MLB: It’s now or never

We all know this is no ordinary season. But for baseball, this season could be a telling sign of the sport’s future.

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Mark Black/AP Photo

On May 11, Major League Baseball owners submitted a return-to-play proposal to the players' union. The burning question: Can the differing sides come to an agreement?

Let’s rewind to the Summer of ‘98.

Many fans say the 1998 home run race between sluggers Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa “saved baseball.” Every night, baseball fans kept their eyes glued to the TV, awaiting a mammoth blast by McGwire or Sosa, both inching closer to Roger Maris’s single-season record of 61. TV ratings were sky-high, and baseball was again “The National Pastime,” following its ugly 1994 strike season.

Fast forward to 2020.

A glaring parallel can be made between the 1998 and 2020 seasons: they both had the opportunity to save baseball.

With MLB’s popularity waning, and major networks devoting much of its coverage to the NFL, the coronavirus pandemic provides MLB with the perfect opportunity to win over American sports fans by being the country’s first major sports league to resume play.

On May 11, MLB owners approved a plan to resume baseball activity, allowing regular-season baseball to be played as early as the Fourth of July. Now it’s up to both the Players Association and club owners to negotiate a deal.

There are two big factors impacting players’ decisions. First off, negotiations will not move forward without the assurance of player health and safety. Many players, especially those with underlying health conditions, believe the risk of contracting the virus outweighs the idea of a potential return to baseball. During the season, it is also expected players will not be allowed to return home to their wives and children.

Then there’s the issue of player compensation. In the end, negotiations between the Players Association and owners will likely come down to the issue of money.

This is where it gets ugly.

Players believe they are entitled to 50.6% of their 2020 salaries, based on the agreement between the players’ union and league in March. However, the owners’ proposal includes a 50-50 revenue split. While it’s impossible to predict which method of compensation would leave the players with a larger salary, a second wave of the virus could wipe out the postseason, resulting in even lower league revenue. In this case, players would earn significantly more money through a prorated salary. Additionally, a revenue split introduces a salary cap to the MLB, something players are vehemently against.

Forget all of the other return-to-play issues. If the owners and players cannot come to an agreement over lucrative player salaries amidst an economic crisis, that would leave a permanent scar on the game of baseball.

With over 30 million unemployed Americans, players and owners arguing over money would be the last thing fans want to hear.

Unfortunately, both sides don’t think of it that way. Before the owners’ proposal, players were already set to lose half of their 2020 salaries, and believe they deserve more than a paltry revenue split, considering the health risk of returning to the field. Rays pitcher Blake Snell agrees: “I’m sorry if you guys think differently, but the risk is way higher, and the money I’m making is way lower. So why would I think about doing that?” he said on his Twitch gaming stream.

On the other side, owners are trying to cut costs wherever possible, and nothing costs more than player salaries. Owners believe the March agreement was made with the assumption that fans would be in attendance, which is no longer the case. For this reason, they say, a revenue split should be the way of player compensation.

Historically, baseball has been part of the healing process following a national crisis. Take 9/11 for example, when Mike Piazza hit his famed go-ahead homer against the Atlanta Braves in MLB’s first game back since the terror attacks. That homer brought Americans together, baseball fans or not.

Major League Baseball can do just that in the coming months, allowing for a resemblance of normalcy our country has not seen in months.

Neither players nor owners want to give in, but a compromise must be reached, for the good of the game. For example, the sides could agree to player compensation through prorated salaries, but instead players would earn only 35% of their 2020 salaries.

But, if it all comes down to the league’s players and owners bickering over money during an economic collapse, and a deal falls through, baseball can forget about reclaiming its spot on top of the sports world. And worse, the sport would lose swaths of fans to the NFL, leaving baseball in the dust.

Don’t blow it MLB, this your shot to get back on top.

It’s now or never.