Two things I think I’ve decided about the fate of the Major League Baseball season in 2020:
(1) Assuming no dramatic changes with regard to the coronavirus itself, we are going to see professional baseball players in uniform at some point this summer.
That’s about as specific as we can get at this point. We don’t know the players’ exact identities. We don’t know exactly how many of them there will be. And, most significant, we don’t know how much they will be paid. But we know that we’ve arrived at a point where neither players nor owners can afford to let any of these variables prevent games from being played.
One of the few things that we can all agree upon as a nation is that there are few things more off-putting than millionaires arguing with billionaires over how much of our money each side gets to keep. That being said, the current friction between players and owners over the appropriate salary structure for a spectator-less season is understandable.
MLB commissioner Rob Manfred has said that gate receipts account for roughly 40% of team revenues. While it’s worth noting that Manfred has a horse in this race, it goes without saying that a decline in attendance from 68.5 million to zero would come at a considerable cost for the owners, whatever the exact number happens to be.
Beyond that, only the accountants know the payroll totals that teams can afford, which makes it difficult for amateur ethicists such as ourselves to formulate anything close to an honest opinion on what is fair.
In a perfect world, owners and players would both look at this summer as an exhibition-type situation worthy of special consideration. But, then, a certain level of mutual trust is usually required for special considerations, and unless Manfred and his owners agree to sit down with Tony Clark and his players and walk them through the books, it will be tough to expect the players to accept ownership’s reported offer of a 50-50 revenue split.
So here we are, and here we shall be until the hour arrives at which one of the two sides must decide whether zero dollars in revenue or salary is more acceptable than the other side’s final offer. At which point, we should expect to see some baseball.
(2) Anybody who thinks baseball should reflexively stay home and save lives isn’t thinking critically enough about the direction society is going to need to go between now and whenever a COVID-19 vaccine arrives.
It is a scientific fact that if each of us spent the rest of our lives isolated and alone inside our domiciles without ever emerging, we could create a world where not a single life was ever again lost to the coronavirus. This might sound like an absurd argument to make, but that’s how specious arguments tend to make their counterarguments sound. In fact, I believe the Romans invented a phrase for it.
Anybody who attempts to reason that the goal of any public health policy should be to reduce deaths to zero is engaging in speciousness. At least to some degree, the vast majority of us have chosen to live in a first-world capitalistic society. Of that group, a vast majority has done so because of the standard of living that such a society offers.
But that standard of living comes at a cost. It requires us to be able to travel from Point A to Point B at a certain speed. It requires that we work a certain number of hours, and subject our bodies to a certain level of stress. It requires that we prioritize convenience in our food supply and eating habits.
In short, anybody who has chosen to live in a society such as ours has already chosen to accept a wide range of policies that sacrifice some level of public safety in exchange for a material return. These facts are just as scientific as any epidemiological curve you might encounter.
That’s not to say that you should cut off the arms of your jean jacket and grab your grenade launcher and march down to the capital and fight for your right to treat your compatriots’ lives with willful negligence just like James Madison wanted. Rather, it’s a reminder that anybody who wants this society to continue to function is eventually going to need to accept a certain level of risk of death by COVID.
Doing that is going to require operating on a spectrum of risk. And that spectrum of risk will almost certainly say that one of the safest ways that society can possibly spend three hours on a summer evening is watching a televised baseball game in an empty stadium featuring young men in pristine physical condition who are frequently tested.
Here’s your calculus: Which group is more likely to produce more fatalities? The, say, one or two thousand players and support staff, if MLB ends up playing a season, or the, say, one or two million television viewers who will end up doing something other than watching baseball for three hours per night if MLB does not play a season?
I don’t know the answer off the top of my head, but I do know those are the sorts of questions that will need to frame a future in which we minimize COVID deaths and also have lives worth living.
In short, this proposed MLB season is the exact sort of thing that we should embrace as a creative adaptation to life under the circumstances. Nobody should be forced to participate. But those who are willing should do whatever they can to make it happen.