A Fourth of July flyover at Wrigley Field. That was the image that kept popping into Ian Happ’s head in the early stages of return-to-play negotiations between MLB and the players association.
“Its unfortunate we didn’t get there,” Happ, the Cubs MLBPA representative, said in an interview for Sports Talk Live on Wednesday. “Definitely it would have been great for our game, and it would have been a cool opportunity for us to grow the sport.”
Instead, players will report to a second round of Spring Training during Fourth of July week. On Tuesday, after over a month of tense negotiations, MLB set a schedule for the 2020 season. Opening Day is penciled in for July 23 or 24.
Of course, its expected that at least some players will choose to opt-out of the season. Players are being asked to assume the risks of returning to work during a pandemic while being paid prorated salaries. Those who are considered to be at-risk for serious illness from COVID-19 reportedly would still be paid for the season if they opt-out.
Happ declined to say whether he expected any of his teammates to opt-out, but he did say he expected the baseball community would support the decisions of any player who decided not to play this season.
“I think it’s so important to see the whole picture here,” Happ said, “and that this is our job and guys want to get back to playing, but at the same time, there’s a lot more that goes into it.”
USA Today’s Bob Nightengale reported that 40 MLB players and staff members tested positive for COVID-19 last week alone, raising concern about the feasibility of this season. MLB shut down its Spring Training sites in Arizona and Florida in response to the outbreak. But Happ said he thinks getting players to their home ball parks to begin training will be the “biggest hurdle” in containing the virus. He expects several players to test positive for COVID-19 as they arrive.
“Spring Training facilities, other places that guys were working out together, it was a lot different than what we’re talking about with these health protocols,” Happ said.
Once players report to training, they will be tested for COVID-19 every other day. Happ said they’ll also have to report how they’re feeling multiple times a day.
Once the season starts, Happ is still holding out hope that some of the agreements that were thrown out when the players voted “no” on the league’s last economic proposal will still be incorporated this year. He doesn’t expect that to include big changes, like expanded playoffs, but maybe some of the smaller items, like mic’d up segments during games, will be implemented.
Asked to reflect on the back-and-forth that brought MLB to this point, Happ pushed back on the perception of the negotiations as millionaires and billionaires haggling over money in the midst of a pandemic. According to FiveThirtyEight, 40.6 percent of players who accrued at lease one day of service last season, have accumulated less than $1 million in career earnings.
“We play with teammates who are under that threshold," Happ said. "We’re very fortunate to be playing a game for a living. We’re very fortunate to be in the positions we're at. But there’s a lot of guys that don’t get to play that long. … There’s plenty of stories out there about guys that played in the big leagues that are being supported now by the baseball community, by the baseball family. I think we as players need to do a better job getting that narrative out, really educating the fan base, understanding that, that isn’t what we’re talking about.”
More negotiations are on the horizon, with the current collective bargaining agreement set to expire after the 2021 season. So, where does the players and owners’ relationship stand now?
“I hope that we’ll be able to start working together in a better fashion,” Happ said. “I hope that we’ll be able to understand that growing the game together is the best way to move the sport forward, and it’s the best way to give our fans a great experience on a daily basis.”