Last night Major League Baseball announced that it will implement a 2020 season. Officials did not make a formal announcement on length. But its is widely expected to be an MLB 60-game season. Players will, per the March 26 Agreement between the sides, be paid on a prorated basis.
People who have not been closely following the blow-by-blow of negotiations may have a lot of questions right now. Let’s try to answer as many of them as possible. We’ll start with the easy ones.
A: The league has asked the players to tell them by 5 PM ET Tuesday whether they believe it’ll be possible for them to report to a brief “spring training” at each team’s home ballpark beginning on July 1 and has penciled in a July 24th Opening Day. The 60-game schedule will conclude around September 27 and then the postseason will then commence.
A: Weird. There will be, as you’d expect, no fans in the stands. The schedule itself has not been released but, in earlier discussions of the matter, MLB suggested that it would toss out the traditional American and National Leagues in favor of three 10-team divisions based on geography. Teams would only play against the other clubs in their division so as to limit travel. Those plans were came to light in late April and early May, of course, so whether that is still the plan remains an open question. We’ll likely hear more in the near future.
As for the postseason, it will still be ten total teams playing. There will likewise be a universal DH, but for this year only.
A: In its announcement last night, MLB asked the Players Association to “agree on the Operating Manual which contains the health and safety protocols necessary to give us the best opportunity to conduct and complete our regular season and Postseason.” While there were reports several weeks ago about the sorts of precautions the league planned to take in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, no one beyond the league and the players has seen this “Operating Manual,” at least in full. It has been reported, though, that the two sides have been conducting quiet, parallel negotiations about all of that stuff. I would suspect that the players will sign off on it.
The real question is whether that even matters. There have been numerous reports of COVID-19 outbreaks in various spring training facilities in recent days, and other sports including hockey and college football have seen large outbreaks of their own. Overall, of course, there has been a significant increase in COVID-19 infections in the past couple of weeks, particularly in places where a lot of players live and train like Florida, Texas, Arizona, and southern California. Regardless of what the league and the players put down on paper, COVID-19 may still have a very big say about how the 2020 season is played. Or even if it is played. No one knows right now what will happen if, in the middle of the season, half a team tests positive for the virus. No one knows what happens if we get to Game 7 of the World Series and the scheduled starting pitcher for the home team spikes a fever.
In short: everything else we talk about here will be meaningless if the pandemic makes playing baseball too risky.
A: The short answer: because Commissioner Rob Manfred and the owners wasted a month and a half trying to renege on a previous deal. Here’s the detailed version:
Back in March, when everything hit the fan with the COVID-19 pandemic, Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association reached a fairly quick agreement that you most often hear referred to as “the March Agreement.” That dealt with a lot of things, but the most important thing it did was create a basic framework about how to go about setting up a 2020 season when the time was right.
The terms of that basic framework: the players earned the right to receive prorated pay for however many games played and Major League Baseball would get to decide how many games would, in fact, be played. In light of that, one might’ve assumed that when it came time to set up a 2020 season, it’d be a pretty straightforward thing: the owners, per the March Agreement, would simply say “we’ll play a season of X games” and it’d be done.
Except when the owners first spoke, and proposed an 82-game season in early May, it came with a catch: a demand that the players give up their previously-negotiated right to prorated pay and accept different financial terms. Legally speaking the owners had no right to ask for that and the players were under no obligation to negotiate that. They declined to do so and, instead, countered with various proposals on season length and did not negotiate pay rate. The owners, nonetheless, spent more than a month asking for the players to abandon their rights to prorated pay, proposing multiple alternative schemes. It was not until June 17 — after the players said they would no longer negotiate if MLB kept including pay concessions in their offers and, instead, simply demanded that MLB impose a season and be done with it — that MLB came back with its first offer that complied with the March Agreement.
So, you may ask “why did it take baseball this long to get a season set?” The answer is “because Major League Baseball spent almost a month and a half trying to impermissibly alter the March Agreement.” It only took five days from the time MLB made its first offer that actually complied with the legal framework for negotiations — its June 17 offer — until it was all settled last night.
A: The practical answer is that baseball can, per its self-imposed deadline of late September for the end of the regular season, fit in about 60 games or so, and that no matter what you heard, more baseball is probably better for everyone. A more cynical answer is that reports of a possible 48-50 game season earlier make 60 games now seem more reasonable and could help insulate the owners from any grievance filed by the players claiming that the owners didn’t try hard enough to play as many games as possible.
