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MLB returning in July isn’t as much a done deal as you might think

And, results on what fans think about the possible 2020 season from our latest SB Nation Reacts survey.

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Jayson Stark of The Athletic wrote an article late Friday on a topic that hasn’t much been broached so far during baseball’s shutdown: What if players choose not to play?

Over the last month or so, several players had been quoted as not being in favor of quarantining themselves away from their families for four months or more in the all-Arizona plan or the Arizona/Florida idea, and of course that’s understandable.

MLB now appears to be in a situation where they might be able to play in home cities, so players’ families could come with them. Thus, this passage from Stark’s article comes as a bit of a surprise:

I ask because I found myself in a conversation with one high-ranking baseball official this week and made an assumption he shot down immediately. My assumption was, if players and management ever come to an agreement on all the health and economic issues, that everyone would have to buy in.

The answer I expected was: “Of course.” The answer I got instead was: “No. I actually think that’s a very important issue.”

So there are a lot of things that remain to be negotiated, and this would come under the category of health and safety of the players. Stark goes through potential issues, including whether players who opted out would be paid and how service time and free agency might wind up in such a situation. Then there’s the issue of players who might be high-risk if exposed to COVID-19:

What if they start up the baseball season, and it starts without Anthony Rizzo? Or Jon Lester? Or David Dahl? Or Kenley Jansen?

I ask because every one of those players has a health condition that no one would question.

Or a player who’s healthy but whose wife isn’t:

Say you’re someone like Nationals reliever Sean Doolittle. You aren’t personally in that CDC-defined risk category, but your wife is. So let’s say that you, too, make a very difficult, very personal decision that to play under these conditions would put her at risk.

“My wife has a history of respiratory issues,” he said. “She has acute asthma. And there’s been a number of times during her life that that asthma has kind of flared up and manifested as pneumonia and she’s had to be hospitalized. It shouldn’t require people disclosing … some health conditions that they might have. That’s kind of a privacy issue. But she wanted to shed some light on just how the plans like this might impact players and their families.

“At the end of the day, these are labor issues. Like what are people doing to keep their employees and their families safe? In some of these scenarios, I don’t think necessarily that my wife would come with me. But then again, just players having to make that decision kind of speaks to where we’re at, what kind of gymnastics we have to do to think about having a baseball season.”

So how would this be handled? Here’s one thought:

The closest thing to a precedent is the “restricted list” held by the commissioner’s office, which is normally where a team would place a player who refuses to report or leaves a team.

A player on the restricted list wouldn’t count against a team’s active roster limit or get service time. But it’s also possible that rather than using the restricted list, “you could create another list,” said another team official. “You could create a COVID-19 list. Then you negotiate it, and also how you would handle issues like service time, benefits and salary.”

Jayson Stark has done outstanding work reporting on baseball for many years at ESPN and now at The Athletic. This article is a must-read; if you don’t subscribe to The Athletic there are deals out there right now and it’s pretty inexpensive. If you care about baseball it’s well worth the money to remain well-informed.

Beyond that, there’s a question of whether a season can even happen. Bob Nightengale of USA Today wrote an article Friday in which he cited the three conditions that would have to be satisfied before a season with fans in the stands could happen. These conditions were in the March 26 agreement between owners and players:

1. There are no federal, state, city, or local restrictions on mass gatherings or other restrictions that would materially limit the Clubs’ ability to play games in front of spectators, with regular fan access, in each of the 30 Clubs’ home ballparks; provided, however, that the Commissioner will consider the use of appropriate substitute neutral sites where economically feasible.

2. There shall be no relevant restrictions on traveling throughout the United States and Canada.

3. The Commissioner determines, after consultation with recognized medical experts and the Players Association, that it does not pose an unreasonable health and safety risk to players, staff, or spectators to stage games in front of fans in each of the 30 Clubs’ home ballparks; provided that, the Office of the Commissioner and Players Association will discuss in good faith the economic feasibility of playing games in the absence of spectators or at appropriate substitute neutral sites.

