In a replay of the run-up to the 2020 Major League Season season, MLB owners and players are poised for conflict over the length of the upcoming 2021 season. USA Today's Bob Nightengale reports that MLB team owners want players to be vaccinated before spring training begins, and that heavy logistical lift in tandem with the limited availability of vaccines would mean spring training camps wouldn't open on time.
That, in turn, would mean the regular season wouldn't start until May, and the 2021 regular season would span just 140 games instead of the usual 162. The Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA), according to Nightengale, does not agree with this timeline and is pressing to play a full 162-game slate.
Prior to the 2020 regular season, players agreed to prorate their salaries downward based on the number of games played. After owners pressed for salary concessions over and above that prorating, the stalemate yielded a 60-game regular season. Obviously, players would not prefer less than their full salaries for a second straight year, while owners would prefer not to pay those full salaries.
Speaking of this potential point of contention, here's what one NL owner told Nightengale:
"I don't see a snowball's chance in hell that spring training can start with protocols in place. I think there will be significant pressure for players to get the vaccine first before they go to spring training, and if that has to be moved back to April and play 130 games, so be it.
"But to have 162 games, and start spring training at the normal time without players being vaccinated, that's just crazy."
An AL owner echoed those sentiments in Nightengale's piece, saying there's "zero chance" spring training starts in February.
Elsewhere around baseball, a number of team managers seem to have different ideas on how likely a full season is:
MLB managers are doing zoom calls this week, similar to media sessions they would have done at winter meetings. From what first 3 have said, they’re “expecting” a full 2021 season with spring training starting on time.— Marc Topkin (@TBTimes_Rays) December 14, 2020
Dusty Baker said he doesn't know when spring training will start and then asked the media if they knew of anything. After working through a crossed-out mess in my 2020 calendar, I'm going to wait a beat before filling out 2021.— Julia Morales (@JuliaMorales) December 14, 2020
Aaron Boone said the Yankees are going about this offseason as if spring training will indeed start on time in mid February.— James Wagner (@ByJamesWagner) December 15, 2020
(As Boone noted, it's the first full offseason with their new-ish strength and conditioning staff, headed by Eric Cressey, who was hired in January.)
From the player side, the MLBPA senior director of collective bargaining and legal, Bruce Meyer, said the following in a statement to The Athletic on Tuesday night:
"We've seen anonymous quotes attributed to club sources casting doubt on the start date and length of the season. To be clear, and as we've made clear to the league, players are planning on showing up for spring training on time for a full 162-game season as set forth in the collective bargaining agreement and the league's previously issued schedule."
While the first doses of the COVID-19 vaccines have already been administered, supply figures to be limited for some time, and higher-priority populations are in line to be the first to receive those limited doses. If league-wide vaccination becomes a precondition for the start of spring training, then it indeed seems likely that it won't start on time. All of this, however, is subject to negotiation. That means the situation remains fluid even as the calendar works its way toward the early days of February, when pitchers and catchers typically report.
In addition to settling matters like the status of the universal DH and the structure of the postseason for 2021, MLB and the MLBPA must also reach an accord on what kind of season they'll play and how they'll respond to the ongoing pandemic. There's much work to be done before the real work of playing baseball begins.