Summer is usually baseball's domain, and weeks ago there were rumors that the sport would return triumphant on July 4th.
But instead of a symbolic replanting of the flag on the sports scene after a coronavirus hiatus, Major League Baseball on Tuesday decided on a severely abbreviated 60-game season, starting in late July.
But that plan came only after a prolonged stance by the owners of the teams and the players' union threatened to disrupt the season and damage the reputation of a fight declining participation and bruises left by one of the worst cheating scandals in sports history.
"The virus has reached a large number of people, companies and institutions," said Marc Ganis, a professional sports consultant. “Was baseball hurt more than necessary? The answer is absolutely yes.
Much of that pain was self-inflicted, the result of a strained relationship between the 30 owners of the team and the players' union.
Talks between the two sides about when and how to restart the season have been interrupted several times after they started in March. At the heart of the disagreement was how much players would be paid in a shorter season: the union was willing to accept proportional remuneration for fewer games, but it refused further cuts when it became clear that the games would be played in empty stadiums.
On Monday, the league exercised its right to impose a 60-game season, which is expected to start on July 23 or 24. Last Tuesday, the union announced that its concerns about the health and safety of players during the pandemic were resolved. the way for athletes to report to the training grounds.
The negotiations that led to the deal were haunted by the memories of a 1994 strike that canceled that year's World Series and devastated the sport for years. A canceled season and a 17-month gap without games could have brought an even greater calamity to the sport.
"It is an absolute death for this industry to continue acting as it has been," Trevor Bauer, the straight pitcher of the Cincinnati Reds, wrote on Twitter on Monday night. "Both sides. We are driving the bus straight off a cliff. How good is that for anyone involved? Covid 19 was already in a situation of loss, loss, and somehow we found a way to make it worse. Incredible. "
Ganis said the reasons for the collapse included a "terrible relationship" between the league and the players' union, an agreement opened in March between the parties, the next labor struggle after the 2021 season and "greed, when the rest of the country is suffering a lot. ”
To make matters worse, he said, baseball was already dealing with the cable cut that had damaged the teams' broadcast revenues, an aging fan base and an inability to speed up the game. During the winter, the emergence of a scandal in which the Houston Astros illegally used live video feeds to steal signals from opponents of Seekers during the 2017 championship season further damaged the sport's reputation.
"It is incredible that they were unable to come together during an international pandemic," Ganis said of the players and owners.
Still, completing any kind of plan to play this year was a victory, even if the public between wealthy players and even richer owners during a deadly pandemic caused by a lack of optics. But the protracted process may look worse in retrospect, if a second wave of infections in the fall takes place, when the season could have started earlier.
While many players – and the thousands of employees whose livelihoods they depend on games – they were grateful that the conclusion of the dispute was imminent, some remained concerned that, even if a season started, it might not be completed because of the unpredictable virus.
Throughout the discussions, M.L.B. executives and team owners turned down proposals from the players' union for the 89 and 114 seasons that would extend further into the year than usual – not just for the money teams would lose in fanless games, but because they feared the virus would resurface would end the profitable postseason.
According to the plan imposed by Commissioner Rob Manfred on Monday, a second spring training will begin next week, with the opening day in late July – about four months after the start of the season, originally scheduled. A normal season is 162 games; this would be the shortest since the early years of the National League in the late 1870s.
An asterisk can always hover in the 2020 season because of its length – after 60 games last year, eventual champion Washington Nationals held a weak 27-33 record – and the unusual rules that are likely to be enacted, including a hitter assigned to both the teams. North American and national leagues, bigger lists and extra extra matches with a second base runner to speed up the games.
The prolonged disagreement between M.L.B. the owners and the players' union started in March, after the two sides quickly negotiated a pact to return to the play that they interpreted very differently in the following months.
In that agreement, the players agreed to be paid per game, but M.L.B. later, he expected new pay concessions for a season played without fans in the stands. Long skeptical of poor crying landlords, the union has not moved, for fear of setting a precedent that could weaken them in negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement when the current one ends after the next season.
Given the distrust and animosity displayed by the sides during these negotiations, a blockade before the 2022 season seems just as likely – if not more so.
In April, M.L.B. and the union debated ideas on how to start the season safely during the pandemic, even considering an isolated environment, similar to what N.B.A. and Major League Soccer are planning near Orlando, Florida this summer. But the logistical hurdles were many, and players were largely opposed to this proposal.
As it became increasingly clear, there would be no fans at baseball games this summer, M.L.B. repeatedly proposed further pay cuts and a shorter season, while players stood firm on receiving a full proportional payout and pushed for more games. The rhetoric between the sides grew more bitter with each statement issued and each letter exchanged.
Soon after the union interrupted negotiations earlier this month and asked M.L.B. to set the schedule for the March deal, Manfred went on national television to say he was "not confident”One season would be played throughout this year.
He finally rekindled talks with the union's executive director, Tony Clark, but the sides still couldn't agree on the structure they had discussed during a meeting in Arizona.
Last week, the owners proposed a 60-game season that included expanded playoffs, a designated universal hitter, 104% of wages proportionately, $ 25 million in a playoff and $ 33 million in forgiven wage advances. The union responded with a season of 70 games and other sweeteners, but the owners refused to consider that proposal.
An agreement would require both sides to waive the right to a complaint, which the union had threatened to seek substantial payments for allegations that the league had negotiated in bad faith. After the union rejected the owners 'offer on Monday, a move that preserved the players' grievance option, the owners adopted a 60-game season with no expanded playoffs or additional financial incentives for players.
Manfred then exercised the option afforded him by the March contract to set a timetable on his own.
The final suspension, finalizing the health and safety protocols, was resolved on Tuesday night. M.L.B. had provided players with a 67-page manual on health and safety supplies, detailing coronavirus tests several times a week, new rules of social detachment for clubs and shelters, and criteria for which at-risk players could choose not to play. The manual grew and the sides signed on Tuesday night.
Because of an increase in cases in Arizona and Florida, the two spring training centers and where players were exercising informally, several teams, including Mets and Yankees, reversed the course and decided to return home in the regular season to the preseason practices. M.L.B. close the spring training complexes for all 30 teams over the weekend for extensive cleaning after players and staff from various teams – including the Philadelphia Phillies and the Yankees – tested positive for the virus.
"Baseball has two major advantages: a high volume of games and a summer schedule that has been effectively untied," said Ganis. "That may perhaps change forever."
He speculated that N.B.A. may see an increase in ratings this summer, and may have to change the start of its 2020-21 season to two months too – away from the popular NF.L. and college football seasons and deeper into the summer territory of baseball.
Since March 12, fans have been without baseball. After the spring training games in Florida that day, M.L.B. suspended operations and delayed the opening day scheduled for March 26 by at least two weeks due to the spread of the virus. At that time, some expected baseball to return in April – an idea that seems naive now.
Unlike N.H.L. and N.B.A., who played most of his regular seasons at the time the pandemic hit North America, M.L.B. it hadn't started yet. And despite a winding route to an unknown station, M.L.B. is still ready to beat them in action – for a week.
Tyler Kepner contributed reporting.