Will MLB's season start on April 1 as scheduled? Well, COVID-19 is making it complicated

As of this day, in this hour, at this minute, major league baseball players will report in two months to spring training, play their first exhibition games a couple weeks later, then open the regular season April 1.

That’s the plan, just like regular school days, birthday dinners at the pizza joint and a couple beers with the fellas were the plan.

In the six weeks since the last of 30 teams fell through the finish line of the devil-child 2020 baseball season, the pandemic has deepened. But there’s a vaccine. Stay-at-home orders have returned. But there’s a new president. More people are getting sick and being hospitalized and health care workers are worn out. But other sports are soldiering on. Life will return to how we remember it. But not today.

The game, like all the games, offers a few moments away from it all, and still must fit into the confines of the day. While there seems no question there will be a 2021 baseball season, there is the matter of what it will look, sound and feel like within the confines of the 2021 summer. So, if it will be the familiar game, the 2020 game or something apart from both.

That we can’t know the answers to that — in mid-December, with rosters being crafted, financial losses being counted, bodies healing and tickets being sold — is a reflection of the times and a world that would be new if it weren’t already 9 months old.

Empty seats are seen in Busch Stadium before the start of an opening day baseball game for the St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates Friday, July 24, 2020, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
MLB's opening day is set for April 1, but as the pandemic rages, there are still many questions to answer. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

Will the 2021 baseball season start on time?

Surviving the 2020 season, the likes of which had not been experienced and would not be experienced again, is beginning to look like a leg stretch for the work ahead. Given this particular country has been consistent in undershooting the potency and range of the virus, that nine months later some among us still presume ourselves bulletproof, it is fair to assume the run-up to — and departure from — inoculation day will have its complications. That means the baseball season will, too, not because the owners will have to have their money or because the players will want a fair shake or because the relationship between the league and its players is a big vat of compost (all of which is pretty true), but because this is who we are and when we are and there’s no going back.

To begin with, the league has drafted a 162-game schedule and the players — after a 60-game season that came with prorated salaries — seem intent on playing every inch of it no matter the environment. The union believes the 2020 season proved it was possible to travel the country, gather in ballparks, play the games and keep players safe amidst a pandemic, a contention it made last spring during a particularly rough period of negotiations and even before it could be known if proposed health and safety protocols would be adequate. The league, too, is operating under the assumption that the schedule is the schedule and that a six-week spring training will precede it, but it also has an eye on all that threatens the thread or two of normal inside the giant ball of chaos.

It’s not that the league — the commissioner and owners, primarily — doesn’t believe a full spring, followed by a full regular season, followed by a full October is possible. It is, however, wary — or at least cognizant — of the health and economic landscapes and how they change by the headline, by the whims of this virus and its targets, by a turnover in administrations, and almost by the hour.

For example, will Arizona and Florida be safe and open for business-as-usual spring training gatherings? As of the second week of December, as many as 20 states had placed at least some restrictions on businesses. Two states — California and Ohio, where there are seven big-league teams — were operating under degrees of stay-at-home orders. Other states have curfews. Will the Toronto Blue Jays be able to return to Toronto?

Asked this week if he believed the Dodgers could play a game at their stadium under the current restrictions, a Dodgers official said, “No way.” In three months, those restrictions could be softer. Also, three months ago, California seemed to have a handle on the virus. So did a lot of states.

Members of the Los Angeles Dodgers stand during the national anthem before Game 7 of a baseball National League Championship Series Sunday, Oct. 18, 2020, in Arlington, Texas. Most of the seats of a new $1.2 billion, 40,518-capacity will be empty among the smallest crowd to view a World Series game in more than a century. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
Several rule changes from the 2020 season — the use of a universal DH and the expanded postseason format — are unresolved for 2021. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

‘A million unknowns’

General managers fret over whether there will be a designated hitter in the National League, a continuing conversation topic between the league and union. (The players prefer the universal DH and the league has asked in return for another year of expanded playoffs. The union’s stance is that more postseason teams could further dilute on- and off-field competition, as playoff contention would come cheaper than it generally does now.)

Also, how to handle pitchers who just came out of a decidedly unpredictable season — they ramped up through two spring trainings and threw at most 80 or so regular-season innings — and will enter what could be another unpredictable season. Most general managers surveyed said they had no alternative — today — but to assume a mid-February report date, six weeks of camp and the April 1 opener, and so are advising their pitchers as such. They assumed the same last season — for good reason — and the fragmented season led to an unprecedented number of pitcher injuries.

The league, in turn, frets over ballparks being lit or dark, over open ballparks having fans or not, and then the coming negotiations over how that affects player salaries, if at all. With empty ballparks, or a percentage of empty ballparks, or ballparks empty in April and gradually filling as the summer goes on and the vaccine takes hold, do owners agree to full salaries? Would the union settle for anything less? Could the season be delayed while that is sorted out? Then, where on the vaccine priority list are young, healthy athletes? Probably not high.

One league official counted, “A million unknowns.”

Everyone would love clarity, almost as much as they would love assurances that by mid-February, maybe by April 1, the country and the world would be perfect for baseball and its fans again. It probably won’t be. The clearest vision, in fact, is that the season starts — whenever it starts — under similar protocols and defenses as the last one ended, finishing a three-month slog that was especially hard on players either partially or fully bubbled against the virus.

Reached this week by telephone, three players who went end to end in 2020 agreed that an entire 162-game season and a postseason played under the same guidelines would be viable, if not preferred. A good part of the difficulty of 2020, they said, was the unknown, including the loss of career-long routines. They found new ways. In fact, they said, they discovered new routines that suited them just fine. All three cited concerns about time away from their families and the need for greater inclusion of families within the protocols.

And all three would play without hesitation.

Said one, “It’s not ideal. But what’s the alternative?”

It’s the sentiment that brings us back to the top. There is a schedule. There is a preference all around to play that schedule. A lot can — will — happen between now and then. But that’s a plan. Just like the others.

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