Play ball: Union, MLB clear final hurdles to restart

Play ball: Union, MLB clear final hurdles to restart

6:21 PM ET

  • Jeff PassanESPN

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      ESPN MLB insider
      Author of “The Arm: Inside the Billion-Dollar Mystery of the Most Valuable Commodity in Sports”

Major League Baseball will hold Opening Day either July 23 or 24, and players will head to training camps in a week after the league and the union on Tuesday agreed on health and safety protocols that will govern the sport as it attempts to return amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Nearly three months of frustrating and failed economic negotiations ended with the league implementing a 60-game season that will run through Sept. 27 and feature a number of new elements — and the same 10-team playoff structure it has used for almost a decade.

The lack of a deal between MLB and the MLB Players Association led to the league imposing a schedule, as was its right in a March 26 agreement that also guaranteed players a fully prorated portion of their salaries. MLB on Monday told the union it planned to impose a schedule as long as the players would report to training camp by July 1 and codify a health and safety manual that runs more than 100 pages. The players agreed to both on Tuesday.

“All remaining issues have been resolved and Players are reporting to training camps,” the union tweeted Tuesday night.

The season’s success probably depends on MLB’s ability to contain coronavirus spread, an issue the health and safety protocol covers in immense detail. Addressing everything from travel to social distancing to a ban on spitting, the manual is a strict guide for a potential 2020 season and illustrates the difficulty of pulling off such an endeavor.

If it can, MLB in 2020 will look radically different:

  • Teams will play their four divisional opponents 10 times and the other 20 games against interleague opponents in the same geographical area (i.e. National League West teams vs. American League West teams).

  • The National League will use a designated hitter.

  • In extra innings, teams will begin with a runner on second base.

  • The trade deadline will be Aug. 31, less than a month before the regular season is scheduled to end.

  • Rosters will start at 30 men for the first two weeks then go to 28 for the next two weeks and stay at 26 for the remainder of the season.

  • Teams will have a taxi squad that allows them to have as many as 60 players available to play in major league games.

  • There will be a COVID-19 injured list with no minimum or maximum length of time spent on it, while standard injured list stints will be for 10 days and the typical 60-day stint will instead be for 45 days.

Coronavirus concerns around the sport have ramped up over the past week, with players and staff from multiple organizations testing positive. Seven players and five staff members from the Philadelphia Phillies were positive, and three Colorado Rockies players recently tested positive, a source told ESPN, confirming a Denver Post report.

Players will be tested every other day, even if they are asymptomatic, according to the health and safety protocol, which was obtained by ESPN. The behaviors outlined in the protocol — everything from pitchers using a wet rag to moisten their fingers in lieu of licking them to staff members wearing masks in the dugout — will change the look and feel of the sport.

Players, recognizing that, still signed off on the protocol, ending the lengthy and often contentious battle between the sides in time to salvage a 2020 season. Players deemed high-risk because of preexisting conditions will be allowed to opt out of any season and get paid and maintain their service time. Players without such designations can opt out but will forgo salary and service.

Under the imposed season, players will receive their full pro rata, a sticking point in negotiations during which owners sought pay cuts in their first three proposals. The players never budged from their stance, and they will receive in total around $1.5 billion — about 37% of their full-season salaries. Players will not receive forgiveness on the $170 million salary advance they received as part of the March agreement, and they are owed no bonus money from the postseason — two items that the league had offered as part of a deal that included the players rubber-stamping expanding the playoffs from 10 to 16 teams.

The players sought a 70-game season in which they would receive $50 million in playoff revenue and a cut in 2021 of new money from TV rights in the expanded playoffs. The league would have received the ability to wear advertising patches on uniforms and the support of players wearing in-game microphones, among other ancillary items.

All potential deals fell apart amid the animus between the parties. That they wound up where they did on Tuesday, agreeing to the implementation of a season after not agreeing on anything for months, served as a bright moment after darkness had shrouded the sport since it shut down in mid-March.

Even with the players expected to file a grievance against the league for not staging as full a season as possible, and the league likely to counter with a grievance of its own, the specter of baseball’s return excited fans, players and owners alike. In a statement, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said: “Major League Baseball is thrilled to announce that the 2020 season is on the horizon.”

The New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers reopened as 7-2 favorites to win the World Series title, according to Caesars Sportsbook. The Houston Astros are third favorites, at 11-1.

Players and staff members will start traveling to training camp sites — most of which will be held in home stadiums — for a July 1 check-in. Rosters will unfreeze Friday afternoon, leading to potential trades and free-agent signings. If all goes well over the following three weeks, baseball will be back for a scheduled 60 games in 66 days, a season shorter than any the sport has known.

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