Coronavirus Shines a Light

Though no longer a baseball aficionado, I’m a big fan of newspaper sportswriters. The best of them don’t lack for point of view, attitude, and craft, as though they’re the noirish ghosts of another time–cynical, crusty, yet perennially hopeful despite themselves. One is Mark Kizla of the Denver Post, whose May 13, 2020 column is entitled, “Can MLB Survive Greedy Players, Owners?”

The coronavirus is shining a light on us all, not just professional sports. Painfully out there for all to see are society’s crunch points. Its fault lines. Our hierarchy of values. Through it all, Major League Baseball (MLB) owners and players, and even a few fans say the show must go on, epidemiological inconveniences notwithstanding. In that argument, MLB is a metaphor of America writ large.

“Whether we see baseball in these strange times will be as much about the Benjamins as safety concerns regarding COVID-19,” Kizla writes. I loved that line. As it does in a poem, a good line says so much. “Wouldn’t it be just like America if what kills the baseball season is the same dysfunction we’ve seen COVID-19 bring out in the rest of us? While the death count mounts, so does finger-pointing and name calling about the value of money and freedom versus health safety…,” he continues, noting that MLB gets 40 percent of its revenues from ticket sales, concessions, and related gate income.

That dough comes from us–the hoi polloi. Inside the pre-game ballpark, hot dog concessionaires and beer vendors and  maintenance people scurry into action. Outside, excited fans are shoulder-to-shoulder in the clanky bars and cafes staffed with harried servers. With the coronavirus stepping up to the plate, though, strike three. Fans and service people go on the DL, many of them filing for unemployment benefits.

National unemployment could hit 25-30 percent, but some middle-reliever or backup infielder you never heard of will collect his $5 million or so salary.

Unlike Kizla, I don’t blame the players and owners and call out their greed. Maybe they are greedy–what do I know? I doubt they’re much different than the rest of us. They’ve placed themselves into the professional sports machinery society created, and they do what they do. Maybe they’re holding a better hand than most, but it’s the one they were dealt.

According to the website marketwatch.com, the average MLB player salary is a shade under $4.1 million. The highest paid, pitcher Mike Trout, bagged $396 million in 2019. It’s more than a teacher makes. It’s more than a cop or a nurse makes. And it’s way more than a service worker makes. A worker–any worker–performs labor whose worth society collectively ascribes to that job, but when it’s all laid bare, what is a worker’s value? Does the worth we’ve ascribed to MLB players reflect their value to society?

What happens when the season is ready to get underway and nobody comes? Nichts. Nada. When the taken-for-granted fans and the low- to medium-paid don’t show up, the whole creaky engine grinds to a halt. The unimaginable media payouts, the gargantuan salaries, the engorged team balance sheets, and the ESPN froth all stop faster than a kid in socks hitting a patch of spilled honey while gliding across a hardwood floor.

Pro baseball needs more than the highest paid–athletes and owners–to function. Similarly, America has belatedly realized the value of grocery store and health care and delivery workers and how their worth does not at all correlate with the value we’ve given them. The term “income inequality” had been something of an abstract concept, but with the klieg lights of COVID-19 illuminating the 99 percent, everyone gets it.

For some time, corporate America has referred to low-level employees as “team members,” a transparent attempt to spit shine their image while refusing to pay them more. When the threat of COVID-19 lessens, perhaps our society will appreciate which team members provide the greatest value and which ones don’t, and adjust their compensation accordingly.

Never let a crisis go to waste, right?

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