MLB, MLBPA agree on health protocols for 2020 season

Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, California. The 2020 Major League Baseball season will start in late July. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

The 2020 Major League Baseball season is now officially a go with a 60-game regular season set to begin either July 23 or July 24 after the league and MLB Players Association finalized health and safety protocols that will govern the abbreviated season.

Even though the two sides were not able to reach a negotiated agreement for components of the 2020 of the season and MLB was forced to implement the length of campaign, the parties still had to reach consensus on the health protocols. 

The union on June 23 informed the league that players will be able to report a revived Spring Training by July 1, and the two sides completed a 101-page health and safety document detailing how the sport will manage playing in local markets amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

“All remaining issues have been resolved, and players are reporting to training camps,” the union said.

With those measures in place, MLB is now completing a specific schedule that will see teams each play 40 of their 60 regular season games against their division opponents, and the latter third against interleague geographic counterparts. The slating will keep teams largely within their own time zone and reduce travel demands.

The regular season will conclude September 27, as originally scheduled, and be followed by a 10-team postseason in October as the league and union were not able to strike a deal on expanded playoffs. This season will be MLB’s shortest campaign since 1878.

“Major League Baseball is thrilled to announce that the 2020 season is on the horizon,” said league commissioner Rob Manfred. “We have provided the Players Association with a schedule to play 60 games and are excited to provide our great fans with baseball again soon.”

The season comes after weeks of often-fractious negotiations between the league and union over the economics of the virus-adjusted season. Players will be paid full prorated salaries, but the two sides did not reach a deal on other related components including the enlarged postseason, a playoff pool for players even without attending fans, or a partial forgiveness on salary money advanced to players in March.

Even with this season set to take place, there will likely be grievances filed as a result of the recent labor strife, and management and the players are still far apart ideologically on several key issues heading into broader collective bargaining negotiations next year.

The abbreviated 2020 season will feature a series of rules modifications aimed at avoiding player injury and addressing the impact of Covid-19. Teams will start the season with 30-man rosters, move to 28 players after two weeks, and finally revert to the normal 26 two more weeks after that. With no operating minor leagues because of the pandemic, teams will have taxi squads allowing them each to have as many as 60 players available to play in major league games. 

Also, the National League will have a designated hitter to keep pitchers from hitting and risking injury. In extra innings, teams will begin each frame with a runner on second base. And a trade deadline has been set for August 31, just four weeks before the end of the regular season. There will be no scheduled doubleheaders, though that format will be used for making up games postponed due to weather.

The health and safety protocols also prohibit a series of components common to baseball over the years, including spitting, sunflower seeds, and smokeless tobacco. Pitchers must provide their own rosin bags, and players, coaches, and managers are to avoid high fives, fist bumps, and hugs. Other equipment such as pine-tar rags and bat donuts will also not be shared.

Player and coach testing for Covid-19 will occur every other day, with other related personnel also getting multiple tests per week. Temperature and symptom checks will be done multiple times each day. Players who do test positive will be placed on an untimed injured list, and have a pathway to return based on symptoms and subsequent tests. Media access will be curtailed with press allowed in ballparks but with restrictions placed upon player interviews, including no one-on-one sessions.

Players deemed to be high risk for testing positive for Covid-19 will have the option to sit out the season and still receive their salary and service time. But players not part of that group who sit out voluntarily will not be paid or earn service time, which determines eligibility for free agency and salary arbitration.

MLB’s move to restart comes as much of the US is grappling with a troubling resurgence in Covid-19 cases. Most teams will train over the next month at their ballparks in their primary home cities due to sharp rises in virus cases in Florida and Arizona where the 30 teams’ Spring Training sites are.

And despite the focus on regional-based play, MLB’s intent to play in individual team markets differs materially from the restart plans based on quarantined neutral sites for the National Basketball Association, National Hockey League, Women’s National Basketball Association, and Major League Soccer.