We are probably going to have a major league baseball season this year, or at least something that resembles one. However, the players and the owners have not been able to agree on the terms and conditions of the season. Under a prior agreement, the owners have the right to implement a season without a new agreement, and have decided to do so.
They must still agree on health protocols, but it’s very likely that an agreement will be reached as to these matters. Otherwise, the players won’t make a cent this year. And speaking of health, there’s always the possibility that the Wuhan coronavirus will wreck even a truncated season.
The season the owners intend to implement will likely consist of 60 games at the most, with no expanded playoffs. It will commence on or around July 24. The games will be played at the home team’s stadium, but without fans present.
The 60 game schedule corresponds to (1) about as many games as realistically can be played, given the calendar at this point and (2) about as many as the owners were willing to pay players for on a prorated salary basis. The owners consistently demanded that players take less than their prorated salary in any season with appreciably more than 60 games. The players consistently refused to play for less than their prorated salaries under any conditions.
Would a 60 game season be legitimate? Not in my view.
I’ve seen various analyses about the number of games it takes to get a reliable estimate of how a 162 game season would play out. Most of them indicate that it takes at least half a season — 81 games — or more.
Last year’s champions, the Washington Nationals, had a record of 27-33 at the 60 game mark. Only two National League teams had worse records. The Nationals went on to win 93 games. Only two National League teams won more. And, as noted, the Nationals won the World Series.
Will the winner of the 2020 World Series be regarded as champions by the baseball world? Probably not. At a minimum, a few asterisks will have to be placed next to its name.
Fans of the team that wins the World Series will be inclined to view the season as legitimate. I have always considered the Washington Redskins’ Super Bowl winning teams of 1982-83 and 1987-88 to be legitimate champions even though both seasons were affected by strikes.
But in 1982, the NFL played more than half of its scheduled games (9 of 16). And in 1987, it played 15 of 16 games, albeit with three games manned mostly by “replacement” players.
Even so, when the Redskins won the Super Bowl in 1992, I was relieved that we had finally come out on top in a fully legitimate season.
Now is a particularly unfortunate time for baseball not to crown a fully legitimate champion. The 2017 champion Houston Astros were adjudged to have cheated their way to the title, and the 2018 champion Boston Red Sox are under the same cloud.
This is also an unfortunate time for the owners and players not to have reached an agreement. The current collective bargaining agreement is set to expire. Given the way the negotiations over this year’s season went, one can only imagine how acrimonious next year’s negotiations will be.
Of our major sports, baseball is the one that can least afford to shoot itself in the foot. Yet, it remains the major sport most prone to do so.