Major League Baseball’s joyless slog to a 2020 season is finally over.
Five weeks of acrimonious labor strife ended Tuesday night when the Players Association approved an operations manual that includes health and safety protocols for returning to play amid a deadly global pandemic. Baseball’s shortest season since 1878 will be set at 60 games, MLB said in a statement, beginning July 23 or 24 and ending 66 or 67 days later on Sept. 27. It will be played without fans and come with a solemn but necessary caveat: coronavirus-permitting.
Earlier Tuesday evening — roughly 24 hours after voting down MLB’s 60-game proposal and forcing a reversion to the March 26 agreement that empowers commissioner Rob Manfred to impose a schedule and guarantees the players will be paid per-game wages — union leadership informed MLB that the players agreed to report for “spring training 2.0” mostly in their home cities — as opposed to sites in Florida and Arizona — on July 1.
That’s next Wednesday.
Then, nearly four hours after the 5 p.m. deadline set by MLB, the players union ratified the operations manual, essentially announcing “Play ball” in a terse, 13-word statement that said little more and with far less enthusiasm.
“All remaining issues have been resolved and Players are reporting to training camps,” the statement read.
Shortly thereafter, Manfred said in a statement that MLB “is thrilled to announce that the 2020 season is on the horizon,” adding that he submitted a 60-game schedule for the players’ review.
Despite the delay, the health guidelines were expected to pass, albeit with a few tweaks now and, according to one source, likely many others later given the unpredictable track of the coronavirus.
Ah yes, the coronavirus. It continues to loom over everything, just as it did back in March, threatening to keep the shortened season from beginning by MLB’s target date or being played to completion. And it prompted an ominous tweet from Milwaukee Brewers pitcher Brett Anderson late Monday night: “What happens when we all get it?”
It’s a fair question. COVID-19 cases are on the rise in several key baseball states. An outbreak at the Phillies’ facility in Florida last week resulted in 12 infected club employees, including seven players. A few minutes after baseball declared its return, the Denver Post reported that three Colorado Rockies players, including All-Star outfielder Charlie Blackmon, tested positive for COVID-19 after a workout at Coors Field.
Appropriately, then, the enmity of MLB’s months-long labor fight took a backseat Tuesday to hammering out the last details of the health and safety measures in a revised 101-page operations manual, a 67-page first draft of which was delivered to the players in mid-May.
Multiple reports indicated that one unknown issue was holding back final approval. One possibility: MLB’s recent request that the players sign an “acknowledgment of risk” waiver before returning to the field.
Unlike other sports leagues, notably the NBA, MLB is attempting to return to play with teams using their home ballparks in cities across the country rather than quarantining players in a “bubble” at a single site or a cluster of nearby venues. The arrangement increases the difficulty of putting on a season because of the varied intensity of the virus in different cities and states.
Some players might not take the risk, citing personal or family health concerns.
Players who were deemed “high-risk” were already guaranteed their pay and service time, which determines free-agent eligibility and a fully vested pension. The union reportedly negotiated the same conditions for players who live with a high-risk family member, including a pregnant spouse. Phillies star rightfielder Bryce Harper and pitcher Zack Wheeler would fall into the latter category.
Other players could simply decide that 37% of a season — at 37% of their full-season pay — isn’t worth exposure to COVID-19. “Non-high-risk” players probably won’t get paid.
“The health and safety of players and employees will remain MLB’s foremost priorities in its return to play,” MLB’s statement read. “MLB is working with a variety of public health experts, infectious disease specialists and technology providers on a comprehensive approach that aims to facilitate a safe return.”
In its statement, MLB confirmed that teams will play a regional schedule against divisional rivals and interleague opponents from the corresponding division in the other league. The Phillies, then, will play 40 games against National League East rivals (Atlanta, Miami, New York Mets, Washington) and 20 against American League East clubs (Baltimore, Boston, New York Yankees, Tampa Bay, Toronto). Six of those teams had winning records last season; four made the playoffs. The Nationals won the World Series.
Other details of the 60-game season, based on a review of the operations manual:
Predictably, the health and safety protocols ban high-fives, fist-bumps, hugging, spitting, and touching of the base. Baseballs that are touched by multiple players will be taken out of play. Players and staff are prohibited from socializing with personnel on opposing teams.
Off the field, players and staff will largely police themselves. At home, they may live at their in-season residences with their families and won’t be restricted away from the field, although they are encouraged to maintain proper social-distancing and masking protocol.
On the road, the proposed regulations are more austere. Members of a team’s travel party are be discouraged from leaving the hotel except to go to the ballpark. Buses will shuttle them to and fro, with ride-share services and public transportation banned. They also won’t be permitted to use hotel fitness centers or to eat at restaurants. Meals will be served in a private section of hotel dining areas.
Players and staff are expected to receive twice-daily temperature checks at the ballpark and “multiple” fluid-swab tests for COVID-19 per week. MLB has procured the tests from the Utah laboratory that conducts its drug testing.
Anyone who tests positive will be subject to quarantine until testing negative twice within a 24-hour span. Teams will also use contact tracing to attempt to identify others who might be infected.
But after the Phillies’ outbreak, how will baseball handle mass infections on the same team? If three or five or seven players from one team test positive at the same time, wouldn’t it put the entire season in jeopardy?