The 2020 baseball season finally became a go on Tuesday night, its launch date scheduled for July 23 or 24, its payload unusually light at 60 games.
The announcement allowed Major League Baseball and the players to sweep their nasty labor battle under the rug and place the spotlight back on the sport. Now, COVID-19, which stopped spring training in the first place, is the only force that can scrub the season.
The owners and players needing further time to work out health and safety protocols delayed official word on the agreement, fitting for a topic that is sure to dominate the sport in the coming weeks as players reenter the workplace for the first time since mid-March.
Players who are high-risk can opt out of the season and still receive full pay and service time. Players such as superstars Mike Trout and Gerrit Cole, who have pregnant wives or live with other high-risk people, can also opt out and still receive full pay and service time.
In addition to the 10-day injured list, MLB will institute a special COVID-19 list of open-ended length for players who test positive, are known to be exposed to others who are positive, or are displaying symptoms.
The season will feature several new looks, distinguishing it beyond its historically late start and short duration. Extra innings will start with a base runner on second to avoid long games with such a tight schedule. Offense should see a bump with no more pitchers batting in the National League — the DH will be employed in both leagues. And teams will travel less by only playing teams from their 10-team region: the East (AL and NL East), Central (AL and NL Central), and West (AL and NL West). Forty games will be played within a team’s division, the other 20 interleague contests.
Teams will begin the season with 30 players, rather than the customary 25. After two weeks, the size of the roster will be trimmed to 28; two weeks later, it will be cut to 26.
There will be an Aug. 31 trade deadline, with Sept. 15 the deadline for players being on the roster to be eligible for the postseason.
The regular season is scheduled to end Sept. 27, with the current 10-team playoff format beginning soon thereafter.
“Major League Baseball is thrilled to announce that the 2020 season is on the horizon,” said commissioner Rob Manfred in a statement. “We have provided the Players Association with a schedule to play 60 games and are excited to provide our great fans with baseball again soon.”
The owners wanted to expand the revenue-rich playoffs to 16 teams, but the players did not agree, a labor-rooted disconnect repeated over and over during the pandemic-forced stoppage.
All remaining issues have been resolved and Players are reporting to training camps.— MLBPA Communications (@MLBPA_News) June 24, 2020
The journey from the March 12 shutdown of spring training featured nearly three months of mostly acrimonious negotiations, and ultimately those talks sputtered without a negotiated resolution.
That left it up to the owners and Manfred to unilaterally impose a schedule with the players getting their full prorated salaries — 37 percent of a full season if the 60 games can be completed.
The 2020 skirmish ended in a stalemate, which leaves the sides entrenched in previously held positions that do not bode well for avoiding a work stoppage before the 2022 season. The CBA expires after the 2021 season.
Two weeks after spring training shut down, the sides forged a March 26 agreement that laid out terms that were, for the most part, lived up to: Players were to be paid 100 percent of their prorated salaries, the commissioner had the right to implement a schedule, and best efforts would be made to play as many games as possible.
The harmony from that agreement was short-lasting once it became clear fans would not be attending games, shutting off an important revenue source. Owners pointed to a vaguely worded clause in the agreement that said the sides would discuss economic feasibility issues if ballparks kept fans out, but players never budged from the negotiated terms of full prorated pay.
Early optimism about a start by July 4 quickly dissipated and talks devolved into a series of rancorous e-mails and statements that laid bare the distrustful relationship between the sides, centered mainly around compensation.
Owners claimed they could not bear the burden of all the revenue losses of holding games without fans, but did not provide financial data players asked for to support those claims. The owners were unable to convince the players that they should move from their previously negotiated 100 percent prorated pay.
As negotiations carried on, players began to whisper that owners were dragging it out so that if they did move to full pro rata pay, the season would be short enough for the owners to avoid exceeding a suitable loss amount.
From the owners’ side, they felt the union was intransigent, unwilling to engage and negotiate in fair fashion.
The owners’ first three offers, of 82, 76, and 70 games, did not feature full prorated pay but instead asked players to accept further pay cuts.
The players, whose offers went from 114, to 89, to 70 games, never budged from their 100 percent pro rata pay stance.
The owners’ final offer of 60 games last week was their first to meet the 100 percent pro rata standard, and it came shortly after Manfred flew to Arizona to meet face to face with union head Tony Clark. Manfred and the owners believed they had the framework of a deal in place, but Clark and the union did not — they countered with a 70-game offer.
The difference in guaranteed salary from 60 to 70 games was approximately $260 million, or an average of $8.67 million more per team.
At 60 games, the owners will pay the players an estimated $1.5 billion in full prorated salaries.
The owners rejected 70 games and on Monday, the players rejected 60 games, setting up Tuesday’s decision for the commissioner to implement a schedule pending players’ sign-off on a July 1 spring training report date and health and safety protocols.
By not approving the owners’ final offer, the players retained the right to file a grievance that the owners negotiated in bad faith, pertaining to playing the longest schedule possible.
The flare-up of COVID-19 that forced the Phillies, then the Blue Jays, to shut down their spring training facilities last weekend injected COVID-19 back to the forefront of the labor talks. It led to MLB’s decision to shut down and deep-clean all the spring training facilities in Florida and Arizona and also decide that teams would resume spring training in their home ballparks.
That spring training period will now kick off July 1 — COVID-19 permitting.
Michael Silverman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.