As MLB plunges into a frantic two-week negotiating period that will decide the 2020 season—and perhaps the future of the sport itself—no responsible party on either side can predict what's ahead.
But we know this much for sure.
The owners and players are already dug in about money, and there's no hint of compromise in the air. If MLB returns July 4, the union is demanding salaries be paid pro-rata, per the agreement signed March 27. The owners insist those terms pertained to historical norms, with fans in the stands, food and parking all paying the freight.
Without those accessories, the owners predict the outright collapse of at least one or two teams if they're forced to rely mostly on TV broadcasts. Several others are already teetering. They're asking the players to go 50-50 on whatever revenue is generated over the rest of the year.
The ramifications are so far-reaching that one person in the owners' camp predicts that without a deal, free agents will pay the price.
"Where is Mookie Betts going to get his $200 million?" the source asked. "The money isn't going to be there. You can kiss free agency goodbye."
The executive quickly added this was not an explicit threat, merely a statement of economic reality. No team, even the large-market behemoths, can emerge from a season of empty stadiums without staggering financial losses.
The most conservative estimates say ticket sales, concessions and stadium signage account for 40 percent of MLB's revenue stream. That figure may be as high as 65 percent, according to other industry analysts, with some teams staring at losses that could mount as high as $100 million.
That would explain the plea for help.
According to Dave Sheinin of the Washington Post, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred could expedite a plan to expand to 32 teams. A projected entry fee of $1 billion per new franchise would be a welcome bailout to, say, the Miami Marlins and New York Mets, both of whose ownerships are already heavily leveraged. They're among the clubs preparing to lay off or furlough office employees June 1. The Seattle Mariners plan to cut salaries of the operations department and field staff by 20 percent.
But raising external cash is only one solution, and it can't happen quickly enough to rescue the season. To start the season in early July, negotiations have to be wrapped up in approximately two weeks. As the clock ticks, any delay would diminish the chance of an 82-game schedule and undermine the feel-good narrative MLB is trying to generate.
No such goodwill exists today. Granted, negotiations never start peacefully. Compromises are never reached until the final hours of the final day. Baseball's impasse is no different. But the mood is notably grim, and it isn't uncommon to hear off-the-record predictions of failed bargaining and a do-over in 2021.
But who wins in that scenario?
Another major league executive said that while he's sympathetic to the players' position—a deal is a deal, it's there in writing—he nevertheless wonders if the players association is failing to see the bigger picture, not to mention abandoning its lower-paid members.
"[The union] is essentially saying, 'We're going to punish the owners by not getting paid at all this year.' How does that even make sense?" he said. "I feel bad for the guys on the lower end [of the salary spectrum]. They're the ones who'll be getting hurt."
A former player echoed that sentiment. During an appearance on ESPN's Get Up on Tuesday, former Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira said: "Players need to understand that if they turn this deal down and shut the sport down, they're not making a cent. I would rather make pennies on the dollar and give hope to people and play baseball than not make anything and lose an entire year off their career."
Granted, Teixeira earned in excess of $200 million in his career. It's easy for him to prescribe a discount. But therein lies MLBPA executive director Tony Clark's dilemma: Compromise today would look like surrender with another collective bargaining agreement coming around the corner after 2021.
There's already been back-channel talk of a looming labor disruption. That's how far apart Clark and Manfred were even prior to the pandemic. Now, both sides are at each other's throats.
The owners say the union is delusional in thinking MLB's economy is limitless. The players say the owners are trying to pull a fast one—again. They're demanding an audit. And no one has given the players any assurance that returning to the field is safe.
None of these boxes can be checked in two weeks, not without trust in the party sitting across the bargaining table. Instead, the sport is setting itself up for a massive public relations disaster.
The whole idea of a midsummer Opening Day is to lift the nation's spirits, create some normalcy in the midst of global suffering and stage three hours per night of worry-free entertainment. Even it's only for a half-season, even if the schedules are limited to interdivisional play to reduce travel. Even if means forcing the National League to use the DH and watering down the postseason to allow 14 teams to qualify instead of 10.
It would be a historic experiment and a cosmetic victory over COVID-19. Instead, it's devolving into the kind of political war fans hate most—choosing sides between millionaires and billionaires. There are no winners here.
One neutral executive in this process summed it up like this: "I could easily see the whole thing falling apart, and no baseball until next year."