MLB asked union about delaying 2021 season over COVID-19, playing with prorated salaries

After conferring with medical experts about the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines, Major League Baseball asked the players’ union if it would consider pushing the start of the 2021 season back by about a month, sources confirmed Tuesday, the informal request made two weeks ago and declined by the union.

The league has asserted it would use the coming weeks to consider the viability of opening spring training camps and the season on time, given the ongoing pandemic, the recent vaccine availability and the economic impact of potentially beginning another season without fans in ballparks. The phone call to the union was intended to start a conversation that is likely to continue as the country’s health landscape changes.

The union has been adamant that a full, 162-game season is not only achievable, but required under the terms of the current collective bargaining agreement. When the league proposed the season be delayed, the union asked if players would be paid for a full season. The answer was no, that they would be paid on a pro rata basis.

Five months after union chief Tony Clark, during contentious negotiations to start the 2020 season, demanded of the league, “Tell us when and where,” the union contends that this time it has its when and where: The third week of February, across spring training sites in Arizona and Florida, followed by April 1 opening day in 15 big-league ballparks.

ARLINGTON, TEXAS - OCTOBER 07: Commissioner of Baseball Rob Manfred attends Game Two of the National League Division Series between the San Diego Padres and the Los Angeles Dodgers at Globe Life Field on October 07, 2020 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Commissioner Rob Manfred and the owners have floated shortening the 2021 season. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

What appears to be coming, then, is a replay of the weeks leading to last summer’s opener, in which the owners and the players bickered over the money left over from the pandemic’s reckoning. No longer bound by the March agreement that gave owners leverage over when the 2020 season would start, how long it would last and how the players would be paid, the union insists its players will show up with their duffel bags on schedule. Their argument: They’ve already played a (shortened) season under strict health and safety protocols, therefore proving the viability of a 2021 season.

Health officials have told the league it would be best to wait until players and personnel could be vaccinated. The timing of that is vague, however, and could vary from state to state.

Union officials agree that league-wide vaccinations are preferable, of course. They also contend the season could start under the same protocols of the past regular season. Then, as the vaccines become more available, those protocols could be lightened or discarded.

Meantime, the league is left to fret over what the latest surge in cases means for its season, if and when the vaccine will slow that increase and how to manage a moving health — and economic — target. It had hoped that a month or so delay would allow the sport to avoid some hard-hit areas and buy time for the vaccine to gain traction. The union views this not as an uncertainty, or perhaps not an uncertainty that has not already been safeguarded against, but as a time to get back to work.

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