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MLB presents restart plan to players

An empty Progressive Field in Cleveland, Ohio

Major League Baseball owners on May 11 approved a formal proposal calling for a truncated season to begin in early July and operate on a regionalized format, according to industry sources.

The league, delayed since March due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, will present the proposal to the MLB Players Association that will include an 82-game regular season based on regionalized play in stadiums where local government approval is secured, an expansion of the postseason from 10 to 14 teams, and a revived Spring Training that would begin next month. 

The offer will also include a universal designated hitter, something never before done in the National League, as well as expanded rosters to move from 26 to 30 players with an additional taxi squad. Games would be played without fans, at least to start, and focus on each team’s divisional rivals and nearby geographic clubs.

Resuming any type of play for MLB, however, remains subject to the public health crisis being managed to a point where games could be held safely.

“We’ll see where we will be in July,” said California Governor Gavin Newsom. The state is home to five MLB clubs, and Newsom has been in regular contact with MLB commissioner Rob Manfred. Newsom has also expressed doubt of fans attending sports events in large numbers without the development of a Covid-19 vaccine. “We certainly look forward to Major League Baseball and all sports resuming. But again, the question is when and that will be determined on the basis of public health and public safety and the spread of this virus.”

The big hangup, however, with MLB’s plan is expected to be money. Management is presenting to the players an even 50-50 split of revenues generated during the abridged season. Historically, that represents a big ideological shift for owners, as any talk by them of allocating defined percentages of revenue within the sport, like other leagues do, has always come with their seeking a salary cap as well. Such a mindset led to the cancellation of the 1994 postseason and World Series amid a lengthy and bitter labor dispute between owners and players that year and into early 1995.

The MLBPA, meanwhile, has always resisted salary ceilings, floors, any type of defined split of overall revenues or other structure that ties regular season player compensation to club revenues. There is a sharing provision for postseason revenue, but that comprises a much smaller pool of money than during the regular season, and does not involve all players each year given only a certain number of teams qualify for the playoffs. 

As a result, it is strongly expected the players will reject this initial proposal based on those economics out of fear it could lead to a greater push toward more salary controls in the next round of collective bargaining due to occur in 2021.

Back in March, MLB and the MLBPA did agree to a deal regarding various pandemic-related issues, including a marked reduction in player salaries. But that agreement was predicated on a lifting on mass gathering and travel restrictions that remain broadly in place around the US and Canada, leaving the sides to wrestle with the mechanics of playing part or all of the 2020 season with fans and the billions in gate revenue that typically generate. Roughly 40 per cent of the more than $10.5bn MLB generates in gross revenue each year is tied to the gate.

Players, meanwhile, remain highly concerned about testing and medical protocols tied to the owners’ resumption proposal.

“We need a plan that seriously considers the health concerns of any players, staff, or workers who are at higher risk,” tweeted Washington Nationals relief pitcher Sean Doolittle. “We don’t have a vaccine yet, and we don’t really have any effective anti-viral treatments. What happens if there is a second wave [of Covid-19]? Hopefully we can come up with BOTH a proactive plan focused on prevention AND a reactive plan aimed at containment.”