After the Major League Baseball Players Association rejected a proposal by MLB to delay the start of the season, the league said it would start spring training and the regular season as scheduled.
A day of brusque, back-and-forth discussions between the league and the union, sources said, wound up as almost everyone involved expected: with no deal to push back the season, and with the Feb. 17 spring training report date and April 1 Opening Day still intact.
MLB on Friday proposed a 154-game schedule that would pay the players for 162 games and pause their arrivals to camp until March 22 and the first games until April 28. The offer included expanding the playoffs from 10 to 14 teams and implementing the designated hitter in the National League. The union immediately balked, citing language in the proposal it believed would grant commissioner Rob Manfred more expansive powers to cancel games in the event of a potential COVID-19 outbreak.
For months, MLB, in discussions with the MLBPA, had broached the possibility of delaying the season. Not until Friday had it agreed to do so with full pay, which the union from the beginning had said was a must for any potential deal. The players were emboldened by the knowledge that the collective bargaining agreement mandates a 162-game season and that they would need to be incentivized to move back the season.
Lingering resentment from failed negotiations to begin the 2020 season colored the discussions — and could continue to do so as the parties negotiate a CBA that expires Dec. 1. While the rationale of the league was salient and shared by scores of people across the sport — that a delay would allow COVID-19 cases to recede in the Arizona hot spot where half the teams in the game train as well as across the country leading up to Opening Day — players questioned how much of a factor health and safety concerns were versus teams’ desire to play more games in a coronavirus-friendlier environment, allowing more fans in the stands and more money to be made.
The result was representative of the relationship between MLB and the MLBPA — one that teems with distrust and frustrates both parties but in this case is unlikely to cause any games to be missed.
What might not happen are expanded playoffs or the universal designated hitter. Also on the list of potential casualties: seven-inning doubleheaders, a runner starting on second base in extra innings and potentially using neutral sites for playoff games.
All of those issues could be revisited in the coming weeks as baseball sorts through the wreckage of a proposal that, it became abundantly clear on Monday, was doomed to fail from the start.
In Zoom calls, player leaders were strident in their belief that they should start the season as soon as possible, according to sources, citing not just a desire to play now but to avoid pitchers ramping down their arms before what many expect to be a taxing year in the wake of the shortened 2020 season. While multiple players told ESPN they believe a delay would be good for the sport — they fear that April is the likeliest month for potential outbreaks and cancellations because the COVID-19 vaccine won’t be as widely distributed as it would be in later months — leadership on the players’ side saw the proposal as uncompelling and was clear in its desire to reject it.
The question was whether the union would counter. In discussions between MLB and the MLBPA on Monday, the league offered to eliminate the language about Manfred’s powers to which the union objected, according to sources. MLB also suggested it was open to helping offset the cost of broken leases for spring training lodging, an issue that bothered players. Other issues, the league intimated, were open for negotiation, as well.
The union was unmoved. It believed the CBA provided all it wanted and did not make a counteroffer.
“We do not make this decision lightly,” the MLBPA said in a statement. “Players know first-hand the efforts that were required to complete the abbreviated 2020 season, and we appreciate that significant challenges lie ahead. We look forward to promptly finalizing enhanced health and safety protocols that will help players and clubs meet these challenges.”
Arizona continues to have the highest rates of COVID-19 cases in the United States, though the seven-day average has dropped from a peak of 10,391 on Jan. 9 to 4,890 on Monday. The NFL, NBA, NHL and NCAA all have continued to play through the worst days of the pandemic, and MLB last season weathered outbreaks on the Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals to finish a 60-game season and expanded postseason. Still, the concern of coronavirus variants causing issues during the season is palpable, and health officials suggested that MLB endeavor to delay it, if possible.
“Our 2020 season taught us that when the nation faces crisis, the national game is as important as ever, and there is nothing better than playing ball,” the league said in a statement. “We were able to complete a 2020 season through Herculean efforts and sacrifices made by our players, Club staff and MLB staff to protect one another. We will do so again, together, as we work towards playing another safe and entertaining season in 2021.”
How the fallout of the negotiations influences the ancillary issues remains to be seen. Star hitters Nelson Cruz and Marcell Ozuna remain free agents, and the lack of a universal DH almost certainly would push Cruz back to an American League team and hinder the market of Ozuna, who is seen as a defensive liability. After Manfred implemented the 60-game schedule in 2020, the sides agreed on the eve of the season to expand the playoffs — though the $50 million playoff pool was the impetus for players to agree. With full pay expected in 2021, sources said, they are likelier to hold onto expanded playoffs as a bargaining chip for CBA negotiations that are bound to be contentious.