Five Major Takeaways From the MLB’s Plan to Start Baseball

Thu 25th June 2020

BASEBALL IS BACK!… Well, maybe.

After an arduous, frustrating and – at times – heated three months living under the shadow of COVID, Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association *appear* to have found some common ground.

The treaty – of sorts – arose after the MLBPA rejected the owners’ “final offer”, which essentially mandated a 60-game season, expanded playoffs and some other economic measures too complex to address in detail here. The owners had previously refused to entertain the MLBPA’s prior offer of a 70-game season.

Last Friday, the MLBPA had comprehensively voted down Commissioner Rob Manfred’s attempt at mediation 33-5. Manfred was left with no option but to accede to the players’ wishes and start the postponed season as soon as possible.

Today, the MLBPA confirmed the players would be reporting to their home stadiums by July 1 at the latest to begin a second “spring training” (in name only), with a 66-day, 60-game regular season set to launch on either July 23 or 24 and conclude sometime towards the end of September 2020. A 10-team postseason would then proceed (COVID-permitting) as previously planned.

All of this *sounds* fantastic. The prospect of any sport returning to the field is something we all have been looking forward to constantly over the last few, agonizing months.

However – unsurprisingly – not all is as it seems with this plan to get baseball back underway. Here are our five major takeaways from today’s news.

The MLB Has Avoided a PR Disaster… For Now

The COVID-19 crisis hit baseball harder than most of the professional leagues in America. This was for a variety of reasons – some self-inflicted and some entirely out of the league’s control.

Both the NBA and the NFL entered this new COVID world having completed either all or the majority of their seasons; baseball hadn’t even begun. This means that football and basketball were able to draw on their immense cash reserves in the immediate aftermath of hugely-successful periods, whereas baseball was not.

With the NFL not scheduled to start for five months, there has been aeons of time for Roger Goodell to get strategies in place to mitigate the league’s financial loss. MLB, meanwhile, had to postpone its start date, organise spring training and find a way to divide non-existent revenue between teams and players all in the midst of a worldwide pandemic.

However, that’s not to excuse the way Manfred and the owners have handled this crisis, which in many ways has been an unmitigated disaster. This should have been the impetus for baseball to take hold of the American sporting consciousness and hand a savage blow to – in particular – the NBA’s control over this period of the calendar.

While it would’ve been perhaps understandable if COVID had been the sole reason for MLB’s financial collapse, the fact is that it is/will be only a small factor. The public has not taken well to the constant bickering between owners and players over substantial sums of money, with the owners’ unsupported claims about baseball’s apparent unprofitability falling on unsympathetic ears.

At least now – with baseball supposedly set to return – any failure can be blamed on COVID-related issues, rather than tedious financial minutiae. 

This Might Only Be the Eye of the Storm (COVID)

The COVID threat in the United States is far from over; in fact this is likely only the beginning.

The fact that MLB has sketched out an entire season’s worth of games and contingencies is comforting, but arguably completely impractical. The likelihood that Coronavirus comes and destroys all of MLB’s best-laid plans is high. Over the weekend MLB already shut down team training camps for cleaning, after 40 – FORTY – players and various personnel were found to have the virus.

This was no contained outbreak; teams and players from all over the country were found to have the virus, with infections continuing to climb rapidly. Charlie Blackmon and two other Colorado players have already tested positive, mere hours after the MLBPA signed off on new protocols.

You can put in every safety contingency you like – and the MLB is trying all of them – but the unfortunate truth is that COVID-19 appears to be almost impossible to stop. There is simply no way to prevent the virus from impacting players and personnel, regardless of how many pages of plans the MLB attaches to its protocols.

Long story short; while this is a massive step forwards towards a return to baseball, this COVID-19 situation isn’t going anywhere, as much as the owners, league and players wish it would.

This Might Only Be The Eye of the Storm (Financial)

Unfortunately for baseball fans already disillusioned with these monetary squabbles, this is only a truce – not a ceasefire.

The MLB’s current Collective Bargaining Agreement expires at the end of the next calendar year. The lead-up to December 2021 is not going to be pretty, with tensions between the MLB and the MLBPA only going to get worse.

The current climate – in particular the economic strain and already-messy negotiations that COVID has caused – has exacerbated long-held dislikes between two parties which haven’t enjoyed each other’s company – to put it mildly – in a long time.

The last thing baseball needs right now is more bad blood and the increased possibility of missed games, which is exactly what looks likely to unfold prior to the 2022 season. While there’s still nearly 18 months before those talks theoretically need to begin, this year’s stoush can reasonably be considered an accurate precursor for what’s to come.

In particular, the MLBPA’s refusal to allow the owners to back out of their commitment to prorated pay is a clear indication that that’s going to be a key battleground issue for the next CBA. If these current talks are anything to go by, that battleground is going to be a bloodbath.

It’s also worth noting that public opinion *appears* to have swung slightly back towards the players. This is notable because typically ownership has had the support of the fans in past CBA battles, whereas this time there’s a pervasive vibe that the owners are starting to get greedy. Whether that’s true or not, a players union with the increased cache of feeling supported by the fans is a dangerous and powerful entity.

The owners should be preparing for battle in 2021, and rest assured that they will be.

Rob Manfred Is, Uh, Not Well-Liked. By Anyone.

Manfred’s handling of this crisis has been, well, not good to say the least.

A poll by the Morning Consult found that Manfred’s handling of baseball’s COVID conundrum has the lowest approval rating of any major commissioner, which is completely unsurprising. Manfred was already unpopular after the sign-stealing saga and his constant flip-flopping in the last month between “100 percent” confident a season would go ahead to the complete opposite has shaken public confidence in his abilities.

That’s without even mentioning the PR disaster that was his attempt to impose a 48-game season and his supposed inability to placate an ownership group which can’t see beyond short-term red digits.

The impression of Manfred as this omnipotent being with the best interests of baseball at heart has been rocked – perhaps irrevocably – by his impotent role in this whole process.

Now, none of this is to say that Manfred is any chance of losing his job. The owners voted unanimously in 2018 to approve a five-year extension for him in the top role. However, this next 18 months might be the most crucial in baseball’s history, and if the sense that Manfred is overwhelmed becomes pervasive it might be hard for him to keep the wolves from the door.

There is a Lot We Still Don’t Know

For everything we think we know about how baseball will operate in 2020, there’s so much that still remains uncertain.

Will the atrocious minor league rule implementing extra innings beginning with a runner on second, which has now been transplanted to the major league, survive beyond this truncated year? What about expanded playoffs? On-field microphones?

More importantly for stats nerds, what effect will this season have on things like Cooperstown resumes and milestone stats? Will home-field advantage still be a thing? What will expanded rosters do to traditional stat keeping?

To take a more longterm view, what effect will the pandemic have no free agent spending? How will the NBA’s proposed migration to a December start impact on baseball?

You get the picture. There’s a lot we need to learn before baseball supposedly kicks off in less than a month.

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