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BenFred: Now is the time for MLB owners and players to find common ground

BenFred: Now is the time for MLB owners and players to find common ground

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Nationals take 2-0 lead over Cardinals in National League Championship Series with 3-1 victory

St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright wipes his brow after giving up a two RBI double to Washington Nationals Adam Eaton in the eighth inning during Game 2 of the National League Championship Series at Busch Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 12, 2019. Photo by Robert Cohen, rcohen@post-dispatch.com.

Adam Wainwright was the best Cardinal to ask.

The veteran starter has been in the game long enough to get a grasp of its ups and downs. He’s not afraid to speak his mind. He also knows how far and fast his words can carry.

It was this combination that turned a Wainwright quote into national headlines a little more than a year ago.

You probably remember the comment, said by the pitcher at spring training 2019, back when camps were deep into their schedule while multiple star free agents were still awaiting contracts.

“Unless something changes, there’s going to be a strike, 100 percent,” Wainwright said during a radio interview with The Morning After. “I’m just worried people are going to walk out midseason.”

I’ve had plenty of time to sit around and think the past few days. Who hasn’t? One baseball thought keeps coming back.

Maybe, just maybe, this coronavirus-induced shutdown will steer baseball toward a silver lining of sorts.

Let me be clear.

There is not a plus side to a global pandemic.

Rich players and richer owners rediscovering they share more common ground than they realized does not outweigh lives endangered and lost. Obviously.

But using the temporary and necessary quarantine of America’s pastime to think long and hard about what the sport represents, and who it ultimately serves, would be a wise exercise for all involved in the game, from commissioner Rob Manfred, to the club owners, to players, young and old.

COVID-19 benched baseball at a fascinating time.

A sport speeding toward contentious negotiations about its next collective bargaining agreement between owners and players has been forced to consider what a work stoppage would feel like if a new CBA cannot be agreed upon by the time the current one expires after the 2021 season.

Two groups —players and owners — that have spent recent months circling one another like boxers preparing for the rounds that will decide their fight just received a haymaker from outside the ring.

Suddenly, they must join forces to salvage the 2020 season.

The coronavirus-related decisions made to this point have been largely led by the commissioner’s office, but rarely have they been pushed back on by the players’ union. One small yet encouraging example was the league’s decisions to leave spring training facilities open to players who needed a place to work out during this waiting period. That was requested and appreciated by the union. Players and owners making a joint donation of $1 million to Feeding America and Meals on Wheels America was another positive sign that heads are in the right place. The most important gesture, though, is something that has not happened. The current CBA gives Manfred the ability to withhold player salaries during a national emergency, a move the commissioner has shown no interest in enacting.

Still, thorny topics loom. Things could get prickly when baseball can finally target a concrete return date.

How player service time will be handled in a season that is likely to be shortened from the usual 162 games has the potential to turn into a brawl. How much time players need to properly prepare for a second, shortened round of spring training, and how packed the schedule can be once it starts, will need to be agreed upon by both sides. How rosters can and cannot be manipulated during this waiting period — and how rosters might be treated differently during the season, due to the unique circumstances — awaits clarification. And don’t forget about deciding how to adjust incentive-laden contracts to reflect a shortened season.

“There is a whole host of things,” Manfred recently told the Post-Dispatch. “Once you start thinking about what has to change, the number of issues gets larger, not smaller. We have had good, positive conversations with (players’ union president) Tony (Clark) and his people, and I expect them to continue.”

The tone of these talks will offer insight into the state of the owner-player relationship moving forward. Smooth is good. Stalls are bad, especially if they bleed out into the public realm. Fans worried about their health and job security during the age of coronavirus just want baseball to come back. What they don’t need is more in-fighting.

“Everybody wants to play, for a lot of reasons,” said veteran Cardinals lefty Andrew Miller, a longtime leader in the players’ union. “The finances of the game, whether it’s from the player or the owner perspective, it’s in everybody’s best interest to get games going. But we have to make sure we are smart about it.”

“We are so far away right now from even discussing the schedule, or the ramp-up of — ‘When are we going to start this?’ — that right now there are not any tough conversations being had. It’s going to be complicated, and that will be kind of a true test of how well we are working together.”

This road has a clear split ahead. One path brings owners and players closer together. It reminds them that everyone suffers without their game. It subtly warns them that their fans are in a tough spot, one that does not offer much sympathy toward public bickering between billionaires and millionaires.

The other path could become a fast lane to another stretch without baseball. That break would have nothing to do with a pandemic. Just ego and greed.

Which way will it go?

Wainwright was the best Cardinal to ask.

“That’s a good question,” he said the day baseball shuttered, while loading belongings into his truck.

“I think everyone involved is probably hoping that this all makes everyone realize how much we want to be in baseball. That’s my goal, and I think that’s what everyone is hoping for. It’s just a vital part of people’s everyday lives. It provides an outlet for people who had a tough day at work, who just need to sit down, relax and watch a game.”

Let’s hope that sentiment outlasts this damn virus.

Ben Frederickson @Ben_Fred on Twitter bfrederickson@post-dispatch.com

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