Per reporting from USA Today among other outlets this week, Major League Baseball will appear in a city near you as scheduled for the 2021 season without delay. You may even be able to take in a game in person as soon as during Spring Training play.
This report comes from three unnamed sources that took part in a league conference call that occurred this past Monday. Publications suggests that word of this plan has permeated both through this conference call as well as through a league memo to each of the thirty teams.
The news may come as a shock to many fans as most things in the baseball off-season have moved at an unhurried pace to this point. One suggested reason for this has been the ambiguity of when games would return. To this point, all but three of MLB Trade Rumors’s top ten free agents remain on the market as of today. The only individuals listed who have signed were Marcus Stroman and Kevin Gausman, pitchers who accepted qualifying offers, and Ha-Seong Kim, a shortstop posted from the KBO that has signed with the San Diego Padres. As far as free agents that have hit the open American market, all of the top eight remain and newly signed White Sox reliever Liam Hendriks is the only man to find a home within the top twelve.
Needless to say, teams still have a lot of work to do before the first pitch of Spring Training is thrown. The same can easily be said for the league office as well.
Common theory is that the league’s owners had been pushing for a shorter season, for reasons of both benevolent and self-serving in merit. A late start would likely allow for more of the public to be vaccinated, and therefore allow more people to feel both capable of and safe in coming to the ballpark. It would also allow for a larger opportunity for players and other team personnel to possibly be vaccinated, something that seems awfully important considering the tribulations that both the NFL and NBA have gone through this fall and winter. A late start to the season is legitimately safer for the fans, players, employees and communities involved.
Still, for all the right-mindedness provided above, there is no denying that the owners’ desire to stave off Opening Day is also about dollars and cents. A shortened season would mean another opportunity at pro-rated salaries and cost savings. The latter of which has been found to be oh so imperative to certain teams this off-season that they have been willing to sell of vital pieces of their contending rosters. Further, a push for a later start would also ensure the likelihood of less empty seats due to social distancing reasons at the ballyard. Fewer games where costs outweigh revenue is obviously something ownership would be more than content to have.
However, the league may only impose a shorter season if they can get agreement from the Major League Baseball Players Union, which makes it something that most certainly will not be happening. For all the hand-wringing that can be had at the owners for wanting to save every nickel that they possibly can, let’s not get it twisted. The players care a lot about dollars and cents too.
That can be the only explanation for their enthusiasm for wanting to start on schedule. The smart and safe option of waiting for the prevalence of vaccines to accumulate while playing a still fairly lengthy 120 games starting on Memorial Day, for example (to be fair, remember when we thought last season would start on Memorial Day?) legitimately makes sense. Not wanting to be subject to the safety measures and invasion of free will that comes with the requirements of playing during a mostly unfettered pandemic would also legitimately make sense. The players are advocating for neither.
For once, it feels like the owners and the league are the ones putting logic together. Even their actual verbiage within the previously mentioned memo, while totally non-committal, makes sense. It mentions essentially that while clubs should be planning to start as scheduled, its hard to predict how public health is going to go in the coming months, let alone the rate at which vaccines will proliferate. Fan attendance among other things, is at the mercy of those variables plus other variables such as government orders.
All very level-headed stuff. MLB is right to qualify their plans this way. The country’s COVID situation today is demonstrably worse than it was back in last July, something the Players’ Union failed to mention when stating that they have proven their ability to work under the circumstances of the pandemic in the previous year.
As for that issue of fan attendance, it seems as though we could have it in some form as soon as Spring Training. The pod settings that were used at the World Series are a likely way that the teams will start the season welcoming fans. Groups would sit in their own quartered off areas 6 feet away from all strangers. There is also likely to be a buffer zone between the fans and field of play as well. How effectively these precautions can be monitored is yet to be seen. While no plans to only allow tested or vaccinated fans into stadiums are being implemented, facemasks are to be worn by patrons whenever they are not eating or drinking. But, given the number of times a camera panned to an MLB dugout of improperly worn masks in 2020 (the number of times I saw a coach take off their mask in order to spit like that didn’t defeat the entire purpose… unreal), hopes that MLB will be able to enforce such a doctrine on the general public when they struggled so mightily to do so with their own employees, are not very high.
Ultimately, we know more this week about the future of Major League Baseball in 2021 than we did last week, even for all the qualifiers and contingencies that come with that knowledge. The fact that we should plan to have regular season baseball come April is both encouraging and discouraging all in one swoop. For the same reasons that the league needs to be non-committal, we can both feel the optimism of the tide changing and the continuing challenges we feel in everyday life pushing back on that hope.
How fast is that tide changing? We don’t know. Whether its pace is glacial or “warp speed”, we do know that MLB and its players plan to soldier on. If only because it’s a business, it seems that there will be no ugly, unilaterally imposed 60-game season in 2021.
Don’t say greed never benefitted the fans, I guess.