Most of the owners are highly successful business people (or their children), many of them entrepreneurs who build businesses from the ground up. Quite a few of them have MBAs, law degrees, or business degrees. I’m sure many of them have lots of passion for baseball; I know that at least a few go to a lot of their teams’ games. But I think that whatever emotional attachment they feel to the sport has little if any effect on the way they approach decisions like the one they now confront — it’s a financial matter, to be analyzed pretty much like other major business decisions.

These guys look at their teams predominantly, if not exclusively, from a financial point of view, just as they would if they owned a business that makes computer chips or sells office supplies or owns vacation resorts or whatever. Aside from wanting to build a winning team (which I think is pretty much irrelevant to the 2020 situation), they have two related objectives: making money from their investments in MLB, and maximizing the price they (or their heirs) will get when they decide to sell the team. From their financial perspective, both those goals require creating for MLB (and their individual teams) a business model that enables them to make money under a wide variety of foreseeable circumstances. And that’s what they’ve done. The Forbes numbers, and the information about the sales of teams, says most teams are doing well. I’ve seen it said in a couple of places, though I can’t remember where, that the owners have been on a roll.

So here comes the pandemic, and it presents circumstances that won’t allow teams operating under the regular business model to succeed. Many teams, maybe virtually all of them, are not going to make money if they have to pay the players their pro rata salaries, bear their normal expenses plus those of creating Covid test capacity and other safety measures, and don’t sell tickets. The pandemic has put, and will continue to put, many businesses in a similar position: each owner of a restaurant or department store or theater has the right to decide whether to operate under less-than-optimal circumstances, stay closed while waiting things out, or fold ’em. 

The same is true of MLB’s owners (except that they aren’t about to go out of business). From their point of view, there are two viable options: restructure things so that most of them can make some money, or forget it. The owners undoubtedly have in mind an amount of MLB payroll (maybe it’s 60 percent of players’ pro rata salaries) that will enable them to accomplish the first under conservative assumptions about other costs and revenues. If they can’t get payroll down to that amount, or close to it, they won’t open for business. Maybe that will harm baseball in the long run, but I don’t think they care much about that, or that has much impact on their negotiating position. 

I guess it’s fair to say that the owners should feel an obligation to give us baseball this summer as a measure of their patriotism, even if that involves some financial sacrifice, or that the widespread public support of stadium construction for the benefit of many MLB teams imbues them with a some responsibility to serve the public, or that a league that enjoys protection from the antitrust laws shouldn’t deprive the country of the only top-flight baseball in the country. I don’t think the owners look at it that way. Their obligations are to themselves (and their stockholders or partners), just like in their other businesses.

The barrier on the players’ side is history. Over the past 50 years, they have accomplished impressive gains in salary and benefits. But the owners have never made it easy for them. They have forced the union and the players to make those gains slowly, over time, by litigating everything they could litigate. They have cheated and colluded to lower salaries whenever they could. Anyone can feel differently, but I can’t say the players should agree to be paid less for 2020 (OK, maybe a little less) than what their contracts or the CBA calls for, much less agree to a completely different compensation system whose outcome will be unknowable for a while. Calling on the players to give up their legal rights in order to bail out the owners, because the owners might lose money for a change, has little appeal to me.

The fundamental fact is that Major League Baseball operates on a highly structured, heavily negotiated arrangement between parties who don’t trust each other. (Well, the union and players certainly don’t trust the owners. I assume but don’t know that the owners don’t trust the union. I suppose the owners trust the players, but I bet more than a few of them resent the fact that they pay so much money to guys who, they assume, would never make it in the business world. (Some of them can’t even speak English!)) I don’t blame either side for the fact that the pandemic demolished baseball’s financial arrangement for 2020. I’m saving my anger and name-calling it for the 2022 strike or lockout or work stoppage.