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What’s at stake in owner/player negotiations on when the season will start

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When will we see baseball?

2019 Major League Baseball Winter Meetings Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

Pitchers and catchers are scheduled to report to spring training in less than three weeks, but it is still unclear if baseball will begin on time due to the coronavirus pandemic. The number of cases and deaths is significantly higher than it was when the baseball season ended last fall, although numbers have begun to plateau a bit as people begin to get vaccinated.

Baseball owners have proposed delaying the season by one month, offering a 154-game schedule to players, according to multiple reports. Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic offers details of the proposal, which would have spring training to begin on March 22 with a regular season start date of April 28. Owners would want an expanded playoffs that could reach into early November, with television partners willing to reschedule the World Series by one week.

Owners cannot unilaterally delay the season without agreement from the union, unless Commissioner Rob Manfred invokes the national emergency clause. This would likely be litigated, with uncertainty as to whether it can be invoked since baseball already completed a 60-game season during the pandemic. Owners would rather negotiate an agreement with players, but the union is expected to reject the proposal today.

What do owners want?

While owners may have some concerns about player safety during the pandemic, particularly with potential new strains of the virus, the motivating concern in delaying the season is avoiding playing games with no fans allowed. Some jurisdictions are allowing limited numbers of fans at sporting events, but the NFL’s 49ers were not even allowed to play in their home stadium at the end of the season. Even if fans were allowed back in, many are not yet comfortable attending mass gatherings. By delaying the season, owners get to buy more time for COVID cases to recede, restrictions on mass gatherings to be lifted, and fans to feel better about attending a game.

To make up for the loss of revenue in what will certainly be a down year for attendance, owners want an expanded post-season. According to Jeff Passan at ESPN, owners would want to expand to 14 playoff teams - last year’s post-season had 16 teams. Owners had previously increased their guarantee of what the players would earn from an expanded playoff from $50 million to $80 million, although players think that if fans are full by the fall, they will get close to that amount anyway.

What do players want?

Players want what they feel they are entitled to - full pay. The owner’s proposal does not guarantee players will get full pay if Manfred cancels any games. According to Rosenthal, Manfred could, under the proposal, cancel games if:

• Government restrictions prevent more than five clubs from staging games in their home ballparks (even without fans in attendance).

• Government restrictions prevent or materially restrict travel by clubs within the United States.

• Manfred determines, after consultation with recognized medical experts and the union, that staging those games poses an unreasonable health and safety risk to players or staff.

• The number of players who are unavailable to perform because of COVID-19 is such that the competitive integrity of the season is undermined.

Manfred did not cancel many games last year, and owners gave players full pay for the 60 games last year, despite the cancellation of a few games.

Players also balk at the expanded playoff, arguing that more playoff teams disincentivizes winning, since mediocre teams can make the post-season and have success. But the more likely reason to reject this proposal is that they see expanded playoffs as a bargaining chip, and they don’t want to spend that chip to get something they already feel they are entitled to - full pay.

There is also the issue of a universal DH, which has yet to be settled this year. Owners have offered a universal DH as an exchange for an expanded playoffs, but that doesn’t seem to be perceived as a fair trade since a universal DH doesn’t really add jobs. It could help free agency for older players, but with teams cutting back on free agents anyway, it is unclear how much that would really help.

The players are still holding firm to an agreement reached last March with owners that they argue entitles them to full pay for a full 162-game schedule. The two sides have been engaged in a tense series of battles previewing a larger war many expect when the Collective Bargaining Agreement expires after 2021. If the two sides can not reach agreement, this year’s schedule will still begin on time, but it only adds to the likelihood that a near-future season will not.