Caution and distrust go hand in hand as MLB negotiates a new season

By James Wagner

The 2020 Major League Baseball season began on July 23, a day in which there were just over 70,000 new coronavirus cases reported in the United States. On Friday, when MLB presented a proposal to the players union to push back the start of the 2021 season by roughly a month — and shave eight games off each team’s schedule — more than 165,000 new cases were reported.

Now, amid deep uncertainty about how and when the pandemic might be contained, the league and players are working on plans for the 2021 season — one that without modification would begin on April 1 with a full 162-game schedule and normal travel plans.

On Monday, after having considered the league’s proposal for a 154-game season, the players union issued a statement saying that it would not accept the proposal and would “instead continue preparations for an on-time start to the 2021 season.”

MLB responded with its own statement, saying the league’s offer “reflected the best interests of everyone involved in the sport.” In light of the union’s rejection, however, the league said “we are moving forward and instructing our Clubs to report for an on-time start” to spring training and the season — “subject to reaching an agreement on health and safety protocols.”

There are serious concerns about organizing the next season. Staging last year’s shortened, 60-game regular season proved daunting: It included two early virus outbreaks that threatened to derail the plan, a tightening of the health and safety protocols and the creation of bubblelike conditions that allowed the postseason to go off without a hitch — until the final day.

Recently, MLB, its team owners and some government officials in Arizona — where several spring training camps are based — have expressed concern about moving forward amid the current infection rates and the halting rollout of vaccinations.

All of this comes against a backdrop of disputed economics and fragile labor relations in baseball.

The league and players — whose collective bargaining agreement expires Dec. 1 — are increasingly mistrustful of each other, particularly after bitter monthslong negotiations last year led MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred to impose a shortening of the season when an agreement couldn’t be reached.

As a result of Manfred’s decree, players were paid at a prorated rate, only 37% of their 2020 salaries. But MLB also claims to have lost money: Manfred has said MLB’s 30 clubs took on more debt and sustained about $3 billion in operating losses last year. Fans were not allowed into stadiums until the neutral-site National League Championship Series and World Series were held in Arlington, Texas. The players union, which has long questioned some teams’ commitment to spending and winning, has challenged some of MLB’s financial claims.

So when MLB proposed subtracting a few games, compressing the schedule, installing a universal designated hitter, expanding the playoffs to 14 teams from 10, and pushing the World Series into early November, players were once again skeptical.

That skepticism led to Monday’s decision to reject the proposal.

The wheels for the season, though, were already in motion. Spring training is expected to start in two weeks. Pitchers have begun ramping up for the season. Some players are already at their spring training sites in Arizona and Florida, and clubs have been told by MLB to proceed as originally scheduled, although several final details — like health and safety protocols — haven’t been finalized.

“That’s certainly created a little bit more of a challenge than you would normally have,” New York Yankees manager Aaron Boone said on a video conference Friday. “Obviously the number of players, what protocols are or not going to be in place, how does that affect things, getting guys into camp and what are the quarantine rules — those are all things that we’re working through and being finalized. But I also feel like we’re very much in a position to be ready to roll right now. As late as yesterday, we’re told we’re on time still.”

That is still the case. MLB cannot unilaterally decide to delay spring training or the season, hence the need to negotiate with players.

Owners would also like to open games to fans, whose spending at stadiums, according to the league, makes up nearly 40% of its revenue.

MLB players, for their part, believe staging a season during a pandemic is possible, especially after going nearly two months late last season without a known case. The NFL’s ability to complete every scheduled game this season — albeit with some complications due to positive tests — is a sign that operations do not have to halt even amid outbreaks, as is the progression of the NBA season despite the need to postpone numerous games for precautionary reasons.

MLB’s proposal had called for players to receive their full 162-game pay if they played all 154 games, said people familiar with the negotiations who weren’t authorized to speak publicly because no announcements had been made.

The offer also codified Manfred’s rights to cancel or suspend games based on certain conditions, such as government or travel restrictions, or if he, after consulting with medical experts and the union, believed that staging games would pose an “unreasonable” health and safety risk.

Players indicated concern that this could have led to fewer than 154 games, and that a compressed schedule with fewer days off could complicate making up contests postponed because of virus cases. But last year, even with similar powers given to him by a March agreement between the sides, Manfred didn’t suspend the season, despite outbreaks on the St. Louis Cardinals and the Miami Marlins. All but two teams — Detroit and St. Louis — played 60 games, using seven-inning doubleheaders to squeeze in some of them. The new practice was generally well received.

The union, which had already rejected expanding the playoffs, believed it deserved more than the playoff money pool that MLB offered Friday. It also feared that allowing more teams into the postseason would cheapen the regular season, de-emphasizing winning. Rosters, though, are mostly set, and the majority of top free agents have already signed with teams.

Last year, MLB pushed to have the lucrative postseason wrapped up by the end of October to avoid another wave of coronavirus infections and a cluttered television sports schedule in November. Pushing back the 2021 playoffs, even a week into early November, would need approval from the networks that pay MLB for the right to broadcast its games.

A deal could still be reached. Even though team owners and players never reached agreement on a schedule for the 2020 season, they agreed on opening day to a 16-team expanded postseason, which allowed them to tap into more broadcast revenue. In order to do that again, though, the sides would need to find increasingly fleeting common ground.

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