Nightengale points out that the first two conditions almost certainly won’t be met and that’s why MLB owners are beginning plans for a season with no fans beginning in July. But owners say that gives them the right to re-negotiate the March 26 agreement:

“The whole agreement is premised on that the season was only going to resume in front of fans,’’ an MLB attorney directly involved with the negotiations told USA TODAY Sports on the condition of anonymity because the attorney was not authorized to talk publicly. “The way it was structured, the season was not starting unless we can play with fans at either home ballparks or neutral sites. That was understood.

“We knew going in that it was not economically feasible to play without fans with the way the deal was structured. We bargained for the right to not start the season if we could not play in front of fans.

“For the life of me,’’ the MLB attorney said, “I don’t understand the argument that the issue of pay is settled. They recognized it would have to be under discussion if we couldn’t play in front of fans. This is not a situation we missed something, or the language was interpreting something different.

“Look, at this time in crisis, we should get together in good faith and become partners. It is highly counter-productive for the players to have an inaccurate understanding on the agreement that we struck in March. We are willing to do what the agreement says, and that’s to have discussions in good faith.”

Owners and players still seem miles apart, then. The teams want “Spring Training 2.0” to begin in about four weeks and a season to begin in about seven weeks’ time. That might not be enough time to bridge the considerable gap that appears to exist between MLB and the MLBPA.

You’ll pardon the extensive use of quotes from the two articles above, but I felt them important for you to understand the major issues that still remain in the way of having a baseball season at all in 2020.

There’s yet another article on the obstacles MLB has to navigate before reopening from Joel Sherman in the New York Post, covering things such as whether there will be a trade deadline (imagine being traded during a pandemic), the use of replay review, drug testing, how minor leaguers would be treated and how physical contact will be handled. It’s worth a read.

Lastly, this article from Gabe Lacques of USA Today runs down the situations in each MLB city and how likely each one is to allow baseball to be played. Regarding Chicago:

Gov. J.B. Pritzker has extended a ban on dining in to June 26, while other metrics are also unsettling. Illinois recorded its deadliest day (192 deaths) on Wednesday, and Pritzker said Thursday: “This pandemic is not over. And to pretend otherwise in a misguided attempt to reclaim what we have lost, will only make this last longer.” The Cubs (Mesa) and White Sox (Phoenix) both train in Arizona.

All of this makes me go back and forth between “I’m excited to see baseball return, even if it’s only in empty ballparks and can be seen only on TV,” to “It’s too hard to figure out everything, they should just pack it in for 2020 and aim for Opening Day 2021 next April.”

And that leads me to this week’s SB Nation Reacts (formerly FanPulse) survey results.

Fans are ready for the return of baseball, and according to the latest survey conducted by SB Nation Reacts, they appear to be behind the owners’ plan to start the season in just a few weeks.

Of those surveyed, 69 percent believe it is feasible for regular season games to begin in early July. The current plan would likely get the season started around the July 4 holiday weekend. Independence Day falls on a Saturday this year.

That plan, which as noted above still is subject to significant disagreements with the MLBPA, would feature an 82-game season from July until early November. Nearly 80 percent of fans believe that length would still be seen as a meaningful season, with 59 percent saying the season needs to be at least 81 games long.

This is in line with how fans voted in late March, when more than 50 percent of fans said they expected 90 games or fewer this season. However, only 40 percent of fans then believed that a season containing only 82 games would be meaningful, with the remaining 60 percent saying they’d need over 100 games for that.

Fans in the survey appear willing to make a number of sacrifices just to see baseball played this year. In addition to a shorter season, 63 percent also said they expect the 2021 season to be affected by this coming season in some way, perhaps due to a shorter offseason.

There are many, many things that still have to be settled before we hear “Play Ball” this summer. I’m not as optimistic as I once was. And again, please, if your comments include references to politics, keep those directly related to baseball.

SB Nation Reacts is a survey of fans across MLB. Each week, we send out questions to the most plugged-in Cubs fans and other baseball fans across the country. Sign up here to join SB Nation Reacts.