Why 162-Games Seems Impossible as MLB, Players Brace for Brutally Slow Winter

Bob KlapischFeatured Columnist IDecember 21, 2020

New York Yankees' DJ LeMahieu, left, talks with home plate umpire Chris Segal after he was called out on strikes against the Baltimore Orioles during the fourth inning of a baseball game, Thursday, July 30, 2020, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
Julio Cortez/Associated Press

Remember when the holiday season used to start the countdown to spring training? Those were the good old days, when pitchers and catchers finally appeared on your radar. It was easier to get through even the most brutal winter days. The sweet thud of fastballs detonating in catchers' mitts was just around the corner.

But we live in different times as a result of COVID-19. The industry is practically in lockdown as the virus surges. There has been little activity on the free-agent market; not a single megastar has signed. And unlike past years, when the opening of camps created a sense of urgency to tie up loose ends, there's no finish line in sight.

Even though the commissioner's office is formally telling teams to prepare as if spring training will begin in mid-February, officials privately say there's little chance of that happening. According to an industry source, a four-to-six-week delay is more likely, with the season opener being pushed back as late as Memorial Day.

The projected timetable is based on the virus' spread and how quickly the vaccines are rolled out. Without a guardrail against infections, "it would be crazy to bring players to camp with the possibility they'll get sick," one executive told B/R. "It's better just to wait until it's safer."

Health and safety are no-brainers here. Who, after all, would object to avoiding COVID-19? But the narrative isn't quite so one-dimensional. Money, as always, is the culprit in what could turn into a larger dispute between the owners and the union.

To say there's mistrust between the two parties is putting it mildly. Reports from May that MLB projected clubs would lose nearly $4 billion in 2020 have been met with skepticism by the players. They suspect the books were cooked to justify paying salaries on a pro-rata basis. Super agent Scott Boras said as much last week when talking to the media, "There's no team in baseball that lost money last year."

They're in no mood for a repeat in 2021.

Uncredited/Associated Press

Hence, the battle lines are ready to be drawn. The union would have no objection to delaying spring training or playing, say, a 135-game schedule—as long as their full salaries were guaranteed. But that's an impossibility, according to one team official.

He was speaking for many of his peers at the management level when saying "until we know if fans will be back in the ballparks, there's no way to project revenue. The union doesn't seem to get that. The money has to come from somewhere."

The good news is that the pandemic won't last forever. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, believes life will return to normal by late 2021. That is, if a majority of Americans are vaccinated in the coming months. Sooner or later, the turnstiles will be active again—if not for full-capacity crowds—then at least a good portion.

But what happens in the meantime is central to MLB's business affairs. Even in a best-case scenario, the vaccine won't be widely available until April. Until then, injections will be prioritized for doctors, nurses, first responders and the elderly. Young and otherwise healthy athletes will have to wait. MLB likely won't be able to purchase private batches of the vaccine. Rightfully so.

But soldiering on isn't out of the question, either. According to one person familiar with Commissioner Rob Manfred's thinking, one solution would be to create a "bubble" for spring training. That would theoretically protect the players from infection, although at a quality-of-life cost so high no one would expect the union to go along.

One source said, "There's no way every player on all 30 teams is going to leave their family behind for 6-7 weeks."

Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

While it's Manfred's hope to negotiate a compromise, his power over the union—both in delaying spring training and in downsizing the regular-season schedule—is currently absolute. It will remain that way as long as President Donald Trump's declaration of a national emergency remains in effect. It was first imposed by the White House in March, renewed in July and again in October.

Assuming President-elect Joe Biden does likewise in January when the current declaration is set to expire— and it's hard to believe he won't—Manfred will have the authority to impose pay-rata salaries and decide on the number of games without the union's consent.

But unlike 2020's hurry-up 60-game slate, there will be more options this time around. For one, the season should start sooner. And second, there's less fear about playing deep into November and holding the postseason at neutral sites. With any luck, the vaccines will eliminate—or at least contain—the threat of another wave of the virus.

In other words, there's light at the end of the tunnel. But January will be a beast, both for fans and the industry at large. One example is the Yankees' impasse with their best hitter, DJ LeMahieu, currently a free agent looking for a five-year deal for an estimated $125 million, per sources.

Talks have gone nowhere since the market opened for business in November. That's partly due to the Yankees' reluctance to go to a fifth year with a 32-year-old player, even if he is the American League's reigning batting champ. And second, owner Hal Steinbrenner believes he'd be negotiating against himself, as no one else seems ready to pounce.

It's not that competing teams don't value LeMahieu's skills. Everyone loves his approach at the plate; the nickname The Machine is well-earned. It's just that clubs are in the dark about the money. "Stalemate" is how the pace of business is described these days.

That's another way of saying we all better hunker down. Pitchers and catchers reporting still feels like a million miles away.


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