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Will we have a 162-game MLB season in 2021?

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Don’t count on it.

Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

We are now just nine days from 2021. (Thank heavens. 2020 has been... bad.)

And we still do not know whether Major League Baseball will have a “normal” 162-game season next year. Players say they want one. Managers have been told to prepare for one. We were told last week that there might be a timeline for 2021 released sometime in January.

While there are no further definitive answers, this article by Jayson Stark in The Athletic does shed some light on what people inside the game think about playing 162 games in 2021.

Stark polled a number of people in the game, including executives, managers, coaches and players, and his conclusion regarding whether we’ll have 162 games in 2021 was:

Take the under.

As you know, I agree with that. Here’s more info regarding Stark’s poll:

Of the 25 baseball people who answered, only five predicted a full, 162-game season. Three are players who know that’s the union’s position. One was an executive who admitted that’s how he thought MLB wanted him to answer. The fifth — a manager who asked not to be named — said he was so hopeful about the breakthroughs in COVID-19 vaccines, he’d begun to envision “game-changing” possibilities.

Granted, 25 people is a fairly small sample size, but I would trust Stark, who has been a baseball writer for nearly 40 years, to have chosen a good cross-section of baseball folks to ask this question.

Here are some quotes from Stark’s article from people he interviewed. Some are named, others apparently asked not to be named.

“There’s so much unknown still,” said one AL executive who predicted 120 [games]. “That’s why, if you ask me to pick a number (of games), I’ll always go longer, because we need time to figure this out.”

By “longer,” I assume he means “a longer time to decide,” not “more games.”

Next, a player:

“While I think the effects of the virus will still be felt as we enter 2021, I’m confident we can play 162,” said Cardinals reliever Andrew Miller, a member of the union’s executive board. “I just think we have a far greater understanding of the virus at this time than we did in March. And the success of last season, despite the obstacles, gives me confidence that we can navigate a full 2021 slate.”

“Understanding” the virus doesn’t necessarily mean stopping it, or having conditions under which 162 games can be played. Obviously, a player’s going to say “162” because he wants to get paid for 162.

Stark’s article goes on to discuss the COVID-19 vaccine, which might or might not be available to the general public before Spring Training is scheduled to begin in February. I would think you’d agree with me that professional athletes shouldn’t be able to “jump the line” and be vaccinated before other groups of people.

And then there’s this:

Does it make sense to start the season before vaccinations? Stop us if you’ve heard this before, but here’s a shocker: The union and MLB appear to disagree strongly on this.

The union’s position was best summed up by Scott Boras, in his virtual Winter Meetings media scrum last week: “We now know that we can play this game, and we can do it safely — and with the vaccine coming, even at a higher safety level,” Boras said. “So the reality of it is, it’s not a question of whether we can do it, because we’ve already done it. So that unknown is erased.”

But that’s not how the commissioner’s office is likely to see this. Front-office folks who have spoken to the commissioner’s office say they expect MLB to argue that the smartest practice would be vaccinating players and staff during spring training, not during the season.

And so there’s another point of contention, and “during spring training” might be... jumping the line.

Oh, wait. We’re not done with potential roadblocks, writes Stark:

In 2020, owners had no choice. It was either play in front of cardboard fans and empty bleachers or don’t play at all.

But in 2021, owners appear ready to dig in. If they can’t open ticket offices and play baseball games in front of real human beings who purchase real tickets, they’re likely to push to delay the season until they can.

“The belief is, we can’t have games without fans anymore,” said one NL club official. “And we understand that in certain parts of the country, it’s going to be impossible to have fans in April.”

So if it’s impossible to have fans in April, they’d prefer to wait until May. If it’s impossible to have fans in May, they’d prefer to wait until June.

And the answer to “When can live sports have fans?” is ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

It might be different in different parts of the USA. MLB, I believe, isn’t going to use the NFL model of “You can have fans if your locality says yes.” Instead, I think MLB will be “all or none.” Plus, we don’t know when the USA/Canada travel ban will be lifted — what happens to the Blue Jays in that case? They might not be able to play in Buffalo again, if there’s a Buffalo Triple-A team using Sahlen Field.

Then there’s the length of a 162-game season compared to 2020:

“From a health standpoint, 162 is scary to me,” said one GM. “Going from 60 games to 162 is a pretty big jump. That’s a hundred more games. It’s not a small number.”

A reasonable fear, especially for starting pitchers. Also:

“What about travel?” asked the same GM. “There’s no equivalent for what it’s like to play 162, with all that travel — East Coast to West Coast, West Coast to East Coast.”

Further:

“The union talks about how health and safety comes first,” said one executive, who brought up this issue immediately and talked quite forcefully about it. “But they’re demanding to play 162, after playing 60 in a very short period this year, when we saw a ton of injuries. So saying, ‘We expect to play 162,’ should indicate that this has nothing to do with the health and safety of players. It has everything to do with the economics of players. Suggesting we should go from 60 to 162 is reckless.”

Stark continues by noting, as you might imagine, that any dispute between owners and players over 2021 is going to be about money. Players are going to want their full 162-game negotiated salaries, rather than the 37 percent of their total that they received for the 60-game season in 2020.

Beyond that, there’s this:

What MLB would seem likely to argue is: Next year is no different than this year. The COVID crisis has created a government-mandated national emergency, which remains in effect. So, in MLB’s view, that gives the commissioner the right to cancel games if necessary.

But when I double-checked that with one sports attorney, he informed me there is a caveat in contracts that applies only to a national emergency “during which baseball is not played.” The union, he said, would no doubt attempt to interpret that as “cannot be played,” and then argue that won’t be the case in 2021. MLB, naturally, would have the opposite interpretation.

Yikes, what a mess. This is the real crux of things — the MLB/MLBPA Basic Agreement says 162 games will be played. Only the national emergency in 2020 enabled owners to play fewer games, and even then, long negotiations between owners and players ensued before Commissioner Rob Manfred imposed the 60-game season on everyone.

To sum up, I’m still going to “take the under,” as Stark puts it in his article, regarding whether 162 games are going to be played by MLB teams in 2021. It’s all summed up by this final quote from his article:

“Sometimes, things become more clear in time,” one exec said, as he pondered the view of 2021 over the horizon. “So who knows. Maybe next week, it will be more clear. All I know is, right now it’s not.”

As of today we are 67 days away from the Cubs scheduled to open the 2021 Spring Training season against the Dodgers at Sloan Park. That’s only a bit more than nine weeks from now. In my view, there are too many uncertainties in the battle against COVID-19 to assure us that’s going to happen, or that the Cubs will play the Pirates as scheduled April 1 at Wrigley Field.

Stay tuned. And take the under.

Poll

How many games will be played in the 2021 MLB season?

This poll is closed

  • 17%
    162
    (40 votes)
  • 39%
    120-161
    (92 votes)
  • 35%
    82-119
    (81 votes)
  • 6%
    60-81
    (14 votes)
  • 1%
    Fewer than 60
    (4 votes)
231 votes total Vote Now