Neither of my parents were sports fans but they had six boys so they ended up with lots of games being played on the TV in their living room. One thing my mom could never understand is why when one team was way behind that they couldn’t just say “uncle” and have the game be over. No attempts to discuss the sanctity of the game and the season ever resonated with her. Finally, the response that satisfied her was, “that’s when they earn their money.”
Those conversations came to mind here recently with all of the talk about how the 2020 season was going to play out. Players are getting pro-rated salaries, which seems very fair. Players can opt out of the season now over health concerns, whether due to significant health factors or just personal risk tolerance. They’ll be paid for the former but not necessarily the latter. Again, that seems fair. But there doesn’t seem to be any limit on the second option, which is at least a little curious.
We know that multiple players on the Nationals and at least one player on the Braves have already opted out of the 2020 season. So, let’s pick on the Phillies. Let’s say that halfway thru the 2020 season, the Mets are in a heated race with the Nats and Braves for the division lead. But for whatever reason – injuries, bad luck and, um, just spit balling here … talent – the Phillies fall off the pace and are under .500 and competing for last place rather than first.
What’s to stop a significant group of their players from saying “uncle” and bailing on the lost season?
Ordinarily the twin pillars of personal pride and future contract considerations keep this from ever being a thing. But now we’re essentially tossing away the second pillar and placing an awful lot of faith in the first one. Especially considering the restrictive conditions that players will need to acquiesce to just so that we can have a season.
In the country as a whole, we see a significant part of the population react negatively to having to wear a mask in public. But now we’re asking baseball players to undergo various forms of testing multiple times a week, social distance from their own co-workers, ones they’re unusually close to, more than anyone else and there will be unstated peer pressure – to say nothing of fan pressure – to self-isolate once the games are over to limit exposure risk.
Let’s pick a player to use as an example. It’s important to note that this is just a hypothetical and not an indication that said player would actually do this. But let’s say that you’re Jake Arrieta. According to Baseball-Reference, you’ve already made over $106 million and you also have had great personal success, playing for a World Series winner and going 2-0 as a starter in the Fall Classic. Why would you subject yourself to playing out the string on an also-ran in the middle of a pandemic when you have a Get Out of Jail Free card in your back pocket?
And what if three of Arrieta’s high-profile teammates then decide to follow his lead? We already have the pitfalls of a 60-game season to deal with but just imagine how it would be if the second half of the season, one of the teams was the Triple-A version of a cellar dweller. What if the schedule has the Mets playing the Phillies significantly more in the first half and the Braves (because they have this type of luck) get them more often in the second half? And then just imagine if instead of just one team it ended up being six or eight of them.
We can disagree about how likely this scenario is but we cannot dismiss it out of hand.
Essentially, as long as we want to have a baseball season, this is something that we’re going to have to accept. There might very well be good reasons for a player to bail on the season midway thru a tough year. If Arrieta opted out because his wife came down with the disease and he wanted to care for her – no reasonable person would object to that decision. You could probably think of a bunch of other cases that would be legitimate, too.
But you know that no one will be honest and say, “This stinks and I’ve had enough.” It will always be couched in terms of concern about their family. It’s a little bit like the old NBA Draft rule, where no one was allowed to leave school early and join the draft unless they had financial hardship. Every player magically had financial hardship and not one of them left because they were flunking out or simply didn’t want to get up for 8:00 a.m. classes.
If players leave mid-season, it will be up to the fans to determine if they think the reason is legitimate. And that’s okay. Fans are used to applying their own judgment to events. You have a significant number of people who refuse to acknowledge Barry Bonds as the Home Run King because of his use of steroids. Others recognize that the accomplishments of players in the first half of the 20th Century aren’t quite as impressive because they came in a segregated league.
To bring it back to the Mets, I always invoked a penalty against Rick Reed, because he was one of the guys who crossed the picket line when MLB used “replacement players” in Spring Training in 1995. Other people thought that was ridiculous. And that’s what it will be like if and when people quit on the 2020 season. Let’s just hope that no Mets player decides to do that.