Finally, there will be baseball — as long as the players agree to two things.
No, there was no agreement between Major League Baseball and the players’ union, the union rejecting the league's latest proposal in a Monday vote. But after months of financial fighting between the two sides, commissioner Rob Manfred will use his power to implement a regular season, during which players will receive the full prorated salaries they agreed to in March, as long as the union assures players will report to a second round of spring training by July 1 and agree to the league's health and safety protocols.
As long as the players are on board with those two things — and let the league know about it by 5 p.m. Tuesday — the 2020 season will get underway.
The league did not announce Monday night how many regular-season games will be played or what date Opening Day will be. But USA Today’s Bob Nightengale and numerous others reported that it will be a 60-game season starting at the end of July.
MLB has decided to play a 60-game season if the union agrees to have their players report by July 1, and they agree on the safety and health protocols in their operating manual. MLB wants a decision by 5 p.m. Tuesday— Bob Nightengale (@BNightengale) June 23, 2020
At least one report indicated that the union is expected to meet those two criteria.
Based on conversations with a number of players, there is a strong expectation the MLBPA will vote yes on MLB's proposed July 1 report date, codify the health-and-safety protocol (with some slight tweaks) and lock in a 60-game season that begins around July 24, sources tell ESPN.— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) June 23, 2020
With no deal, many of the changes being discussed for this shortened campaign might not happen, chiefly the expanded postseason, which could have grown the playoff field to 16 teams, more than half the league, and brought in significant TV money. The universal designated hitter, new rules for extra innings and the allowance of advertisements on uniforms also can't go through without an agreement between the two sides. Similarly, both sides will still be able to file grievances against the other, potentially taking legal action in a labor war that seems to be growing uglier by the day.
The season is guaranteed to be one unlike any other that has come before it in baseball’s more than 150-year history. It will feature just two and a half months’ worth of regular-season games before yielding to the postseason, which will feature the usual 10-team field battling for the World Series during the month of October.
Baseball is insistent on wrapping the playoffs by the end of that month with fears of a second wave of coronavirus infections coming in the fall. Meanwhile, COVID-19 cases are on the rise right now in many states across the country, including 11 that are home to a total of 19 major league teams, nearly two thirds of the league.
Despite dire warnings in recent weeks that there might have been no season at all, even a small amount of games always seemed probable, with television contracts providing too much financial incentive to stage a season. Still, the fallout of the mostly ugly financial fight between the owners and the players will remain a talking point for years to come, with The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal recently providing a stark reminder why: “The collective-bargaining agreement expires on Dec. 1, 2021, and the continuing acrimony between the parties makes a lockout seem all but inevitable.”
So we have that to look forward to.
But for now, we have baseball, however little of it, and the biggest focus should now fall on the league’s ability to stage as safe a season as possible in the middle of an ongoing pandemic.
Those challenges have been thrust back into the spotlight after numerous teams saw players and staff members test positive for COVID-19 last week, prompting the league to close all spring training facilities. Every team — with the Toronto Blue Jays perhaps winding up an exception — will hold the second round of spring training at their home ballparks.
According to one report, 40 people in baseball tested positive for COVID-19 last week alone.
Numbers like that provide plenty to the argument that it might not be a good idea for an American pro sports league to start up again at all, unable to provide 100-percent safe conditions for its players, coaches and the myriad other workers required to play games. Last week, infectious-disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci suggested that baseball should consider not playing past September.
But the league will go ahead anyway and attempt to make it past that point in the calendar. How far they’ll get is unknown. There are hundreds of millions of dollars riding on the postseason being played to completion.
Certainly the league has taken the subject seriously, though, offering up detailed plans of how it will try to limit the spread of the virus, outlawing high fives, Gatorade coolers, spitting, mound visits and on-site showers in its initial health-and-safety proposal to the players some time ago. Undoubtedly, those will make for a very different looking game, and certain players voiced their opinions that some of those suggestions were too restrictive.
But even with all those ideas, red flags remain, particularly when it comes to the proposed testing strategy, which most alarmingly won’t yield results, in most cases, for 24 hours, does not require teammates of players who test positive to quarantine and does not strictly limit players’ movement in road cities.
One looming question is whether some players will opt not to play at all. The ability to opt out of the season because of concerns over the health risks involved was part of more than one proposal traded by the league and the union, and you wonder now, with the season limited to just 60 games, whether certain players will deem the health risks too great.
Many baseball-starved fans will surely welcome the sport back with open arms, regardless of format, but there will be some who question whether a 60-game season followed by playoffs is a legitimate way to crown a champion in a sport so often defined by its marathon status. After 60 games last season, the eventual-champion Washington Nationals were 27-33 and in fourth place in the NL East. They had a worse record than the 29-31 White Sox, who finished the season nearly 30 games out of first place in the AL Central.
Even a former world champ himself feared for the “bunch of crap” coming the way of whichever team wins it all at the end of an abbreviated campaign.
“I would hate to see somebody lift that World Series trophy up or lift the Stanley Cup up and there’s some eye-rolling going on. ‘This isn’t even legitimate or real,’” former White Sox first baseman Paul Konerko told Our Chuck Garfien on the White Sox Talk Podcast.
“If I was a player and had just won the World Series and then someone wins it the next year under a different set of circumstances, it’s kind of like they’re equal now, but are they?”
Of course, there’s a counter argument to be made, that this brief baseball sprint could provide a fascinating contrast to the typical marathon, one that is often criticized for having an at times glacial pace. It could bring a type of excitement baseball is often said to be searching for.
But regardless of the kind of entertainment the format provides, one certainty is that a vast number of unknown elements faces each and every team in the league. No front office constructed its 2020 roster for a 60-game season, and it’s difficult to predict which teams will benefit and which will suffer because of it.
The players, and particularly the starting pitchers, will have to figure out a way to get back into game shape three months removed from the abrupt end to spring training. It could make for a totally different approach to pitching, with an even greater reliance on bullpen usage than in recent years.
Players are regularly confident that “water finds its level” and that the peaks and valleys of a 162-game campaign balance out and end with a true representation of their performance. Throw that idea out the window. Instead, a two-month snapshot will be everything, whether that’s determining which teams reach the postseason or how players fare in the next round of free agency.
So after all this time, what do we know about the 2020 season?
We know it will be short.
Time to find out how sweet it will be.