With pitchers and catchers slated to report to spring training camps in a little more than five weeks, it’s becoming increasingly likely that the date of Feb. 16 in Florida and Arizona will be met despite the recent rise in COVID-19 cases throughout the U.S.
The Major League Baseball Players Association reiterated this week that its constituency intends to honor the last year of the Basic Agreement, a stance the union has taken for months.
Grapefruit League and Cactus League games are slated to begin Feb. 27 with the regular season of 162 games on tap to open April 1.
“As we’ve made clear to the league on multiple occasions, we expect spring training and the regular season to start on time and as scheduled, consistent with our CBA,” the Players Association said in a statement provided to Sportico. “The Commissioner’s office has assured us that they have instructed the Clubs to prepare for an on time start.”
MLB implemented and conducted an abbreviated 60-game schedule last year under very difficult circumstances, becoming the first pro sports league to travel and play games outside of a bubble environment. That led to 57 players testing positive during the regular season and one more during the postseason.
“We have announced the dates for the start of spring training and the championship season,” MLB said in a statement. “As we get closer we will, in consultation with public health authorities, our medical experts, and the Players Association, determine whether any modifications should be considered in light of the current surge in COVID-19 cases and the challenges we faced in 2020 completing a 60-game season in a sport that plays every day.”
As far as last season’s rule changes are concerned, only the three-batter minimum for a relief pitcher was permanently implemented by MLB and will remain. Other rules from 2020—the universal designated hitter, a runner on second to start any extra inning, expanded rosters, expanded playoffs and seven-inning games in both ends of a doubleheader—are not part of the current agreement and won’t be in effect this season.
All this is pending further negotiations, but the two sides have yet to seriously address any of these COVID-related rule changes.
Baseball has since been followed by the National Football League, the National Basketball Association and next week, the National Hockey League, playing under those out-of-bubble circumstances.
The NBA and NHL conducted their postseason in bubbles last year without any incidence of the coronavirus among staff and players, the two leagues reported.
“The NHL has done a great job of that,” said Bill Armstrong, the new general manager of the Arizona Coyotes. “We’re pretty friendly as far as working with baseball, working with the NFL, taking little things that everybody does. We’re all learning from each other.”
The Coyotes are scheduled to open the season with games on Jan. 14 and 16 against the San Jose Sharks at Gila River Arena located in the suburb of Glendale, west of downtown Phoenix. The intent now is to have some fans in the stands during the 23 home games of a shortened 56-game season.
“Yup, there are a small amount of fans that are allowed in,” Armstrong said. “I’m not sure exactly how many, and I’m not sure everything has been worked out.”
That bodes well for the Cactus League, a matrix of 15 teams playing in 10 spring training camps stretched across Maricopa County. The Los Angeles Dodgers and Chicago White Sox train at Camelback Ranch, only miles away from the hockey arena.
The Coyotes would become the first pro team in the Valley to allow fans in attendance since the pandemic caused a halt in all leagues and college sports last March 11-12. The Arizona Diamondbacks, Arizona Cardinals and currently the Phoenix Suns are playing home games sans fans.
In Florida, MLB played without fans in Miami and St. Petersburg last year, while the NFL allowed a small percentage of fans in stadiums at Tampa and Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Now, the NBA is playing in front of about 4,000 fans a game in Orlando and Tampa, where the Toronto Raptors have relocated for the season because of COVID restrictions at the U.S.-Canadian border.
MLB is reluctant to play another season without fans, but the major markets of New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, San Francisco and Washington may be problematic until vaccinations and instant testing are widespread.
The MLBPA is basing its premise that spring training will start on time because players are in the last year of a five-year contract, which expires this Dec. 1, and the union believes the owners can’t reopen that agreement as they did last season.
Last year, when a national emergency because of COVID was called on March 13, Commissioner Rob Manfred used a clause in paragraph 11 of the Uniform Player’s Contract to open the entire agreement. The contract states that it is “subject to the right of the Commissioner to suspend the operation of this contract during any national emergency during which Major League Baseball is not played.”
It’s the union’s stance that since games were played and the players lost about 60% of their salaries, which were prorated for the 60-game season, the clause can’t be utilized again. Any attempt to do so might result in a grievance and a filing with the National Labor Relations Board. Win or lose, those kind of filings would certainly delay or even scuttle the season. Furthermore, MLB can’t lock out the players now because they are under contact.
“While there will continue to be challenges, our players have proven they can safely play a season under difficult circumstances, as have the other sports,” the union said. “The league does not have the authority or legal basis to unilaterally delay or shorten the schedule without players’ consent.”