While the Players Association Takes Days Off, the Cubs Have None

You might recall that in the sacred baseball year of 2016, the Cubs played a stretch of 24 consecutive games without an off day from June 17 through July 10. After starting off promisingly with three wins over the Pirates, that span of games quickly devolved into that regular season’s biggest crisis point as the team proceeded to endure sweeps at the hands of the Cardinals and Mets, as well as a five-game losing streak just before the All-Star break.

The Cubs finished that stretch with a record of 9-15, causing the fanbase to declare that a team that would go on to win 103 games was obviously a gutless fraud that folded under pressure and couldn’t beat the good teams when it mattered most. They were, of course, proven correct in the end, as the American League team that finished with the best record that season was the Texas Rangers. And the 2016 Cubs recorded precisely zero postseason wins against them.

I assume there were so many emergency vehicles at the Cubs parade that November because it was being led by 25 chokers.

Anyway, the point of bringing this up is to illustrate what should be a pretty logical conclusion: even one of the greatest teams of all time could be reduced to Mike Quade-level futility because of an unrelenting schedule that removed even the concept of off days from the equation.

This current squad is not one of the greatest teams of all time. So it probably shouldn’t have come as a surprise when the stretch of 23 consecutive games the Cubs were playing in September turned decidedly less enjoyable in Milwaukee, as they were neither Native Algonquins nor Alice Cooper.

Yet as they slogged their way through the second half of a four-city road trip, their record stubbornly managed to remain the best in the National League. And most importantly, they could see the finish line in sight with a much needed day off on Thursday, September 13.

Until they found themselves in Washington at a time when our nation’s capital was going through what The Weather Channel could only describe as “Establishing Shot from Se7en”-levels of rain. (A film that–after the Saturday doubleheader–most of us needed to watch in order to cheer up.)

When that Sunday’s game was finally postponed after a record-setting 68-hour weather delay, the Cubs crept up to MLB’s Park Avenue offices and, with Crane Kenney decked out in full Dickensian-waif couture, meekly begged, “Please sir, may we keep our off day?” Given the schedule that the Cubs were already enduring, moving the game to an if necessary October 1 date seemed like an obvious call.

And MLB said no like it was a sensible blackout policy or a living wage for minor leaguers.

That meant that 23 games in 23 days had turned into an even more ghastly stretch where the Cubs spent 30 consecutive days showing up to the ballpark to prepare for a game and played 29 times within that same span. And even while typing that sentence out, I can already see the comments from the people who think calling into The Score at 4:30 AM is the best possible use of their time so let’s get this next part out of the way…

Yes, these guys are professional athletes with the best training in the world. Yes, they’re making millions of dollars. No, they’re not digging ditches for a living. All of these things are true and yet somehow, every Cubs player still remains a human being. If you prick them, they do bleed. (Which is what it would sound like if William Shakespeare wrote dialogue for Clint Hurdle.)

Despite all the great things big-league ballplayers have going for them, demanding that they show up to active and taxing work for 30 consecutive days without a break is going to adversely affect them both physically and mentally. Because that’s just how human anatomy works. 

Ernie Banks at his most ebullient still limited himself to “Let’s play two!” If MLB had asked him to play 28 more, his version of “Hey Hey, Holy Mackerel” would have sounded like it was arranged by Elliott Smith.

In the wake of MLB’s decision, Theo Epstein spoke out for his players. So did Joe Maddon. And as Anthony Rizzo professed, their support was noticed in the locker room as much as MLB’s indifference…

“At the end of the day, our front office, our owner, they have our back. We’re in a long stretch of games. There’s people in MLB … and they seem not to care at all.”

That was being overdramatic. If Rizzo wanted MLB to care, he should have shown up to Nationals Park in black shoes and a Venezuelan flag sleeve.

However, there was one organization that was conspicuous by their silence on this issue: the Major League Baseball Players Association. There was nary an official release to the media nor any public words in support of the Cubs’ players by MLBPA Executive Director Tony Clark.

To put it bluntly, their absence was glaring.

And there is a precedent for the union making its voice heard when a postponement resulted in a large block of consecutive games. For example, in early September of 2004, the Cubs had a full series in Miami washed out by Hurricane Frances. And because all three games needed to be rescheduled, this resulted in the team playing 29 games in the final 28 days of the season.

When MLB floated rescheduling scenarios on its official site, it included this passage:

“The Cubs and Marlins may also play on Sept. 20, which is an off day for both teams. However, that would require approval by the Players Association. The players’ contract allows them to play 20 consecutive days. If they played on Sept. 20, it would be 24 in a row.” 

So two things…

1. Do not under any circumstances google how that stretch of games from 2004 ended. If the weather in Washington was the establishing shot from Se7en, this was the baseball equivalent of “What’s in the box?!”

2. Hey, what was that again about requiring approval by the Players Association…?

Yes, it turns out that Article C, Section 12 of the Basic Agreement permits rescheduling a rained out game if “the rescheduling does not result in the home team playing more than twenty-four consecutive days without an open day.”

You can probably see how MLB would argue that rescheduling the Washington game was acceptable–the Cubs were not the home team and the Sunday rainout turned into their open day. However, given the schedule that resulted for the Cubs, those arguments at the very least should have been called out for the tickey-tackiest of technicalities that they were. And they could have even prompted talk of a grievance from the union to let the Cubs players know that they had their back.

Instead: crickets. In the span of 14 years, the MLB Players Association has gone from an active organization reminding the lords of baseball that players need to approve a drastic rescheduling plan to one that responds with nothing but silence. Which is acceptable if you’re playing the harp while your brother fakes an Italian accent or if you’re opening fire on Penn Jillette. Not if you’re negotiating with 30 billionaires who would love to return your working conditions to the 1930s.

(Which would be unfortunate on many levels. Because no one wants to see a Players’ Weekend jersey like “Ducky Wucky Báez.”)

Unfortunately, this silence is the kind of thing that happens when the union is the weakest it’s been since the 1960s. The most recent Basic Agreement has put the Players Association on unsteady ground. And because of that, MLB has been able to get away with forcing players to spend 30 consecutive days without a true day off and then pompously decreeing to Phil Rogers’ twitter that they “don’t know why the Cubs were complaining so much about the DC trip. See it as business as usual.”

The only thing keeping them from adding “Release the hounds” was that Phil was already at 280 characters.

It’s been a long fall from the days of Don Fehr and Gene Orza. While those two were notoriously difficult to negotiate with, it’s clear there have been drastic and unfortunate consequences to union leadership that’s been even the least bit conciliatory. And we’ve seen no better example of that than the past month of Cubs baseball. 

When a team president speaks more loudly on his players’ behalf than their union leader, something has gone wrong. And since Theo Epstein declared that he was “hoping for a common sense solution” from MLB, it looks like he’s finally found a drought that even he can’t conquer.

Lead photo courtesy @ARizz_44 on Instagram

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