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Exclusive: Max Scherzer on baseball’s stoppage, its limbo, and what is important when it restarts

Exclusive: Max Scherzer on baseball’s stoppage, its limbo, and what is important when it restarts

Max Scherzer’s days at his rented home in West Palm Beach consist of maintenance and Moana.

He arrives there Jan. 1 because Christmas is behind him and the time for baseball is approaching. It’s also warm. So, there’s that. By the end of March, he’s gone, into another year of the non-stop season.

But this time, he’s still there on March 31 instead of in Miami making what would have been his second start of the season. Scherzer works out in the morning with weights and bands he gathered before FITTEAM Ballpark of the Palm Beaches was shuttered and converted to a coronavirus testing site. He has a throwing partner, and works off a mound a couple times a week, throwing 40 to 50 pitches in each session. He’s trying to convince his brain it’s December, again, not March.

Scherzer is with his wife, Erica, and their two daughters. The youngsters know dad is home a lot. That’s about it. They also know they want to see Moana, and a child’s demands are uninfluenced by the altered universe outside or their father’s Hall of Fame prospects. It’s one of the few normalcies.

In between the Disney watching and workouts, Scherzer, a member of the eight-player MLBPA executive subcommittee, was part of the group trying to work a deal between the Major League Baseball Players Association and the league. Baseball has never gone through this kind of stoppage before. So, there was no blueprint. And, the two sides have not been operating gleefully the last two years when public animus between the groups was high. However, in this pressing crisis, something needed to be done swiftly and with singular focus. Everyone knew baseball needed a deal.

“That was a pretty stressful 10 days there,” Scherzer told NBC Sports Washington in a phone interview Tuesday. “Both sides were motivated to get a deal done. We knew we needed to come together and do something about it. Getting down in that rabbit hole, really had to go through some phone calls to understand all the moving pieces that had to be addressed. There were so many different players that were affected in so many different ways. Really tried to come up with what everybody wanted and what we could obviously kind of bargain for to be able to get the best deal possible.

“Service time was very important to every player. That’s just the lifeblood of this CBA and what the players need. We really wanted that backstop no matter what happened -- whatever is going to happen during this year -- to make sure every player is going to be able to get service time. Once that piece kind of got in place, and we agreed to prorate salaries, everything else kind of started to fall into place.”

The reported framework for moving forward was born out of those discussions. Safety is first, and will continue to be, as the sides try to determine when the season should begin. Maximizing the number of games is a huge priority. Flexibility is also paramount.

Players and organizations map out the offseason based on report dates and the first game of the regular season. When those are known, everyone works backward. Projecting forward is key once the season begins. Neither can be accomplished without a start date.

Commissioner Rob Manfred recently said an optimistic view would target mid-May as a time to ramp things back up. Scherzer backed that idea, saying a target date to start games would be June 1. Three weeks of spring training prior would be necessary. However, Scherzer emphasized nothing is firm.

“Even then, we don’t even know if that’s even going to be possible [to return to facilities],” Scherzer said. “There’s absolutely nothing written in stone. No one can truly forecast what’s going to happen in this pandemic. It’s just trying to give a loose forecast of what we anticipate we could have happen. For us, everybody's just following what the CDC is going to recommend.”

Let’s use June 1 as a hypothetical marker -- again with the reminder this is not being suggested as a concrete date -- when considering what could come from the 2020 schedule. How can the schedule be massaged after two-plus lost months in order to deliver the maximum number of games? What would cold-weather playoff solutions look like? What’s the necessary amount of regular-season work to have a legitimate season?

Those are among the slew of questions after an opening date is settled on.

“I think everything’s absolutely on the table of what we want to be able to do to get the most amount of games in, and I think that includes playing through October,” Scherzer said. “And just finding any which way we can to get in as many games as possible to have it reflective [of a full] season, so that when we do have the playoffs, when we have a World Series champion, whoever wins the World Series this year is going to earn it.

“I think you can go down a few [total] games and get into the playoffs because whoever is going to win these games -- because that means as a team you’ve been staying ready. You’ve been preparing without a date and trying to fight your way to be able to get this. For me, whoever ends up getting into the playoffs and wins the whole World Series, you’ve earned it because everybody is in the exact same situation right now not knowing when we’re going to play, how many games we’re going to play. Everybody is handling this of their own accord. Whoever navigates this crisis the best, gets to be the champs.”

One thing Scherzer is convinced of: November postseason baseball, should it exist, would have to be at neutral sites that could all but guarantee a proper environment to play in.

“The teams in the north, once you get into November, the weather can be too cruel for baseball,” Scherzer said. “So, this isn’t a permanent thing. But this is just what we have to do to be able to play baseball and try to get as many games in [as possible].”

