With Major League Baseball openers scheduled Thursday from Yankee Stadium in New York to Petco Park in San Diego, the game faces myriad complications.
Coming off a season abbreviated to 60 games by the coronavirus, MLB is trying to return to a full 162-game slate with three immediate missions: Keep control of COVID spread among each of the individual teams, as players and on-field staff become vaccinated; reopen stadiums to a modicum of fans facing modified restrictions dictated by health and safety protocols; and begin the process of collectively bargaining the current Basic Agreement, which expires Dec. 1 and could lead to a lockout.
It’s an unprecedented, complex situation facing MLB and the MLB Players Association. Fighting a second season through COVID is the immediate problem, but collective bargaining, which is expected to be contentious, is the umbrella over all of it.
“I will say there are a host of things at a high level that need to be addressed,” Tony Clark, the union’s executive director, told Sportico in a recent exclusive interview. “We remain hopeful that against the backdrop of the expiration of the agreement we’ll find common ground.”
At the top of the players’ wish list is a new compensation system that awards younger players much higher pay in their early years of service time, and a system that incentivizes all 30 teams regardless of market size to compete for free agent Major League talent.
From management’s perspective there are some owners who still want a hard salary cap and floor based on a fixed percentage of revenues. What constitutes revenue is a real point of contention between the two sides.
This all comes against the backdrop of growing revenue losses and mounting debt until games can be played again at full capacity.
Commissioner Rob Manfred said last fall that MLB clubs had accrued $8.3 billion in debt and $3 billion in losses just to get through a 60-game season sans fans in the stands.
It’s anyone’s guess when full capacity will happen, especially amid reports of an uptick in virus cases in some parts of the country.
“We’re obviously working very closely with the city and state, and they’re guiding us on those efforts [to expand attendance],” said Doug Behar, the Yankees senior vice president of stadium operations. “For us, it’s just exciting to get out of the gate at 20%.”
In any event, if there’s not a new contract on Dec. 2, it’s unlikely MLB will grant an extension of talks or allow the free agent market to continue, let alone open the 2022 season.
The players won’t strike because there’s no value in it. Not one of them collects a paycheck from the last day of the 2021 season until the first ball is tossed for real in 2022.
MLB was asked when collective bargaining is set to begin and if a lockout could be avoided, but didn’t respond to those questions.
Clark said he anticipates negotiations to begin shortly after the start of the season.
“I’ve been very public about creating a system in which younger players who are producing more value should be fairly compensated for it,” Clark said. “That’s one of the moving pieces here. That’s one of the trends we’re seeing in the game. That [and] creating a more competitive environment, which we think will be beneficial to fans, clubs and players.”
The immediate issue is having players and fans return to the ballpark safely.
Last baseball season, three teams were shut down and another three had games postponed when COVID spread inside various clubhouses. During the shortened regular season, 48 games were rescheduled, and 54 players tested positive. In the postseason, Justin Turner tested positive and was pulled during the last innings of Game 6 of the World Series, just before his Los Angeles Dodgers defeated the Tampa Bay Rays for the championship.
Last year MLB played a regional schedule, but it’s about to embark on a full coast-to-coast travel schedule with all its inherent dangers. The Toronto Blue Jays are playing their first two homestands at their spring training site in Dunedin, Fla. The hope is that they soon will be able to return to Toronto as border restrictions between the U.S. and Canada begin to loosen, though no date has been set for that.
The Jays haven’t played a game in Rogers Centre since Sept. 29, 2019, staging all of their home games last year at a Triple-A ballpark in Buffalo, N.Y., which is a possible venue again this season.
Clark is confident the players will handle the disruptions. “The difference is that our guys went through this last year,” Clark said. “A lot of things that are being experienced in the other leagues our guys experienced last year. Protocols were tightened up. Adjustments were made. And we were able to get through the end of the season.”
Meanwhile, incentives are being offered to MLB players to take one of three vaccines. And though Clark has stated vaccinations are not mandatory, “we’re encouraging guys to consider it, yes,” he said.
Derrick Hall, the president of the Arizona Diamondbacks, added that the goal for his club and MLB, in general, is almost full compliance.
“We need to get to 85%, and [then] we’re at herd immunity,” Hall said.
That would be a game-changer for all professional sports.
In MLB, teams are opening from 100% capacity for the Texas Rangers at 40,500-seat Globe Life Field in Arlington, to 20%, or 10,850, at Yankee Stadium. The D-backs announced Tuesday that they will expand capacity at 48,519-seat Chase Field to about 20,000 per game beginning with their home opener April 8 vs. Cincinnati, as crowd-size requirements have been eliminated in Arizona.
Spring training is finished in Florida and Arizona, going off without any issues for the teams or fans at 20% capacity.
For the long term and perhaps well beyond the pandemic, ballparks and arenas will be equipped with better ventilation and increased sanitary conditions, as well as cashless transactions.
Vendors in the stands calling out their wares may be a relic of the past. They are gone, at least for now.
“It’s hard to say, at least out of the gate you’re not going to see that for a lot of reasons,” Behar said. “When it comes to the health-and-safety piece for this as far as the distancing is concerned, avoiding interactions with people who we don’t know is always going to be a good thing.”