Schedules, roster sizes and even the designated hitter rule will need to be negotiated with the players before Major League Baseball’s plans for a shortened 2020 season can be implemented. But those topics are minuscule compared to the two biggest issues to be settled: Safety and money.
Work began Tuesday on the first obstacle. The second still looms, with public pressure growing.
Commissioner Rob Manfred and Players Association executive director Tony Clark held their first meeting Tuesday to discuss MLB’s owner-approved proposal for starting the 2020 season in early July. The meeting, according to a USA Today report, focused almost entirely on how to keep players, umpires, coaches, staff members and their families from contracting the coronavirus, and the testing and other policies necessary to do so.
There were no reports of consensus reached, nor did Manfred present the owners’ ideas for salary reductions or a split of revenue once games, which almost certainly will not include paying customers in the stadiums, begin. But ahead of those delicate talks, a public relations battle began taking shape over player compensation, a debate in which the public nature of their high salaries, as opposed to the owners' less-publicized profits, make it difficult for players to win.
Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, for instance, made it clear he sides with ownership.
“I realize that players have the right to haggle over their salaries, but we do live in a moment where the people of Illinois and the people of the United States deserve to get their pastime back,” Pritzker said at a briefing for reporters about the coronavirus in his state. “… I must say I’m disappointed in many ways that players are holding out for these very, very high salaries and payments during a time when I think everybody is sacrificing.”
Players haven’t actually “held out” for their salaries, since MLB hasn’t actually made a new proposal yet, though Clark made it clear recently that he considers the issue to have been settled by an earlier agreement reached in March about delaying the season because of the pandemic. “Those negotiations are over,” he said.
And some players and ex-players, such as former Twins righthander Phil Hughes, have tried to explain the union’s position. “I know everyone wants baseball back this year,” Hughes tweeted Monday, “but players won’t be strong-armed into unsafe work conditions and unfair compensation.”
The players say they want MLB to abide by the March agreement to pay each player 1/162nd of his contracted salary for every game played, especially since the players will be putting themselves at risk by playing during a pandemic. The owners, alarmed by the prospect of huge revenue losses if fans aren’t allowed to attend games, want to implement a 50-50 split of all income with players this season, likely reducing paychecks even further.
Should an agreement on divvying up the money — which mostly comes from TV contracts — be worked out, the sport could proceed with preparations for the shortest season in MLB history.
But even as negotiations began Tuesday, it became clear how precarious those plans might be.
Several hour before Manfred and Clark’s afternoon meeting, Dr. Anthony Fauci cautioned a Senate committee against lifting limits on public gatherings too quickly, saying “the consequences could be really serious.” Baseball’s plans call for obtaining the blessing of public health officials such as Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, before proceeding.
If the many obstacles can be surmounted, MLB’s plans, which were approved by owners Monday, call for two or three weeks of training, either at spring camps or at regular-season parks, with Opening Day on or about July 4. Rosters would be expanded, probably to 30 players, with another 20-player “taxi squad” continuing to work out in Florida or Arizona in case players need to be replaced.
Teams would play games against only their own division and the corresponding division in the other league — in the Twins’ case, the AL Central and NL Central — to limit travel distances. If some teams were unable to play in their home stadiums because of anti-virus restrictions, they could relocate to spring training or neutral sites.
Games would be played without fans at first, with a potential, though gradual, return to normal as restrictions are lifted.
The playoffs would be expanded from 10 teams to 14; the top seed in each league would receive a first-round bye, while the other two division champions and four wild-card teams would play a best-of-three elimination round. The World Series would likely be pushed back to early November by such a scenario.