NEW YORK — Baseball’s owners and players are fighting again. Spring must be right around the corner.
Fans have spent the week (yes, even if it’s only Tuesday) reading the tea leaves and predicting whether or not the MLB season will start on time. As of now, pitchers and catchers are scheduled to report to spring training in Florida and Arizona in three weeks. The 2021 season is scheduled to begin with all 30 clubs playing on April 1.
If last year taught us anything, it’s that once the simmering feud between MLB and the Players Association reaches the public consciousness, it’s almost time for the season to start. The two sides tend to negotiate at the last possible moment and right now, teams are still unaware if there will be a universal DH in the 2021 season. The union shot down the league’s proposed tradeoff of the universal DH for expanded playoffs, but more on that later.
What’s ailing the players and MLB now is the dire COVID-19 situation at both league’s spring training sites. On Monday, the Cactus League and Arizona community leaders asked MLB to delay the start of spring training by about a month. The Cactus League has obtained data from the University of Washington’s Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation that projects a decline in infections by March. Six county mayors, as well as representatives from Phoenix, have suggested March or later would be a better time to invite thousands of baseball staff and personnel to its state.
Arizona ranks No. 1 in the United States for weekly coronavirus cases and death rates. Though Florida’s government leaders have not publicly voiced their concerns for starting spring training on time, public health experts say the virus is still out of control in the Sunshine State. In other words, COVID-19 patients continue to fill hospital rooms at very high levels.
The players union has pointed to other sports, including the NHL in Arizona, that are currently playing its seasons. The NHL’s Arizona Coyotes are hosting over 3,000 fans for home games in Glendale, while the NBA’s Phoenix Suns are playing without spectators. High school sports in the state are still operating, too. The union views the Cactus League — which officially has no jurisdiction over spring training starting on time — as an ally of MLB.
The league’s owners would benefit from a delayed season, especially since their gate-related revenue is once again expected to take a hit without fans packing stadiums at full capacity. MLB would prefer to save money by pushing the season back, which would once again trim the schedule from 162 games and cut player pay. If the season is delayed, the players union wants the schedule to stretch into November, so the number of games played can be as close to 162 as possible.
The country’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout, which should in theory help the proposition of putting butts in ballpark seats, is operating at a glacial pace. But once more people are vaccinated, which should at some point begin to include baseball personnel, it will be safer for the sport to conduct spring training and begin the season.
The sport is nowhere near settling on a number of games for the 2021 season. Instead, MLB recently proposed a tradeoff to the union that involved expanded playoffs for the universal DH. According to a report by The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal, the Players Association previously told the league that a 16-team expanded playoff structure, which they agreed to in 2020, is off the table. The union believes that format, when more than half the league gets into the postseason, will disincentivize teams from competing to the fullest. So, the union rejected the league’s proposed tradeoff and reportedly did not counter.
Last year, three months of failed economic negotiations between the owners and players resulted in MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred implementing a 60-game season with full prorated pay. The 16-team expanded playoff format was agreed to by both sides one day before the regular season began.
Though this year’s owner-player battle is nowhere near as contentious as it was in 2020 (not yet, at least), many factors remain up in the air. Most notably the sport, with three weeks to go, is largely unsure whether spring training and the regular season will start on time.