MLB Treads Lightly Into 2021 With Normal Spring Training Subject to Change

Barry M. Bloom
·6 min read

As part of the virtual Winter Meetings earlier this month, Major League Baseball’s 30 managers took part in a Zoom call with the commissioner’s office that focused on the status of the 2021 season.

These are the most significant, but now somewhat tentative dates: Feb. 16, pitchers and catchers report to spring training camps in Florida and Arizona; Feb. 26, exhibition games begin; and April 1, the regular 162-game season is set to open.

The managers left the call with the sense they should at least prepare for that schedule.

“What I took out of the meeting was that we’re going to do everything we can to play 162 games,” said Miami Marlins skipper Don Mattingly, the Manager of the Year in the National League. “And that we’re moving forward on planning to have a normal spring training start and a normal April 1 start. Obviously there are circumstances that may not allow that.”

But had the managers been formally told to report to camps on Feb. 16?

“No, I haven’t been told anything like that, but I’m just taking it as business as usual,” said Torey Lovullo of the Arizona Diamondbacks.

“It was a pretty broad conversation, an update: ‘Here’s where we’re at,’” said Kevin Cash, of the defending American League champion Tampa Bay Rays. “We’re going to be revisiting things after the first of the year as we get more information on timing, scheduling, vaccines, those kind of issues.”

But Cash echoed Lovullo about the lack of a certain start date.

“No, I haven’t been told formally to be there and I wasn’t expecting to be,” he said.

The best thing that can be said about it all as the coronavirus-plagued year of 2020 limps to its inevitable finish is that everything is still very much up in the air for the 2021 MLB season.

There’s a faction of owners who don’t want to start again without at least some fans in the stands and players fully vaccinated. A May 15-June 1 start has been floated as coronavirus cases continue to soar across North America, with over 19 million cases and 335,000 deaths in the U.S. alone. Despite all that, the players, through their union, say they expect to adhere to the scheduled dates and their current labor agreement and play a 162-game season. Like this past season, they can play without being vaccinated.

Meetings are expected between MLB and the MLB Players Association to discuss all these matters. But as is always the case in baseball, don’t expect any resolution until the last minute. And that will be followed by collective bargaining on a new Basic Agreement to replace the one that expires on Dec. 1.

The players won’t strike under any circumstances, but may be locked out if they don’t have a new deal by that date.

MLB was able to open the agreement to shorten this past season when a national emergency was called on March 13. The players are confident that after playing a portion of the season under very difficult circumstances, the owners don’t have the legal grounds to use that clause in the unified players’ contract again.

To be sure, no one wants even a semblance of a repeat of this past 60-game abbreviated season, played without fans until the NL Championship Series and World Series at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Tex. And even then, attendance was capped at 11,500 of the 40,300 capacity in the new retractable-roof stadium.

MLB players were paid on a prorated basis and forfeited about 60% of their collective pay in 2020 as the owners professed to have lost as much as $3 billion. The playoff pool to be split among winners was about $50 million, as opposed to $81 million in 2019.

In that year, a full share for each member of the World Series-winning Washington Nationals was worth $382,358. The losing Houston Astros players and staff each took home a max of $256,030. The Dodgers won the 2020 World Series over the Rays in six games, but the share split between the two teams has yet to be announced.

Baseball reported 57 players testing positive for COVID-19 cases during the regular season, and one during the postseason—Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner late in Game 6 of the World Series. But six teams had to postpone at least one game because of the spread of the coronavirus, with the Marlins losing 18 players and three staff members at the same time while the St. Louis Cardinals were out 15 days of games.

It was no way to play a season, even though protocols improved while teams traveled within their respective regions during the regular season, and went into soft bubbles in Los Angeles, San Diego, Houston and Arlington for the postseason.

“It definitely wasn’t easy,” said Mattingly, whose reconstituted team came back and made the playoffs. “There definitely was some frustration with it after [a few of our players tested positive on July 26] in Philly. We didn’t leave hotels. You go to a new city and you’re just stuck in a hotel until you go to the ballpark. But I do think it does become habit-forming.

“You wake up, take your temperature and put it into your app. You get used to wearing the mask. You do it for the good of the game, for the safety of yourself, for the safety of all the people around you.”

A lot of this should be mitigated this year by the release of the COVID-19 vaccine to the general public. During the last few weeks, both NFL Players Association officials and NBA commissioner Adam Silver have said their players will not “jump the line” to have the vaccine administered before anyone else.

The NFL is in the process of completing its season and heading into the playoffs, 201 of its players and 359 other personnel having tested positive through Dec. 19, the date of the most recent data available. The NBA has just started and has already suffered postponement of at least one game because of positive COVID test results among the Houston Rockets.

The MLBPA has thus far declined to comment on vaccination, although the use of vaccines by big-league players on the 40-man rosters of each club must be collectively bargained under health and safety protocols. It’s purely speculation at this point when the vaccine will be made available to professional athletes.

“I mean, everything has to be negotiated through the Players Association,” said Oakland A’s manager Bob Melvin, a former MLB catcher who knows the system all too well. “MLB’s going to monitor how things go, how the vaccine goes, when you can start getting people in the stands, whether they have to push [the season] back or not.

“Everyone wants to get in 162 and everyone at this point is preparing for 162. I know the Players Association would like to play 162, but MLB is the entity that has to look at the different scenarios and determine how quickly we can get back.”

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