SportsPulse: Former executive director of the NBPA Charles Grantham discusses why MLB and the players association need to start working together if they will overcome the financial hardships coming their way as a result of the pandemic.
So there’s going to be a Major League Baseball season.
And unlike 1994, which until this summer was the last time labor relations got so ugly, this time, there will be a World Series contested.
And due to the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 will look nothing like any season before.
So, how will this all work? Will a pitcher ever bat again? What happens if the Miami Marlins end up as World Series champions?
Yes, there are so many questions. Fortunately, we have answers for almost all of them as MLB and the union prepare to put aside their differences and, probably, play ball:
When and where?
Ah yes, a simple question posed by MLB Players’ Association executive director Tony Clark became a hashtag hit among players, a labor rallying cry nearly as impactful as Karl Marx’s “Workers of the world, unite!”
OK, maybe not quite.
Anyhow, MLB does have a loose idea for how the season it is largely implementing will play out, players and COVID-19 limitations willing.
It is hoping all players can report for a second “spring training” by July 1. With the government adding professional athletes under the “essential workers” umbrella, that date should be workable even for foreign-born players traveling from afar.
It has earmarked July 24 as its “Opening Day,” almost four months after the original March 26 openers were wiped out as the novel coronavirus began ravaging the country.
And it plans on 60 games across 66 days, a schedule a bit more compressed than players are accustomed to but not onerously so. That puts the end of the regular season at Sept. 27.
And against whom?
Though earlier proposals had floated the possibility of changing the league’s structure for the abbreviated season, divisional alignment (East, Central and West in each league) will remain the same.
To limit travel amid COVID-19, teams will play opponents only within their geographical region – West teams against West, and so on. So you’ll see plenty of usual interleague rivals – Mets vs. Yankees, Brewers vs. Twins – and a few other spicy matchups.
Like Dodgers vs. Astros – where any bangs of a trash can figure to reverberate through an empty stadium.
So the playoffs are a free-for-all?
Not exactly. Because MLB and the union could not reach agreement on length of season, one of the sweeteners to add revenue for the 30 owners – expanding the playoff field from 10 to 16 teams – was not enacted. So it will be business as usual come September-October – two wild cards and five teams per league.
But the playoff field itself may look, well, somewhat absurd.
Sixty games after a hurried spring training – barely one-third the usual schedule – will far from guarantee the best teams make the playoffs, let alone win the World Series. Famously, the 2019 World Series champion Washington Nationals started 19-31.
Still, the 60-game mark a year ago featured plenty of the usual suspects – the Astros, Yankees, Twins, Rays, Dodgers and Brewers all eventually made the playoffs in the same positions they occupied 60 games in, with the Braves upgrading from wild-card status to division winners.
Expect an interloper or two, though. For once, it’s truly a sprint and not a marathon.
Will pitchers ever hit again?
Not this year, as a universal designated hitter will be in place for 2020. But the pitcher at the plate is not yet gone forever.
The MLB-union impasse resulted in at least a temporary reprieve for lovers of the pitcher hitting. Oh, he’ll disappear for this year, as the universal designated hitter is a part of the health and safety protocols the parties are expected to agree upon.
But for now, the 2021 season will proceed without the universal DH. And yes, Bartolo Colon is still looking to stay in the game. Just saying.
Are tie games a thing? Will they change ‘runs’ to ‘points?’
Maybe and no. The pandemic is causing both sides to minimize risk as much as they can, and thus it’s expected at the least that extra innings will begin with a runner on second base, though he won’t be charged as an earned run against the pitcher.
Why? Well, the idea is to get players in and out of the stadium and not in close proximity with one another as soon as possible. It’s also fair to assume that as games grow longer and attention spans wander, best practices of social distancing and hand sanitizing figure to wane, too. So, fewer 18-inning knockdown, drag-out battles and more quick endings to get everyone on the bus and back to their Places of Quarantine.
That may include a provision for tie games in the event the extra-innings tiebreaker fails to break an impasse quickly.
Weren’t there already rules changes?
Yep. Lest you forget, pitchers will be forced to face a minimum of three batters unless an inning ends. And rosters are permanently expanded to 26.
For this season only, it’s expected rosters will grow to around 30 to mitigate the effects of a shortened spring training on pitchers. Additionally, a “taxi squad” of about 20 more players will be staying ready to augment the active roster as needed.
So, they won’t recall players from the minors?
Nope, because it’s expected there will not be a minor-league season this year. Given the breakout of COVID-19 that prompted MLB to close all its spring-training facilities, and the significant logistics required to merely get a major-league season in, it’s easy to understand why.
More complicated: The long-term reckoning – contraction, a shorter draft, fewer players – that minor league baseball faces. That’s a deeper dive for another day.
What happens when baseball has a Rudy Gobert moment?
You might say it already has. At least 40 players – some of them established major leaguers – have tested positive for COVID-19. As part of the health and safety protocols established that players are asked to approve, the league will not shut down if an active player tests positive.
Instead, players will be tested “multiple” times per week and a positive test will result in the player – but not his teammates – being isolated.
But the sports industry – from college football to all the major pro leagues – seems intent on forging ahead in the face of positive COVID-19 tests. Of course, this is in theory, and not in practice.
Could a rash of positives result in a game postponement in a fashion similarly dramatic to when the Utah Jazz’s Gobert tested positive on March 11, a touchstone moment for not just sports, but the nation?
Hey, it’s 2020. You can’t rule anything out.