After an Acrimonious Spring, Baseball Finally Has a Plan to Play

Summer is normally the domain of baseball, and weeks ago there was talk of the sport triumphantly returning on July 4.

But instead of a symbolic replanting of the flag on the sports landscape after a coronavirus hiatus, Major League Baseball on Tuesday settled for a severely abridged, 60-game season starting in late July.

But that plan only came after protracted posturing by team owners and the players’ union threatened to derail the season and damage the reputation of a sport wrestling with declining attendance and bruises left by one of the worst cheating scandals in the sport’s history.

“The virus has hurt a vast number of people, companies and institutions,” said Marc Ganis, a professional sports consultant. “Was baseball hurt more than it otherwise needed to be? The answer is absolutely yes.”

Much of that pain was self-inflicted, the result of a frayed relationship between the league’s 30 team owners and the players’ union.

Talks between the two sides about when and how to restart the season broke down repeatedly after they began in March. At the heart of the disagreement was how much players would be paid in a shortened season: The union was willing to accept prorated pay for fewer games, but balked at further cuts when it became clear that games would be played in empty stadiums.

On Monday, the league exercised its right to impose a 60-game season, which is expected to begin on July 23 or 24. Late Tuesday, the union announced its concerns about the players’ health and safety during the pandemic had been settled, clearing the way for the athletes to report to training camps.

The negotiations that led to the agreement were haunted by memories of a 1994 strike that canceled that year’s World Series and devastated the sport for years. A canceled season and a 17-month gap without games could have brought an even bigger calamity for the sport.

“It’s absolute death for this industry to keep acting as it has been,” Trevor Bauer, the outspoken Cincinnati Reds pitcher, wrote on Twitter on Monday night. “Both sides. We’re driving the bus straight off a cliff. How is this good for anyone involved? Covid 19 already presented a lose lose lose situation and we’ve somehow found a way to make it worse. Incredible.”

The reasons for the breakdown, Ganis said, included a “terrible relationship” between the league and the players’ union, an open-ended agreement in March between the sides, the upcoming labor fight after the 2021 season, and “greed, when the rest of the country is hurting so badly.”

Making matters worse, he said, baseball was already dealing with cable cord-cutting that had damaged teams’ broadcast revenues, an aging fan base and an inability to speed up the game’s pace of play. Over the winter, the emergence of a scandal in which the Houston Astros were found to have illegally used live video feeds to steal opposing catchers’ signs during their 2017 championship season further damaged the sport’s reputation.

“It’s amazing they couldn’t even get together during an international pandemic,” Ganis said of the players and owners.

Still, completing any sort of plan to play this year was a victory, even if the public back-and-forth between wealthy players and even wealthier owners during a deadly pandemic made for poor optics. But the drawn-out process might look worse in retrospect if a feared second wave of infections in the fall comes to fruition, when the season could have started sooner.

While many players — and the thousands of employees whose livelihoods depend on games — were thankful that a conclusion of the dispute was imminent, some remained concerned that even if a season began, it might not be completed because of the unpredictable virus.

Credit…Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

Throughout the discussions, M.L.B. executives and team owners balked at proposals by the players’ union for seasons of 89 and 114 games that would extend deeper into the year than usual — not only because of the money the teams would lose holding games without fans but because they feared a resurgence of the virus would wipe out the lucrative postseason.

Under the plan imposed by Commissioner Rob Manfred on Monday, a second spring training will begin next week, with opening day in late July — about four months after the originally scheduled season opener. A normal season is 162 games; this one would be the shortest since the early years of the National League in the late 1870s.

An asterisk may always hover over the 2020 season because of its length — after 60 games last year, the eventual champion Washington Nationals held a feeble 27-33 record — and the unusual rules that likely will be enacted, including a designated hitter for both the American and National leagues, larger rosters and starting extra innings with a runner on second base to hasten games.

The extended disagreement between M.L.B. owners and the players’ union began in March, after the two sides quickly negotiated a return-to-play pact that they interpreted in vastly different ways in the following months.

In that deal, the players agreed to be paid on a per-game basis, but M.L.B. later expected further salary concessions for a season played without fans in the stands. Long skeptical of owners crying poor, the union did not budge, wary of setting a precedent that could weaken them in negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement when the current one ends after next season.

Given the mistrust and animosity exhibited by the sides during these negotiations, a lockout ahead of the 2022 season feels just as likely — if not more.

In April, M.L.B. and the union debated ideas about how to eventually begin the season safely during the pandemic, even considering a sequestered environment similar to what the N.B.A. and Major League Soccer are planning near Orlando, Fla., this summer. But the logistical hurdles were many, and players largely opposed that proposal.

Credit…Francois Roy/The Canadian Press, via Associated Press

When it became increasingly clear there would be no fans at baseball games this summer, M.L.B. repeatedly proposed further pay cuts and a shorter season, while players held firm on receiving full prorated pay and pushed for more games. The rhetoric between the sides grew more acrimonious with each statement released and each letter exchanged.

The Coronavirus Outbreak

  • Frequently Asked Questions and Advice

    Updated June 22, 2020

    • Is it harder to exercise while wearing a mask?

