It has not been a good year for Major League Baseball. To be fair, it has not been a good year for human civilization in general, but even before the coronavirus crisis and the fallout from the George Floyd incident, baseball was having a rough year. Now it seems trivial, but earlier this year the biggest issue facing baseball was arguably that they’d let a team that was running the biggest sign-stealing operation in decades off with a relative slap on the wrist.
Remember that? Those were, amazingly, now the good old days. Now? Well, because of the usual toxic mix that comes with billionaires and millionaires fighting over money, there’s a chance that no season will take place, or will be replaced by some sort of 48-game glorified miniseason.
(An aside: Why is it that inevitably the players get blamed? The owners have way more money and usually are far more ruthless and cruel in these negotiations than the players.)
While we cannot guess whether a 48-game season would be considered a “better than nothing” hunger-crop meal enough to satisfy the public, a full-on cancellation would be the biggest blow to baseball’s intangible stature since at least the 1994 strike and possibly even the 1919 Black Sox scandal. Given that baseball’s current intangible stature in much of the country outside of the die-hard fans can best be described as “Present-day episodes of The Simpsons where plenty of people still watch and even more are glad they are on but not as many people tune in unless if something big or unusual happens,” that would be… bad.
Oh, and unlike those previous apocalypses (apocalypsii?), there is no Babe Ruth, Cal Ripken or 1998 HR race walking through that door to save the day.
Now, there is an argument still to be made that it is not as bleak as it looks. As labor lawyer and Baseball Prospectus contributor Eugene Freedman notes on his Twitter feed, labor negotiations are an entirely different beast from the negotiations (player contracts, trades, etc.) that sportswriters have to usually cover, and so the framing often is prone to hyperbolic statements and leaked comments that make it seem far more hopeless than it actually is. There is some truth to this: I can vaguely remember 2002, where it looked like a work-stoppage was all-but-guaranteed. Similar to now, there were comments about how poorly baseball would look by stopping play in a national crisis (in that case the early years of the War on Terror), and yet it seemed both sides seemed headed towards a cliff. Yet, at the last minute, a deal was struck, peace was ensured, and the games went on. It is entirely possible such an occurrence will repeat in 2020.
Except, of course, there is another lingering issue: the current collective bargaining agreement expires after 2021, so even if everything comes out of this current crisis hunky-dory, we get to do this all over again at the end of next season.
So, what does this all mean? It means, oddly enough, that we’re going to see more Major League Baseball, because it makes expansion inevitable. It may be in a previous MLB city like Montreal, or a new one like Portland or Charlotte. It could even be in a new country entirely like Monterrey, Mexico. Regardless of where the new teams go or what form the divisions move to as a result of it, though, it will happen. Here’s why:
- Immediate money. Of course! History has shown in the past that one of the easiest ways for baseball owners to get some quick cash is to expand. It’s also one of the quickest way for the union to make money, as more teams means more roster spots and thus more union members. It’s not a new phenomena. The 1993 expansion that brought in the Marlins and Rockies was partly a way for the owners to raise money to pay collusion debt. Although the 1997 expansion wasn’t directly a result of trying to recoup money from the ’94 strike and the after-effects (the expansion committee had been formed before the ’94 season even began), it certainly didn’t hurt. Even most of the earlier expansions had roots that weren’t so much benevolence as business interest: the first expansions that brought in teams like the Angels, Senators (now Rangers), Mets and Colt .45s (now Astros) were done as a way to head-off threats to create a third major league.
- Minor Leagues. The other big pre-coronavirus crisis that baseball was facing was the plan to contract the minor leagues. The coronavirus essentially knocked out the political and financial leverage that MiLB had to effectively fight it, and it is now all-but-inevitable. Major League Baseball expansion, however, would also mean minor league expansion, which MLB could use as a public relations olive-branch to ensure that some of the places that lose their MiLB teams will only be without affiliated baseball for a few years.
- Increased attendance/revenue. More teams means more games which means more fans means more revenue. Duh. Given that MLB will definitely see a drop in attendance in the coming years both because of the uncertainty of when/if a coronavirus vaccine will be available as well as disgust from this whole mess, the increase that would come from expansion would be in the owners and players interest.
- Public relations in general. Oh, there was less baseball? Now there’s more baseball, and in more cities that MLB had previously.
Now, perhaps everything ends up alright. Even then, though, the fact is that MLB has lost a lot of revenue this year, and the owners will want to make it all up.
In other words: expansion is coming. Expect it.