Opinion: MLB’s second season of pandemic ball remains a balancing act: Cash, competition and COVID-19
It’s nice to think that Major League Baseball’s 30 owners, its hundreds of players and their many-tentacled business interests will keep public health front of mind when plotting and launching the 2021 season.
It’s also helpful to note the many millions and billions of dollars in play could, shall we say, impact their thinking.
In about three weeks, pitchers and catchers are slated to report to spring training, capping an offseason in which MLB slept with one eye open, knowing a winter surge of COVID-19 was imminent and that the effect on the 2021 season was undeniable.
The surge came, worse than imagined, with Americans determined to holiday their way through the new year like the pandemic didn’t exist. And now highly-contagious mutations of the virus — strong enough to shutter an entire collegiate athletic department — are making their way through the population as the average daily national death toll hovers at 3,000 since the second week of January.
Understandable, then, that stakeholders in Arizona’s Cactus League would send a letter to MLB urging that spring training be delayed a month.
And that an NL and an AL owner would tell USA TODAY Sports last month that starting spring training without vaccinations “is just crazy” and that there’s “zero chance” spring training will start in February, that an 80-game schedule might be necessary.
Meanwhile, the Players’ Association, knowing a fully-paid, 162-game schedule likely can’t be altered without its permission, is getting comfortable in the catbird’s seat, a brief respite after the bloody negotiations for the 60-game schedule last year and the nuclear collective-bargaining negotiations next winter.
So, this isn’t going well.
ARIZONA: As Cactus League seeks delayed opening of spring training, union pushes for on-time start
BASEBALL HALL OF FAME: How the USA TODAY Network voted
General view of an Angel Stadium devoid of fans during a game between the Los Angeles Angels and the Texas Rangers on Sept. 19, 2020. (Photo: Angels Baseball, USA TODAY Sports)
Hey, it’s a pandemic, so we’ll offer a little grace, even if at times it seems the parties involved merely want to protect their bag. It’s understandable: Players, already operating within the finite context of their careers, took more than a 60% pay cut last year. Owners lost a ton of money — or at least failed to make as much as they’re accustomed.
And then there’s the regional sports networks and broadcast partners and beer companies and loose coalitions like the Cactus League, a proxy for the business interests in greater Phoenix that expect their rental cars occupied, their restaurant tables humming and their rooms filled. It's a small tradeoff for the hundreds of millions of dollars spent to build stadiums for faux baseball a few weeks each spring.
Their letter to MLB, signed by myriad area mayors and city managers and Cactus League executive director Bridget Binsbacher, makes a plea for public health in its request to push back spring training a month, the better to safely accommodate fans.
You can imagine the reactions to this missive.
Quiet nods of acknowledgment in the MLB office. Fervent affirmation from team owners who’d rather play a 100-game (or less) 2021 schedule anyway and are eager to reduce their losses by paying players for fewer games contested without fans.
And then the players themselves, the vast majority who are already in Arizona or Florida or another baseball-friendly mecca, probably enjoying a good chuckle knowing that spring training is a few weeks too long, anyway.
It is also a little rich that public health suddenly is the watchword for many of these parties.
For the moment, Arizona’s nation-leading rate of 95.6 cases per 100,000 residents isn’t enough to dissuade the city of Glendale — whose mayor signed off on the letter — from hosting fans at Phoenix Coyote games. Or for almost every city in Maricopa County to throw open its doors to youth tournaments in almost every sport all winter, as locked-down travel-ball refugees from California and elsewhere flocked to Phoenix, helping spark a COVID-19 surge.
And as for our aforementioned AL and NL owners? Lest we forget, when summer camps opened last July, the country was in a startling summer coronavirus surge, posting record seven-day average case totals for 27 consecutive days.
Apparently, those metrics weren’t as crucial when there were 60 games to chug through before cashing in the golden ticket of postseason TV revenue.
Look, we can’t blame folks for protecting their own interests. It’s just startling that we’re back to this point already, where posturing — passive though it may be right now — is more prevalent than protocols.
Yeah, this upcoming season is going to be tricky – all the more reason we’d prefer to see the involved parties sit down and hammer out contingencies, rather than stage another game of chicken before working out details at the 25th hour.
For now, it’s show up and play.
“As we have previously said publicly, we will continue to consult with public health authorities, medical experts, and the Players Association whether any schedule modifications to the announced start of Spring Training and the Championship Season should be made in light of the current COVID-19 environment,” MLB said in a statement to USA TODAY Sports, “to ensure the safety of the players, coaches, umpires, MLB employees and other gameday personnel in a sport that plays every day.”
Once it got past initial outbreaks with the Marlins and Cardinals, and players heeded the stern looks of league-appointed hall monitors, MLB’s pandemic season was a relative success. Now, the state of the virus is changing and so too must the protocols; at the moment, the league has not yet completed its 2021 version.
As it stands, the challenges will be greater: Dodging COVID-19 over a season nearly three times longer, featuring cross-country travel rather than regionalized pods, along with the physical challenge of 162 games after last year’s stops and starts that resulted in no pitcher throwing more than 84 innings.
We can only hope flexibility will be the watchword.
With many players already near their training bases, there’s little reason they can’t report to camp on time. There’s also no reason why the first 10 days of camp can’t be spent in some form of quarantine, hopefully reducing the number of positive tests upon intake.
With the aforementioned injury risk involved in the longer season, some end-of-roster flexibility — such as a 30-man pool to easily option pitchers on and off the roster without mandatory time in the minors — would be wise.
And with positive COVID-19 tests almost an inevitability over the course of the year, perhaps players should give just a little and move off 162 games — even if only to, say, 156 — to build in schedule flexibility. Lest we forget, September 2020 was brutal for several teams, even with makeup games reduced to seven innings.
Naturally, players are in no mood to show weakness with the CBA battle royale lurking. Perhaps a more hawkish stance would make sense if the nationwide rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine weren’t such a debacle.
But it is. And that will make 2021 as large a challenge as 2020.
It all starts in just a couple weeks. Hopefully, the posturing will give way to pragmatism.
Source: Read Full Article