Despite an unprecedented 60-game schedule, a neutral site World Series, and a disturbing increase in the rate of coronavirus cases and related deaths across the U.S., Major League Baseball players are preparing to play the 2021 regular season as scheduled.
“Our players anticipate arriving in spring training as normal and playing a 162-game season as they otherwise would,” Tony Clark, the executive director of the MLB Players Association, said in a lengthy exclusive interview on Friday.
“There continues to be early dialogue and health and safety protocols, and that will continue.”
Pitchers and catchers are slated to report to camps in Florida and Arizona as early as Feb. 16 with exhibition games to begin Feb. 27. The full 162-game regular season is on the docket for April 1. MLB last played an entire regular season in 2019.
“That’s the plan,” Clark said. “We’ve had some informal dialogue, but it’s very early in the process. When I say early in the process, although we’ve gotten some feedback from the players, that engagement is ongoing for our guys. It’s really laying out the moving pieces as far as health and safety and on-field rules are concerned.”
MLB hasn’t been this forthcoming about plans for next season, having just concluded that 60-game campaign abbreviated by the pandemic with playoffs expanded from 10 to 16 teams and an extra round.
Commissioner Rob Manfred has been tempered by the fact that cases are beyond 10 million in the country on a seven-day average of more than 100,000 cases a day., with deaths at 237,408 through Sunday. When Manfred engineered what turned out to be a four-month pause in play on March 12, there were 1,200 cases and 40 deaths in the U.S.
Leading experts are predicting a further spike in cases this winter, placing all the above reporting and scheduling dates at risk.
Manfred said during the World Series that MLB teams had accrued $8.3 billion in debt and nearly $3 billion in operational losses playing a shortened season without fans and substantial stadium revenue. “It’s going to be difficult for the industry to weather another year where we don’t have fans in the ballpark,” he added.
“We don’t know what’s next,” Manfred said. “We’re watching developments with respect to the virus really carefully. We’ve got a great set of experts who are advising us on that. But at this point it’s just impossible to speculate about what next year’s going to look like. We’re going to have to get closer with more information. We’ll make the best set of decisions we can.”
To be sure, the union has one year remaining on the current Basic Agreement, which expires Dec. 1, 2021. Collective bargaining negotiations on a new labor agreement have not begun, and neither have any adjustments to the current agreement, Clark said.
While the basic agreement has no language stipulating what happens if games are lost because of a pandemic, paragraph 11 of the Uniformed Player’s Contract allows the commissioner “to suspend the operation of this contract during any national emergency during which Major League Baseball is not played.” When a national emergency was declared March 13, Manfred subsequently opened the agreement because there was a considerable chance baseball might not have been able to play a season.
There’s still a national emergency, but it’s questionable whether MLB can utilize that clause again. The players may have precluded that option by accepting the terms of the implemented agreement, playing a season under terms of a prorated agreement before and during six-weeks of sometimes contentious negotiations.
“There’s no upside of me getting into the legalities of this,” Manfred said. “Suffice it to say, I’m sure there will be a lot of conversations about this with the MLBPA.”
Clearly, the players under the terms of their playing contracts, expect to be paid in full this coming season whether or not 162 games are played.
“We don’t accept at face value [from MLB] the claims about the extent of the debt and the operating losses,” Clark said.
The union has requested from MLB audited aggregate documents supporting those claims, but when asked by Sportico on the record if it had received those documents, Clark simply said, “no.”
Against this backdrop, the offseason began Oct. 28 just after the Los Angeles Dodgers defeated the Tampa Bay Rays in a six-game World Series on the neutral site of Globe Life Field at Arlington, Tex. There are now 183 unsigned free agents.
At least a dozen of them went into the open market when MLB teams declined to exercise $140 million in club options on 2021 contracts. Six more free agents were tendered qualifying offers of $18.9 million.
The New York Mets were sold to hedge fund titan Steve Cohen for a record $2.42 billion in a deal that closed Friday. Previously, the Dodgers, under control of multi-billion-dollar Guggenheim Baseball Management, signed prospective free agent Mookie Betts to a 12-year, $365 million extension. And TBS extended its national television deal with MLB for seven years at $3.75 billion through the 2028 season.
For the long term, franchise values and television deals are escalating and Clark and the players know there will be a return to some kind of substantial stadium revenue when the world gets beyond the era of COVID and fans can again fill ballparks to capacity.
There’s certainly a short-term problem, but Clark is aware that MLB wouldn’t even have been able to collect it’s nearly $3 billion in local and national television revenue this past season without the players performing at a level of intensity and integrity through very difficult circumstances. Manfred applauded that intensity.
“The quality of play through the season and the postseason has been really, really high,” Manfred said. “Even when the stands were empty the players played their hearts out. It’s the sign of real professionalism, maybe is the best word.”
Clark agreed. While he said the union is closely watching the free-agent market, he’s well aware that the players are the product.
“That’s the conversation I’m hoping we’re able to have,” Clark said. “In a number of ways, we haven’t had it yet. There’s nothing as important to me as a former player than our players and the well-being of our game on and off the field. We have sold our proverbial souls to the game. It’s in our DNA.
“As a result, I remain hopeful that quietly, and out of the spotlight, we have a conversation that moves us forward. I hope that’s what we’re able to do here.”