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A plain day replaces Opening Day as everyone waits for baseball

A plain day replaces Opening Day as everyone waits for baseball

Welcome to Thursday. Doesn’t have the same ring as Opening Day, does it?

Today was supposed to be the start. The Nationals would be in Citi Field, where it’s sunny, the temperature is in the low 50s and two of the league’s best pitchers would be on the mound. Instead, the stadium, like 29 others, is silent. It waits along with everyone else.

Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred spoke Wednesday night. He said the optimistic view makes him think baseball could be revved back up at some point in May. He also entertained the idea there would be no season, calling it “tragic.”

Today is the first real dose of the sport’s hiatus. Stopping spring training, sending players home, the sudden halt of activities seemed a bit surreal. No family traditions were broken. No plans to lay out Nationals gear or tug it on for work or even drive to New York were affected yet. West Palm Beach is distant for most fans. Kids are in school, there’s no time and the team is preparing from afar.

But today was supposed to be grand. The Nationals would open the defense of Washington’s first baseball title since 1924. Flyovers, anthems, the sounds and smells. An answer at third. A look at the new bullpen. Criticizing the new lineup. Wonder if Max Scherzer remains the same. A box score to button it all up.

The rhythm would begin. Baseball’s daily dose is unrelenting. Once it starts, and the season is rolling, days of the week meld into each other. The season becomes an exercise in managing failure and dragging yourself back to it. Tomorrow always comes, even if it is unwanted. It’s a chance for a fix or to fail again, to figure out a problem or unlock a new strategy. The season is a tinkerer’s dream and nightmare taking place at the same time.

We’re without it Thursday. The spread of coronavirus has snatched our distraction. It’s sent the media industry and leagues scrambling to fill the void. Baseball chose “Opening Day at Home” as a salve. One classic winning game per team streamed on MLB.com or social media channels. MLB Network will be airing “classic” opening day games from early afternoon on, starting with Derek Jeter’s debut.

Fifteen games were supposed to start at 1:10 p.m. Scherzer versus Jacob deGrom held the pitching panache. Mookie Betts was set to make his Los Angeles debut against the rival Giants. The Astros, luckily for them, were scheduled to face the Angels at home, where they would face a native Houstonian in a new Anaheim uniform. Washington will benefit from the rest a hiatus provides. Houston will benefit from a decline in vitriol. Or at least less time for it to be directed toward those in Astros jerseys. Perspective can always temper booing.

Now-dormant stadiums are being used to help fight pandemic. Nationals Park, which wasn’t going to be put to use until April 2, sits quietly on South Capitol Street, new signage bolted to it and traffic decidedly reduced outside. The groundskeepers peeled back layers of outfield in December to prepare for April. The prepped grass now just sits, waiting for the cleats of Victor Robles and Juan Soto, as still as greater life has become.

So, we wait. Old games, memories and a longing for what’s unavailable fill the void. Manfred vowed baseball would be part of the country’s healing once it was safe to do so. He hearkened back to post-9/11 when the sport served as a unifier. There’s no timeline for when that will happen. We just know it didn’t start Thursday, which instead became another quiet installment in this growing trek.

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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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