Each side to owner-player labor talks has a right to file a grievance and have it heard by an arbitrator if they believe that the other side acted improperly in negotiations. As the owners continued to make offers that ignored the March Agreement — and as reports came out that the owners wanted as short a season as possible in order to cut their financial losses — more and more people began to believe that the players had a case that that the owners were negotiating in bad faith. The fact that at least a couple of the owners’ offers explicitly asked the players to waive any rights to file a grievance seemed to be an acknowledgment on their part that, perhaps, they weren’t acting on the up-and-up.
Grievances for bad faith negotiation are not easy cases to make, though, and following MLB’s offer of June 17, which included prorated pay and included a number of games, 60, which was higher than previously reported, there’s at least some reason to believe that a case against the owners would not be particularly strong. It would not be difficult to imagine, for example, an arbitrator saying “Sure, there was a lot of acrimony and bad blood, and there was a lot of posturing, but the owners eventually came around, made a good faith offer, and practically speaking no one was harmed.” That being said, the players have retained the right to file a grievance if they choose to. Whether they will or not is anyone’s guess.
A: That last MLB 60-game season offer from the owners had some proposals in it that, now, will not happen. Included in that: some amount of forgiveness for the $170 million advance salaries the owners paid the players back in March and a percentage of playoff revenues for 2020. The players’ last offer to the owners also included a lot of things the owners are not now getting, including an expanded postseason for the next two years, players’ waiving those grievance rights, the ability to put advertisements on uniforms, and players agreeing to wear microphones on the field.
In all, each side has lost out on some potential benefits a deal would’ve brought them. In terms of raw dollars, there’s a strong argument to be made that the owners are foregoing more immediate money than the players are by virtue of there not being a deal. There’s also a strong argument that the players’ retention of many of those things as potential bargaining chips for the future — mostly expanded playoffs and advertisements on uniforms — improves their leverage for the 2021-22 Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations. Had they agreed to such things for 2020, it’d be harder for them to not agree to them in the next CBA.
A: Nothing happens in a vacuum.
It’s hard now to remember anything that happened before the pandemic hit in March, but player-owner relations were already icy at best and, increasingly, acrimonious. The owners had been eating the players’ lunch in recent years, having negotiated a couple of owner-friendly labor deals and, on top of that, putting the screws to players in free agency. In light of that there was already a lot of mistrust and, with the current Collective Bargaining Agreement set to expire in December 2021, each side was already beginning to mobilize for labor battle. Reacting to the pandemic and coming to some sort of an agreement to deal with it would’ve been difficult in even the best of circumstances, and the owners and the players were nowhere close to being in the best of circumstances as the 2020 season was about to get underway.
The battle the sides have waged over the past three months may have some big implications for the future as well.
One of the reasons the owners have eaten the players’ lunch in the past few negotiations is because the players were nowhere near as organized and cohesive a group when it came to labor stuff as they were from the late 1960s through the late 1990s. The owners knew it and were able to exploit it. It is my belief that the owners’ repeated attempts to renege on the March Agreement before June 17 was based on their belief that they could, once again, exploit rifts in the union and get a favorable deal as a result.
In reality, they could not do that. The players, for the first time in a long time, held firm and showed that they’d be willing to stand on principle, even if it meant some short term losses and even if it meant taking some P.R. hits. Indeed, if anything, the owners’ stance actually did more to galvanize the players than they ever would have been.
The big question now is what that means for next year. For when the pandemic is, hopefully, in the rear-view mirror, baseball is back to something akin to normal and the countdown is on for the Collective Bargaining Agreement talks. Will the owners enter those talks with a new appreciation for the players’ solidarity and adjust its negotiation stance accordingly or, alternatively, will they carry whatever anger they have over what occurred in these negotiations into the next one and set out anew to break the union? At the same time, will the players’ solidarity and resolve carry over to the next round or will they lose their will to stand up to the owners and try to come to an agreement as painlessly as possible?
I have no idea how it all plays out, but I suspect that what we just saw is merely a preview for what we’ll see a year from now.
So that’s what we know right now. The next move, in all likelihood, will come from neither the owners nor the players. It will come from COVID-19.