      A commentary published this month on the website of the British Journal of Sports Medicine points out that covering your face during exercise “comes with issues of potential breathing restriction and discomfort” and requires “balancing benefits versus possible adverse events.” Masks do alter exercise, says Cedric X. Bryant, the president and chief science officer of the American Council on Exercise, a nonprofit organization that funds exercise research and certifies fitness professionals. “In my personal experience,” he says, “heart rates are higher at the same relative intensity when you wear a mask.” Some people also could experience lightheadedness during familiar workouts while masked, says Len Kravitz, a professor of exercise science at the University of New Mexico.

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      The steroid, dexamethasone, is the first treatment shown to reduce mortality in severely ill patients, according to scientists in Britain. The drug appears to reduce inflammation caused by the immune system, protecting the tissues. In the study, dexamethasone reduced deaths of patients on ventilators by one-third, and deaths of patients on oxygen by one-fifth.

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      The coronavirus emergency relief package gives many American workers paid leave if they need to take time off because of the virus. It gives qualified workers two weeks of paid sick leave if they are ill, quarantined or seeking diagnosis or preventive care for coronavirus, or if they are caring for sick family members. It gives 12 weeks of paid leave to people caring for children whose schools are closed or whose child care provider is unavailable because of the coronavirus. It is the first time the United States has had widespread federally mandated paid leave, and includes people who don’t typically get such benefits, like part-time and gig economy workers. But the measure excludes at least half of private-sector workers, including those at the country’s largest employers, and gives small employers significant leeway to deny leave.

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      So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.

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      Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

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      A study by European scientists is the first to document a strong statistical link between genetic variations and Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Having Type A blood was linked to a 50 percent increase in the likelihood that a patient would need to get oxygen or to go on a ventilator, according to the new study.

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      The unemployment rate fell to 13.3 percent in May, the Labor Department said on June 5, an unexpected improvement in the nation’s job market as hiring rebounded faster than economists expected. Economists had forecast the unemployment rate to increase to as much as 20 percent, after it hit 14.7 percent in April, which was the highest since the government began keeping official statistics after World War II. But the unemployment rate dipped instead, with employers adding 2.5 million jobs, after more than 20 million jobs were lost in April.

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      States are reopening bit by bit. This means that more public spaces are available for use and more and more businesses are being allowed to open again. The federal government is largely leaving the decision up to states, and some state leaders are leaving the decision up to local authorities. Even if you aren’t being told to stay at home, it’s still a good idea to limit trips outside and your interaction with other people.

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

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      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.

    • How do I get tested?

      If you’re sick and you think you’ve been exposed to the new coronavirus, the C.D.C. recommends that you call your healthcare provider and explain your symptoms and fears. They will decide if you need to be tested. Keep in mind that there’s a chance — because of a lack of testing kits or because you’re asymptomatic, for instance — you won’t be able to get tested.

Soon after the union cut off negotiations earlier this month and called for M.L.B. to set the schedule per the March agreement, Manfred went on national television to say he was “not confident” a season would be played at all this year.

He eventually rekindled talks with the union’s executive director, Tony Clark, but even then the sides couldn’t agree on the framework they had discussed during a meeting in Arizona.

The owners last week proposed a 60-game season that included expanded playoffs, a universal designated hitter, 104 percent of prorated salaries, $25 million from a playoff pool and $33 million in forgiven salary advances. The union countered with a 70-game season, and other sweeteners, but the owners refused to even consider that proposal.

An agreement would have called for both sides to waive their right for a grievance, which the union had threatened to pursue for substantial payouts on the claims that the league had negotiated in bad faith. After the union resoundingly rejected the owners’ offer on Monday, a move that preserved the players’ grievance option, the owners moved to implement a 60-game season without expanded playoffs or the additional financial incentives for players.

Manfred then exercised the option bestowed to him by the March agreement to set a schedule on his own.

The final holdup, finalizing the health and safety protocols, was resolved Tuesday night. M.L.B. had given the players a 67-page manual on health and safety provisions, which detailed coronavirus testing multiple times per week, new social distancing rules for clubhouses and dugouts, and criteria for which at-risk players could opt out of playing. The manual grew, and the sides signed off on it Tuesday night.

Because of a spike in cases in Arizona and Florida, the two hubs for spring training and where players had been working out informally, several teams, including the Mets and Yankees, reversed course and instead decided to return to their regular-season homes for preseason practices. M.L.B. shut down all 30 teams’ spring training complexes over the weekend for extensive cleaning after players and employees on several teams — including the Philadelphia Phillies and Yankees — tested positive for the virus.

“Baseball has had two great advantages: A great volume of games and a calendar in the summer that was effectively unencroached upon,” Ganis said. “That could perhaps change forever.”

He speculated that the N.B.A. might see a boost in ratings this summer, and it may have to shift the start of its 2020-21 season back two months, as well — moving it further away from the popular N.F.L. and college football seasons and deeper into baseball’s summer territory.

Fans have gone since March 12 without baseball. After spring training games in Florida that day, M.L.B. put its operations on hold and delayed its scheduled March 26 opening day at least two weeks because of the virus’ spread. At the time, some hoped baseball would return in April — an idea that seems naïve now.

Unlike the N.H.L. and N.B.A., which had played the majority of their regular seasons by the time the pandemic struck North America, M.L.B. had not begun its own. And despite a meandering route to an unfamiliar season, M.L.B. is still set to beat them to action — by a week.

Tyler Kepner contributed reporting.

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