Major League Baseball could return to Target Field as early as July 4th under a proposal for a shortened 2020 season that the sport’s 30 team owners endorsed Monday.
Baseball officials were lobbying governors across the country, hoping to become the first major American team sport to return to play amid the pandemic.
But getting the governors, public health officials, MLB employees — and especially players — to go along with the plan is far from guaranteed.
Still, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred took the first concrete steps toward Opening Day 2020 on Monday by securing the support of ownership, including Twins owner Jim Pohlad, for the sport’s intentions to play ball less than two months from now.
And in the evening, Pohlad and Manfred briefed Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz on those intentions, which envision the Twins beginning their COVID-delayed defense of their American League Central championship in an empty Target Field once Walz lifts the state’s stay-at-home orders and gives the go-ahead.
“The commissioner presented the governor with Major League Baseball’s plan for a safe reopening,” a person familiar with the call said. “The governor appreciated the information and told the commissioner that he looked forward to the time when professional baseball could again be played safely.”
Pohlad was not available for comment.
On Tuesday, Manfred will begin what could be contentious negotiations with the Major League Baseball Players Association, which has already publicly stated its concerns about safety during the worldwide pandemic, and its opposition to any significant reductions in players’ per-game play.
The proposal, agreed to on a leaguewide ownership conference call according to an Associated Press report, envisions a resumption of training camp in mid-June, followed by a regular season of about 80 games, roughly half the usual 162, played in teams’ home parks, and then an expanded playoff tournament in October.
At least initially, games would be played for a television audience but with no fans in the stands.
Teams would use rosters expanded to 30 players, face only teams in their own division and the corresponding geographic division from the other league, and adopt the designated hitter even in National League games.
That’s if everyone agrees, and if all goes smoothly.
Now comes the hard part.
The blueprint, according to a major league source, includes several contingencies that would give MLB flexibility, including the ability to move games to spring-training camps or neutral sites if necessary.
Coronavirus testing of players, coaches, staff, security, and TV and media members would be required, and the league apparently plans to develop protocols for dealing with positive tests.
It would be put into effect only if federal and state health and government officials give their blessing, which is why Manfred requested Monday’s preliminary call with Walz, one of several governors he has reached out to this month.
Still, several players have expressed reservations about the potential to spread the virus to teammates and family members, and Washington Nationals relief pitcher Sean Doolittle took to Twitter to reiterate that emphasis.
“Bear with me, but it feels like we’ve zoomed past the most important aspect of any MLB restart plan: health protections for players, families, staff, stadium workers and the workforce it would require to resume a season,” Doolittle wrote Monday. “What’s the plan to ethically acquire enough tests? What’s the protocol if a player, staff member or worker contracts the virus? We want to play. And we want everyone to stay safe.”
Money looms as an even bigger issue. Big-league players, who earned an estimated $4.7 billion collectively in salary and benefits last year, agreed to accept prorated pay for 2020, 1/162nd of their salaries for every game played, in exchange for a series of other financial concessions during negotiations in March. They also agreed “to discuss in good faith the economic feasibility of playing games in the absence of spectators,” a clause that each side interprets differently.
The players union says it means they will discuss whether it makes sense to play games in empty stadiums, not how much players will be paid. “That negotiation is over,” union president Tony Clark said last month.
But owners, insisting that the loss of ticket, concessions and parking revenue ensure they will absorb huge losses if games are played without fans — a position the players say is untrue, thanks to television rights money — have proposed limiting salaries to 50% of all revenue this season, according to the AP.
If the impasse over compensating the players isn’t resolved, it could cause MLB owners, who took in a collective $10.7 billion in TV, sponsorship and ticket revenue last year, to reconsider whether to play this season at all.
While those delicate negotiations proceed, Major League Baseball is continuing to take the lead among sports leagues in preparing to resume under new pandemic protocols.
There can be no bans on mass gatherings in major league cities, something that is not the case now in most places, and no travel restrictions, a consideration that, under current border requirements, might force the Toronto Blue Jays to relocate temporarily to a non-Canadian home.
Spring training camps closed on March 12, and it has not been determined whether to return to those Florida and Arizona locations to prepare for a 2020 season or whether to simply train in home parks. Florida-based teams such as the Twins might choose to return to their roomier spring quarters, while some Arizona-based teams are reportedly reluctant to train in the midsummer desert heat.
The geographical part of the schedule means the Twins would play games only against teams from their division, the AL Central, as well as teams from the NL Central.
Weather would be a concern in the postseason, especially if both sides agree to expand the playoffs from 10 teams to 14, as envisioned in MLB’s proposal.
The team with the best record in each league would receive a bye while the other six playoff teams face off in a best-of-three series.
Staff writer Stephen Montemayor contributed to this report.