancer. If I were in a circumstance where I was living with my parents or had an arrangement where I was physically central to supporting them, playing while maintaining interaction with them would be a danger. Playing would be higher risk. Maybe not for me directly, but for those around me. Unless there was a way for my father to have been kept safe, where I wouldn’t be bringing unnecessary risk home, that risk would not be worth playing. This could be applied to anyone in my household. Many players have these situations, and unfortunately, we have learned that there can be risks without a family member even being aware of them. These players might have the ability to buy safety to a certain degree — to hire help, obtain a separate residence, etc. — but these are also times when supporting your family directly is ideal.
Keep in mind that there was an initial 67-page document outlining all of the safety protocols. That shows a deep concern for everyone’s safety, but it also creates a near-impossible standard. When it comes to hundreds of people who play or support the game, the longer the list of people and protocols, the more violations and errors that become possible. A player would be putting his safety (and his family’s) in the hands of everyone else, and no team will be able to follow the plan to perfection.
2. The uncertainly of Bubbleball.
Although baseball is trying to create a bubble in some ways, this will be a tall order, with or without that 67-page list of safety measures. No matter how many rules and scientifically informed protocols are put in place, there is a large degree of uncertainty. There will be errors, new information and changing dynamics, and should that misalign with what is happening outside of the bubble, I would consider that a reason not to play.
A challenge for baseball is playing amid great suffering. There are ways players can help in that regard, but there are ways they can fail miserably, too. We saw the social backlash over Blake Snell’s comments. Beyond the bargaining table, if the game is played in a way that promotes an out-of-touch isolation and ends up siphoning resources and diminishing the communities, that would be a major red flag for me, let alone the current crop of players. Although much of this would be difficult to measure, there are plenty of obvious inequities highlighted by professional sports. Some of this exists inside the sport, as we see with the many furloughs, layoffs and pay cuts across teams. There very well could be a resurgence of COVID-19 cases. Will baseball adjust accordingly from a leadership position or will it wait for another NBA moment to take action? Being proactive will be even more important if baseball is a pioneer in its return.
So far MLB appears to be embracing the social responsibility of the moment. But time will tell.
3. It’s not just billionaires vs. millionaires.
Although I have always believed this billionaires-versus-millionaires framing is oversimplified, there is no denying the economics. While there is a real battle over how to divide the wealth, it is also a privilege to be in a position to take financial motivation out of the equation. When eviction notices or foreclosures are not arriving, or the loss of unemployment pay are not part of a player’s calculus, decisions can be reduced to certain principles. However, there is a segment of players, even in the big leagues, who do not have the same bandwidth to sit out or elect to play at a substantial reduction. A prorated share could still put you in a bad economic situation, even if it’s better than no share at all, particularly if you’re helping provide for a family in crisis far away, something many international players are facing. There could be a situation in which the numbers do not add up in a way that works well — or well enough, given the additional risks.
If a player, too, is at a certain stage of his career when this cannot work — for example, being on an expanded big league roster but not playing in a way that can bring value — then that might be too difficult a spot. When I first was called up to the Cubs in June 1996, I did not play much, so after a while, even being in the big leagues started to erode my value as a starter. When I was sent down to Triple-A, although disappointed, I was excited to play every day again. It raises the age-old debate: Would you rather be on the bench, possibly pigeonholing yourself to role-player status, or play somewhere else to show you’re a starter? There will be a substantial number of players on the bubble who might face a similar circumstance. This “taxi squad” that is being kicked around might present this challenge to a number of players — again, along with all the many risks we’ve already mentioned.
This is an extremely difficult decision for all players. It will hinge on health, economics, travel, family and a whole host of other factors. This is their profession and they will ultimately seek an end result that allows them to work. I realize that my career at 25 and my career at 35 would yield a completely different set of priorities, but at the core, I would follow a fair and collective solution, as long as my family could fully support the risk.
Clearly, the essential workers who are keeping us afloat are facing far greater challenges. Still, in the land of the nonessential worker, there is this possibility of what it would mean to come back. Those who are fans would love to see the game return. Those who are not might still appreciate the normalcy. Yet in the deeper lives of the players, they can never be 100% sure, given the unprecedented nature of these times. More than ever, individual circumstances will weigh on the collective mission of the players’ union, and those in a certain strata will reconsider what the greater good is when it involves not just economic sacrifices, but potentially major health risks as well.
As I have learned, the game will march on with or without you, even in the face of dangerous uncertainty. This time, though, many will understand if you choose not to play.