Major League Baseball, union at odds on whether start of 2021 season should be delayed
Major League Baseball executives and owners, wanting players to be vaccinated before arriving to spring training, would like the 2021 season to be delayed until May, even if it means shortening the season to 140 or fewer games.
The Major League Baseball Players Association, believing it proved a year ago that teams can safely adapt to protocols, wants the season to start on time, playing all 162 games with full pay.
And here we are, with just two months before pitchers and catchers are scheduled to report for spring training, and no one has any idea what will happen.
COVID-19 cases are raging across the country this winter, but the vaccine is starting to be distributed, giving hope that by mid-summer, most everyone will have access to the immunization.
Yet, the issue that could further erode the trust between the two groups is whether owners take the stance that the season should be delayed until every player and staff member gets the vaccine.
"I don’t see a snowball’s chance in hell that spring training can start with protocols in place,’’ a National League owner told USA TODAY Sports on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the issue. “I think there will be significant pressure for players to get the vaccine first before they go to spring training, and if that has to be moved back to April and play 130 games, so be it.
“But to have 162 games, and start spring training at the normal time without players being vaccinated, that’s just crazy.
“Does Arizona and Florida, with their cases spiking, really want teams with about 125 people in each organization coming to town without vaccines?’’
Said an American League owner who also requested anonymity: “I don’t see any way spring training starts in February. Zero chance of that. I don’t care if we play 140 games, 120 games or 80 games, we have to make sure everyone is safe to do this right.’’
Yet, with every day lost on the schedule, players will lose about $25 million in salaries. A year ago, in a 60-game season that started July 23, they were paid just 33% of their salaries. The union doesn’t have the appetite for another pay cut, saying it proved last year they can abide by the safety protocols.
“Knowing what I know about last season,’’ Arizona Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo said, “I feel that the 2021 season can be played in full. I’m hopeful for that. I’m just proud of everyone in the industry, from top to bottom, made that adjustment and made it work. We got to the finish line, there was a world champion for the 2020 season.
“I want us to explore the best possible options to play a full schedule and spring training.’’
Still, while the season may have been completed just in the nick of time, with Los Angeles Dodgers star Justin Turner testing positive for COVID-19 during the final game of the World Series, there were also $3 billion in losses by clubs, according to Commissioner Rob Manfred.
No fans were permitted in ballparks until the National League Championship Series in Arlington, Texas. They allowed about 11,500 fans for the NLCS and the World Series.
It’s unknown when fans will be permitted into stadiums in 2021, or how limited the restrictions will be in different municipalities. No team is even selling spring-training tickets.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said that stadiums likely won’t be able to sell tickets without restrictions at sporting events until the end of the summer when most fans get vaccinated.
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There have been no polls or surveys among players whether they are willing to delay the season until they are vaccinated. Yet, just like this past season when players forfeited their salaries and opted out of playing, there are those who may want to be cautious to protect their families.
“I would love for everyone in MLB to be able to get the vaccine for sure,’’ said Los Angeles Dodgers starter David Price, who opted out of playing last season. “If that means starting later, then so be it. Hearing everyone talk about how taxing all of that was last year just to play, isn’t something I think everyone wants to go through again.’’
The ideal scenario, several players say, would be to delay the season for everyone to be vaccinated, but to extend it a month where a full season can be played with everyone still receiving their full salary. Yet, owners call it unrealistic to play a World Series in late November or December, and that it would still result in massive revenue losses for teams with restricted or no fans.
MLB and the union have begun negotiations in an attempt to resolve their differences over issues in the game, but not over the season length. MLB simply can’t shorten the 2021 season without approval by the union and union officials have told their players to assume there will be a 162-game season and show up on the scheduled time in spring training.
If they continue to disagree on the season’s length, it’s unknown whether MLB has the stomach for another labor dispute in the final year of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, which expires Dec. 1, 2021.
The two sides still have been unable to agree on whether there will be a universal designated hitter in 2021 as they had this past season. MLB has agreed to implement the DH, but in return, is seeking an expanded postseason from 10 teams in the past to 14 teams. The union rejected the proposal believing the expanded postseason is much more valuable than simply having a DH.
It’s still highly likely the DH will be in the National League again in 2021, but without that certainty, MLB has notified teams they should not necessarily count on it.
Meanwhile, the baseball world waits. Players are hesitant to place deposits for spring training housing unknowing whether they’ll be reporting in mid-February or six weeks later. The outcome could be removed from baseball’s hands entirely if the governments in Arizona and Florida place restrictions, just like in California with Santa Clara County banning all contact sports, forcing the San Francisco 49ers away from Levi’s Stadium.
“We just have to see after the first of the year,’’ Houston Astros manager Dusty Baker said. “We don’t even know when we’re going to spring training. We don’t know whether we play 162, or 140.
“There’s a lot of stuff up in the air with the COVID situation.
“We’re just going to have to wait and see like everyone else.’’
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