April 18, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

MLB says 2021 season will begin April 1, but it likely won’t

You missed cheering for the Dodgers all summer. The city missed cheering for the Dodgers in a World Series championship parade.

But 2020 is about to turn to 2021, and spring training is scheduled to start in two months. So your holiday present is going to be a trip to spring training — until, that is, you click on the Dodgers’ website and discover the team is not selling tickets to spring training.

No MLB team is selling tickets to spring training, according to a league official. No one knows when spring training might start, or for that matter when the regular season might start.

The schedule says the season starts April 1. In South Korea, where the coronavirus is under far better control than in the United States, the league is considering whether to delay its opening day from March to April.

The year 2021 already promised to teeter toward the apocalyptic in baseball, with owners and players deep into a state of mutual distrust and a collective bargaining agreement that expires next December. However, the start of the season might rest upon three factors beyond the control of owners and players.

First, there is the virus itself. Vaccines are on the way, but the general public might not get them until the spring, and the months between now and then could be perilous.

Second, there are the public health officials who will determine how many fans can get into ballparks. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease specialist, told Yahoo that full stadiums probably would not return until “the end of the summer.” That, of course, presumes enough fans feel comfortable enough to fill a stadium.

Third — and bear with me for a moment — there is Title 50 of the United States Code. In Section 1622, the National Emergency Act provides that any declaration of national emergency expires after one year, unless extended by the president.

On March 13, President Trump declared a national emergency. Commissioner Rob Manfred has the option to suspend player contracts “during any national emergency.” Unless either Trump or President-elect Joe Biden extends the state of emergency before March 13, 2021, the declaration would expire, and Manfred would lose that option for the 2021 season.

With that leverage last year, Manfred and the owners negotiated an agreement under which players were paid only for the 60 games that were played, not the scheduled 162.

Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred poses for a photo with with fans before Game 1 of the World Series between the Dodgers and Tampa Bay Rays at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas, on Oct. 20.

(Ron Blum / Associated Press)

The players union would point to the remainder of that contract language, which says Manfred has the option to suspend player contracts “during any national emergency during which Major League Baseball is not played.” Baseball already has been played during this national emergency, the union would say, so let us proceed with the 162-game season.

The owners last year spent two months trying to persuade players to take an additional pay cut because games would be played without fans, citing language in that agreement that did not say what the owners thought it did. This time, an owner who declined to be identified has vowed that his team won’t play if the union does not agree to pay cuts for games played without fans.

So maybe there is a deal to be had. It does neither side any good to start the season before vaccines have been widely distributed. That is asking for the kinds of starts and stops that MLB endured last summer, and that the NFL is experiencing now. It would be better to buy time for the vaccinations to kick in and the pandemic to fade.

One option might be to start later and extend the season beyond October, as a test case to see if fans really are interested in a neutral-site postseason and expanded playoffs. Manfred has said consistently that he believes this year’s 16-team playoff field was too large, but his marketing folks recently surveyed fans on that very format, asking them to “indicate whether you love the idea, like the idea, do not like the idea, hate the idea, or are neutral about the idea.” Results aren’t expected to be shared publicly.

The league put the concept of expanded playoffs on the table this fall, when the owners asked the union to consider a package deal: The designated hitter in both leagues would remain for 2021, and so would expanded playoffs.

The union suggested an immediate agreement on the DH alone, since the television revenue from an expanded postseason would be significant yet unknown. The owners shrugged and said no deal. They see the union as recalcitrant, resistant even to a pitch clock. The union wonders whether the owners are stalling on the DH as the market squeezes players, with general managers trying to build rosters and agents trying to pitch clients held hostage in the process.

To be clear, the collective bargaining agreement mandates neither a DH nor expanded playoffs for 2021, and the two sides can roll both issues into what already promised to be a contentious negotiation for a new labor deal.

Baseball executives and players want the DH next year, which should make it a no-brainer. If owners and the union cannot agree on that, it is difficult to see how two major deals — one for a pandemic-delayed 2021 season, the other for a new collective bargaining agreement — can be reached within the next 12 months.

Winter is coming. In baseball, it could linger for an entire year, and perhaps beyond.