And, the work to make the season happen is far from over. The players -- whom Scherzer touted as thoroughly connected during the first negotiation -- need to again come together with the league. Will players accept ties so games don’t go beyond nine innings? What will the roster limits be? Will the injured list parameters be adjusted? How many doubleheaders would be acceptable? On and on and on.

“We might have been able to get a deal done, and that’s a great milestone considering [we’re] navigating a great crisis,” Scherzer said. “But we still have a ton of challenges in front of us to make decisions about what the season’s going to look like.”

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If teams start 19-31 like the Nationals, it really is over in a 50-game season

If teams start 19-31 like the Nationals, it really is over in a 50-game season

To put 50 games in context, just flashback to last season. It’s easy enough. Say it: 19-31. If the Nationals could, they would trademark those numbers together.

Fifty games is a flash. Almost a death knell to the eventual 2019 World Series champions. That’s a season over in late May. Think of it this way: Teams play around 30 games in a normal spring training alone.

The owners have pushed this number into the public with their non-counter-counter to the players’ suggestion of 114 games. Commissioner Rob Manfred is trying to use the March agreement between players and owners as a cudgel. Players are refusing to take a further pay cut on top of the one already negotiated. Manfred in turn is saying, “Fine. Then we will schedule the amount of games that are in line with what you are being paid.”

In play now is the 48-game season, according to ESPN. A smidge under 50. A full blitz that would be looked back at as a farce if it’s attempted to be played in the regular way. Playing half a season in the traditional manner is probably the minimum for any legitimacy. Even then, 2020 will be awash in caveats.

The Nationals’ 2020 recovery came against restrictive odds. The manager was supposed to be fired. Some suggested trading the best players, and to do it sooner than later. Season simulations said the Nationals were done. Or as close to it as possible.

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A 50- or 48-game season would cook anyone who has a bad two weeks. Lose a frontline starter? It’s over. Have your shortstop and leadoff hitter hit on the finger by a pitch and miss three weeks? It’s over. Half a season feels like a baseball sprint. Fifty games or less defines the league’s desperation to put some pennies back in its pocket in 2020.

There is one fun idea around a 50-game season. It was hatched at Fangraphs. The premise is one big 50-game tournament. Not the usual three-game series in this town, and four-game series in that city.
Fangraphs makes the on-point mathematical argument that 50 games determines next to nothing when comparing the best in the league to the mediocre. It’s just games for the sake of games.

Since baseball is trying to wade through extraordinary times, why not attempt something extraordinary, such as the tournament?

The model used at Fangraphs included 32 teams, all 30 major-league clubs plus two futures teams, one from each league. Let’s use that premise.

Stage the whole thing in the Texas Rangers’ new park -- Texas is already saying it will allow fans. Have a loser’s bracket. Make the final a five-game series. Pay the players what was already negotiated. Pin more money to the outcome. Run it from early July to the end of September. That way, you still play through much of the summer but duck under a possible fall coronavirus spike the owners are so wary of.

No caveats about if the season was long enough for an authentic champion. This is a complete outlier. The tournament year. Players wore microphones. Some kid from Double-A struck out Bryce Harper in a big at-bat. No leagues. Everyone in the same pot. Have some fun amid an historically troubling time.

What’s not working is the public whining from both sides. The inability to make a deal. The lack of common ground. Both groups are working toward one idea: loss mitigation. A 50-game season does little of that and carries even less validity. Just ask a team that opened last year 19-31.

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MLB return: Union fires back at owners in latest statement, reject additional concessions

MLB return: Union fires back at owners in latest statement, reject additional concessions

The latest whack of the negotiation tether ball came Thursday night when Tony Clark, the executive director of the MLBPA, issued a statement of discontent.

“In this time of unprecedented suffering at home and abroad, Players want nothing more than to get back to work and provide baseball fans with the game we all love. But we cannot do this alone,” it began.

Clark went on to cite the league’s most recent suggestion of a “dramatically shortened” season “unless Players negotiate salary concessions.” The league suggested a 50-game season would be reasonable for the amount of money players agreed to in salary following a late-March negotiation.

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The statement went on to refer to the league’s stance as a “threat,” as opposed to the players' proposal, which in Clark’s view, was designed to move the negotiations forward. He rattled off the various items in the union’s proposal, which was framed around a 114-game season: more games, two years of expanded playoffs, salary deferrals and the exploration of additional “jewel events” (All-Star Game, etc.).

Clark said a conference call with the MLBPA’s eight-person executive board, which includes Max Scherzer, and several other player leaders concluded “the league’s demand for additional concessions was resoundingly rejected.”

Clark went on to say the players are ready to compete and get back on the field.

The union’s reaction to MLB’s non-reaction is not a surprise. Players are adamant they are not taking further salary cuts. The league solidly believes salaries should -- and need to be -- negotiated if there is to be some form of 2020 season. Everyone continues to wait for a solution.

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