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In an otherwise empty ballpark, grounds crew members continue to keep the Seattle Mariners’ field in playing shape. Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

 

Welcome back, golf! Hoorah! I see Justin Rose and Bryson DeChambeau on a leaderboard! But where the hell is baseball, devil take ’em?

Good ol’ golf – say hello to stellar ratings, and dream fields for PGA Tour events such as this week’s Charles Schwab Challenge. Colonial Country Club is now hosting 16 of the world’s top 20 players. Is first-round play on the Golf Channel – seven hours of it – now must-see TV?

These days, golf is an underrated game with fine phenoms, major champion stars and a last-act reincarnation of Tiger Woods, too. Golf isn’t going to become a major sport, but it spotted a chance for a good long glamorous close-up.

What sport, presented with such a juicy chance to gain ground on rivals would be so self-defeating and petty as to blow this opportunity?

What sport instead would set in motion the opposite dynamic, alienating its current fans by forcing them to listen to ancient greedy feuding?

Baseball. Yes, that was my first three guesses, too.

All I want for Father’s Day is a bat and some time with MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred, the 30 MLB owners, the top rockheads at the Players Union, the dozen richest agents, starting with Scott Boras and all 30 player-reps from every team.

Are all the medics ready in Concussion Protocol?

I wrote three months ago that MLB should be aiming for July 4. You get 15-games-a-day visibility before the NBA and NHL return, as well as a two-month jump on the NFL.

MLB would have exactly half-a-season: 81 games. No, it would not be a pretty thing. But it quickly would become a season fans would love. Why? The pandemic was no one’s fault, and look what a wild, wacky fun accommodation MLB made to it: A once-in-a-life sprint in which at least 20 teams – half of them flukes – could dream of making the World Series. As the Nationals can attest, once you’re rolling in October, crazy-wonderful things can happen.

To minimize plane travel, and as a great gimmick, MLB would have three leagues – East, West and Central – not the American and National. The Nats whole season could be against East Coast teams – Yanks, Red Sox and regional Orioles, as well as plenty of Phillies, Braves and Mets.

After a few days of moaning about “freakishness,” every sensible fan would say, “Let’s roll with this. Maybe it’s ‘never again.’ But, maybe, cool ’20 innovations will jazz up the sport’s future.”

All this can still happen if the dopes mentioned above act now. Virus willing, it could be a blast.

Right now, MLB should be inches, not miles, from an agreement, followed by about three weeks of spring training and Opening Day.

If it doesn’t happen, players will bear some, but not much, blame.

They now say they’ll accept an 89-game season with prorated pay – so everybody gets 55% of their original contract. And they’ll play, if necessary, until mid-November to finish the playoffs. With no fans, who cares if the World Series – or much of the postseason – is played at neutral sites with roofs or warm weather?

Now that players, who were asking for a ridiculous 114 prorated-pay games, are down to 89, why shouldn’t an 81-game season be reachable? Owners, that’s why.

Most businesses grasp that in a once-a-century pandemic everybody gets bloodied. You focus entirely on the long-term health of your industry – especially maintaining good relationships with customers – not on your unavoidable one-year loses.

Baseball owners, over the past century, have made a compound annual rate of return of about 12% (yes, I once figured it out) on their franchise investments when they finally sold their teams. That kind of tax-free compounding, over generations for a family such as the Lerners, is like striking an oil well that never runs dry.

That’s why the owners – the stewards of the game, holding the sport in multi-century trust for fans who love it and support it – have a duty to take the brunt of the financial hit from COVID-19. In the long run, the owners, as a group, are always the huge winners. The players just pass through and get what they can grab – some of them a fortune, but most far less.

In late March, both sides agreed on that pro-rated-pay formula in a short season. But MLB got to decide how many games would be played.

From negotiations to date, MLB seems to think its break-even point is somewhere around 60 to 65 games. After that, the more games with no fans the more the owners lose for each extra game, even after they factor back more money from selling additional playoff games to TV.

MLB’s position appears to be: We don’t want to lose money. The whole world is. But us, no. We want players to accept additional pay cuts below a prorated level (but we won’t show you our books). In contrast, we’ll take a $0.00 year, but not a share-the-pain loss.

As a threat, Manfred keeps reminding everyone that “there will be baseball in ’20,” because, under that March deal, MLB can impose a short season – maybe just 50 games, plus playoffs.

The owners are so self-protective, so oblivious to the good of the game, they even want to maximize their defenses against a second wave of the virus. Oh, we’ll play until the normal Oct. 31. But don’t talk to us about playing games in November because that would increase the chance of an erased World Series, lost TV money and losses for us.

Owners want the maximum financial margin of safety. As for health safety, the players, and other MLB personnel, take all of that risk.

Only an MLB owner could negotiate while forgetting that there should be some compensation for “maybe you could die.”

Owners have a right to wheedle every cent they can from players. But if MLB fails to provide a sane half-season, it’s mostly the owners’ fault.

Most fans, with far more important worries on their minds, will cry “a pox on both their wealthy houses.” That’s natural, but not accurate.

The players agreed to a good-faith deal in March when everyone right down to the Phillie Phanatic knew that games probably would be played without fans, if the sport returned.

If owners regain their sanity fast and settle on a wacky half-year, it’s cause for joy. Sure, it’ll be fun-house-mirror baseball. But it’ll be a kick.

And the next collective bargaining agreement, after 2021, when structural changes may be needed, won’t be negotiated amid a poisoned gloom.

However, if fans are stuck with an owner-imposed two-month joke season, then the kick will be to the head – of baseball. We’ll know whom to thank. The usual suspects: Owners, untrustworthy since 1868.

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