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Larry Stone: As MLB negotiations near critical juncture, mutual motivation will be key to saving weird 2020 season

UPDATED: Sat., May 23, 2020

Seattle Mariners’ Dee Gordon, left, shares a laugh with teammate Kyle Seager before a spring training game against the Los Angeles Angels, Tuesday, March 10, 2020, in Peoria, Ariz. (Elaine Thompson / AP)
Seattle Mariners’ Dee Gordon, left, shares a laugh with teammate Kyle Seager before a spring training game against the Los Angeles Angels, Tuesday, March 10, 2020, in Peoria, Ariz. (Elaine Thompson / AP)
By Larry Stone The Seattle Times

SEATTLE – In case you haven’t checked your pocket schedule lately, the Mariners would be in New York facing the Yankees this weekend, more than 50 games into their 2020 season. You’re left to your own imagination what their record would be – or to phrase it differently, how many games they would be behind the Astros.

By now, we’d have a good idea of how the Mariners’ youth movement was progressing, with Evan White, Shed Long, Jake Fraley, Kyle Lewis, Justus Sheffield and maybe Justin Dunn having had two months to show whether or not they were ready for The Show.

Maybe Jarred Kelenic or Logan Gilbert would be on the verge of a call-up, forcing the issue. Perhaps 19-year-old phenom Julio Rodriguez would have continued his rapid ascendancy in the minor leagues. We’d have some answers by now on the comeback of Taijuan Walker, the rejuvenation of Yusei Kikuchi, and whether Dee Gordon had played himself out of town by enticing a team to trade for him.

Instead, the entirety of baseball remains grounded to a halt by the coronavirus. A Mariners season predicated on grooming their young core for an assault on contention in 2021 has had, through no fault of theirs, no grooming whatsoever.

But now there are ever-increasing signs, finally, that baseball may actually be coming out of hibernation. The Mariners reopening their Peoria, Arizona, spring training complex next week for voluntary workouts is one of them. The brewing brouhaha between union and management over the rules of re-engagement is a bigger one. And that’s before those two parties even get to what will inevitably be a bloody and bitter skirmish over the economics of this proposed truncated season.

That’s why this next week or so will be the most significant of a season that will be remembered forever, even if they play just 82 games – or zero. To adhere to the delicate timeline of spring training commencing in mid-June and games starting in early July, they need to forge an agreement soon – and the issues remain so thorny that it will take elements of diplomacy, compromise and vision that can be elusive when these two get locked into their positions.

Players are rightly concerned about whether the 67 pages of provisions put out by management will suitably protect their health, or be so restrictive as to be untenable. They also wonder if being on the front line of COVID-19 risk warrants the economic concessions the owners are believed to be asking for – after the union had already agreed to pro-rate players’ contracts when play was halted in March.

Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto, speaking on “Danny and Gallant” on ESPN 710 Thursday, expressed the opinion that players should tone down their complaints.

“My general thought is just, go play,” he said. “At the end of the day, we’re very fortunate to do what we do, and whatever our job is in professional sports. In this moment in time, and I guess any moment, my urge is, as we develop culture and as we develop character with our club, understand that it’s a big world around you and there are a lot of people suffering. Don’t whine. Just go play.”

Blake Snell didn’t help the cause when he said, “I gotta get my money. I’m not playing unless I get mine, OK?” But players shouldn’t just accede to any financial conditions put forward by owners – who certainly don’t change negotiated terms to share their largesse in times of prosperity, such as the $50 million each team received in 2017 for MLB’s sale of BAMtech, the streaming and tech behemoth, to Disney for $1.5 billion.

I don’t see it as whining when someone like Red Sox pitcher Colin McHugh said recently on a MassLive podcast that some players might opt to stay home rather than accept the risks of playing.

“I’m a husband, I’m a father,” he said. “There are many guys in the league with underlying conditions. With preexisting conditions, like diabetes and heart arrhythmias. You look at our coaching staffs, there’s tons of guys over 65. Umpires, there’s a lot of guys over 65. When you’re talking about the risk factors here, there are going to be some guys who sincerely have to weigh the risks of what it’s going to take to come back versus staying at home.”

I think they’re going to work all this out, because they have the two things needed for a deal – mutual motivation to do so (read: money), and a de facto deadline. It might be the most complicated negotiation in the history of baseball, so it won’t be easy. And if and when they forge a deal, there’s absolutely no guarantee that its execution will go as planned. In fact, it almost certainly won’t. The coronavirus is a feckless thug, to borrow from Jed Bartlet on “West Wing,” and it could throw things far off track at any point this summer.

In the best of all worlds, the only debate remaining once this gets resolved will be what baseball looks like, aesthetically, when it returns. The short answer appears to be: weird. Right now, the proposal calls for empty stands, of course, but also a ban on spitting (good luck with that) as well as high-fiving, fist bumps and hugging; no pregame exchange of lineup cards, no throwing the ball around after an out, everyone but the players on the field wearing masks, and those personnel not on the field exhibiting social distancing either in the dugout or the nearby stands. Fighting will be banned, coaches at first and third base are to stay away from baserunners and umpires, and fielders will be “encouraged to retreat several steps away from the baserunners.”

You can get a feel for many of those accommodations by staying up late to watch Korean Baseball Organization games on ESPN. It will definitely take some getting used to. But if that’s the biggest issue left to resolve in MLB 2020, the year that time forgot, bring it on.

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