Olney: Six creative ways MLB can make the best of a tough situation


In retrospect, the conference calls Major League Baseball regularly holds these days must seem like a waste of time to some of the participants. The circumstances to which MLB and the Major League Baseball Players Association must react are changing so quickly that what once might have seemed important the day or week before is now completely forgotten.

Only eight days ago — just eight days! — the big step made by the owners to combat the coronavirus was to bar a handful of reporters from clubhouses. Now the discussions among the leaders in the sport is how to make the best of a worsening situation, and what the damage to the baseball industry might be, in the end. Airlines and small businesses are rightly getting the bulk of attention, but Major League Baseball stands to take a huge hit, because even if ballparks open during the summer, no one knows how much potential customers will be dragged down by the devastated national economy. No one knows how fans will feel about gathering in packed ballparks even after state and local governments give an all-clear.

As owners shared in a conference call Monday, the only thing they really know for sure is that it’ll be a long time before baseball will be played. Their options will continue to be shaped by world and national events, but given the current state of the game and realities of the calendar, here are some options worth considering:

1. Major League Baseball could continue into November and December, if necessary. There have already been circumstances under which the postseason has ended in November — such as in 2001, when 9/11 pushed back the schedule by a week, leading to the first-ever November home run, by Derek Jeter, and a walk-off Game 7 hit by Luis Gonzalez on Nov. 4.

A lot of MLB teams play in climates in which year-round play is possible, from all the teams in the South (the Astros, the Padres, the Dodgers, etc.) and even teams closer to the Canadian border with movable roofs, like the Brewers and Mariners. Other teams who don’t necessarily have that luxury, such as the Rockies, Cubs, Mets, Yankees, Red Sox and Phillies, could move their games once the calendar flips to November. They could borrow other ballparks from their MLB brethren, something that has already happened in advance of hurricanes.

And teams would always have the alternative of using their spring training facilities. If the Yankees didn’t want to play their home games in Houston, for example, they could always consider George M. Steinbrenner Field in Tampa. A perfect solution? Of course not. The crowd capacity would be smaller, the angles for television broadcasts would be less than ideal.

But to repeat: At this point, it’s all about making the best of a bad situation.

MLB could carry the regular season into mid-November, and then have a month of postseason play into December.

2. This would be a perfect year for MLB to identify neutral sites in the postseason, in the same way the NFL has a host city for the Super Bowl. If baseball extends its season into November, there would be natural questions about what to do if a cold-climate team like the Phillies or Rockies played deep into the postseason.

MLB could pick sites in advance. The American League Championship Series could be played in Globe Life Field, the Rangers’ new ballpark in Arlington; the NLCS could be set in Arizona’s Chase Field, or maybe in San Diego, or Los Angeles, or Miami. This would ensure that the most important games in this unusual season would be played in ideal conditions — and would be a nice test-run for MLB to weigh the pros and cons of using a neutral site in the postseason.

3. Whenever the season is jump-started, the Players Association and MLB could present a refreshed product, informed by the incredible success of All-Access Week. Players could wear mics on the field, in the dugouts, in the bullpens, reaching fans like never before — a new and improved experience for consumers who will be looking for nice distractions after a national crisis.

4. Form a committee right now of players and club executives to generate ideas to reconnect with fans. Continued charitable works, signings, ticket giveaways, social media overtures. Collaborate in the name of rebuilding an industry that is about to take some huge hits.

5. Quietly work out a one-time, one-year compensation system that is fair to both MLB and the players. It is bound to be a devastating economic year for the sport, a burden that should be shared.

Last week, the idea of having teams play all their games in empty spring training sites when the season starts was floated, but some club executives noted that for small-market teams like the Pirates and Indians, this would be untenable. Those clubs are more vulnerable than big-market teams, with a greater need for home-ballpark dollars to offset player compensation. The model under which some big contracts have been negotiated is broken.

So, how about this: MLB and the union could agree to an economic split, sharing settled percentages of the diminished financial pie after closed-door negotiations. Any public squabbling would be awful for everybody.

In the year after 9/11, the collective bargaining agreement was set to expire, and the two sides were deadlocked over the issue of PED testing; memories of the lengthy 1994-95 work stoppage loomed. As the deadline neared, some veteran players argued on a conference call — rightly — that the union would be obliterated in the court of public opinion if the players went on strike in the early days of the United States’ war on terror. A deal was struck, labor peace continued.

6. With MLB and the players’ association in daily collaboration these days, it would be a great time to begin serious dialogue about the next CBA — with the goal of working out an extension by the time baseball resumes. The two sides can settle their arguments over service-time manipulation and free agency, embed anti-tanking measures, embrace the universal DH (which, by the way, would be perfect for 2020, when pitchers will be an increased risk for injury because of their sporadic spring preparation), and talk through other issues.

Imagine the menu that baseball could provide to kick off in June or July. The All-Star Game, an event used to kick off the resumption of play after a strike in 1981. The Home Run Derby. The Hall of Fame induction of Derek Jeter and Larry Walker. And an announcement of the next CBA agreement.

These are measures baseball could use. These are measures MLB will need, in its recovery.

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