Should baseball delay 2021 season over COVID-19? Maybe, but safety isn't driving MLB, union talks

Hannah Keyser
·5 min read

There were just over 70,000 new coronavirus cases in the United States on July 23, 2020, when the New York Yankees played the Washington Nationals in an empty D.C. stadium to kick off the delayed, shortened season. That number was up from where it had been when spring training and everything else was put on a hold because of the pandemic back in March. But the thinking was that we had all learned a whole lot in that time — like how this thing spreads and some basic precautions people can take to forestall that.

Six months later, the country is seeing more than double that opening day number daily. The post-holiday surge appears to be on the downswing and still the seven-day average is over 170,000 new cases.

We’ve learned a lot since then, too. Like how imperfect people are when it comes to following precautions and how impatience with the pandemic only makes it last longer. There’s a vaccine coming, just not quickly enough to keep the death toll from pushing half a million. We have to think that things will go back to normal eventually, but we can’t let ourselves get too comfortable with that hope just yet.

So should Major League Baseball push back the spring training slated to start in just about three weeks? Maybe. But don’t expect the conversation about that possibility to be especially productive or collaborative. Or to be especially concerned with what’s best for the health of the community.

On Monday, Phoenix TV station KPNX published a letter from the Cactus League’s executive director Bridget Binsbacher that was signed by by the mayors of Mesa, Scottsdale, Surprise, Glendale, Goodyear and Peoria, as well as representatives from Phoenix and the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community. Citing compelling numbers — Arizona ranks highest in the country for weekly COVID-19 case and death rates — and a meeting last week with Major League Baseball representatives, the letter suggests that “it is wise to delay the start of spring training to allow for the COVID-19 situation to improve here.”

Maybe the consortium is primarily concerned with tourism dollars — a later spring training could mean more vaccinated potential visitors and a country more comfortable with discretionary travel. Or maybe, as someone on the union’s side suggested, MLB pushed the Cactus League to leak the letter as a form of pressure on the MLB Players Association — getting corroborating voices on the public record in support of a delayed season.

The Cactus League and a group of Arizona officials asked MLB to consider pushing spring training back because of the local COVID-19 situation.
The Cactus League and a group of Arizona officials asked MLB to consider pushing spring training back because of the local COVID-19 situation. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

To recap: The owners, as always represented by MLB, don’t want to play or pay for all 162 games that are currently on the schedule — at least not without unfettered fan attendance. The players, represented by the union, would like to be paid their full 162-game salaries.

As it stands, the collective bargaining agreement sides with the players. There is nothing to compel the union to engage in conversations about pay cuts when they have a collectively bargained contract that covers when the season starts and how many games will be played.

The league would need far more heavy-handed sanctions from the government than anything in that Cactus League letter (which concedes as much) to even attempt to alter the season unilaterally. Short of an official ban on baseball itself — which would be hypocritical while other sports leagues host games and fans, often inside — the union would have to agree to alter the structure of the season.

(Yahoo Sports reached out to Glendale mayor and letter signee Jerry Weiers. His town is home to the NHL's Arizona Coyotes, who are playing their season, and in front of limited fans. He did not return the call.)

So far, those conversations have been nonstarters. Early in the offseason, the league broached the idea of pushing the season back a month. According to someone familiar with the union’s thinking, when they asked if the missed games would be made up on the back end or the players compensated at full-season salaries, the league said no.

The league is hesitant to disrupt the lucrative postseason TV schedule (though owners may also reap some benefits from a full season that is simply shifted back a month — potentially allowing more paying fans to go to games). But since MLB floated the rejected idea that included pay cuts, no formal proposals to change the start or structure of the season have been exchanged. That leaves us with a lot of commotion and not a lot of movement. At the end of the day — literally this day, tomorrow remains to be seen — teams are still planning to report to Arizona and Florida in mid-February.

What’s one month in a pandemic that’s pushing a year? Well, some millions of Americans vaccinated, for one. Maybe some percentage of people involved in the production of a baseball game — it’s not just players, remember — will be vaccinated by then too, although that comes with its own complications. I’m not sure how much those factors will move the needle on overall community rates or the kind of on-field precautions that are necessary or whether either side cares at this point.

But if it helps at all to make the whole thing safer — for literally everyone involved — you’d think it’d be worth trying a little harder to make it happen.

Broadcast considerations are not insignificant since they’re about money, which has motivated all the acrimony thus far. Cards on the table, though, I think they could find a way to make everyone whole: Delay spring training by a little, delay the start of the season a little less (players complain about how long spring training is anyway), pay for a full season, play it as best they can with more doubleheaders, fight with the TV partners if it comes to that to push the postseason back a few weeks. I think they could do that. I might even think they should do that, but it doesn’t really matter because I don’t think that they will.

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