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Will the 2021 MLB season start as scheduled? Well... maybe.

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It’s... complicated.

Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

It has long been my belief that we are not going to have a full 162-game MLB season in 2021, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While COVID-19 vaccines are beginning to be administered, it will be a long time before enough of the general public is vaccinated before large gatherings such as MLB crowds are permitted, particularly in hard-hit places like California, or even New York or Chicago.

The key is the crowds, I think. MLB owners simply aren’t going to want to play games in empty ballparks again. This is particularly true for the Cubs. Whether you believe chairman Tom Ricketts’ claims of “biblical” losses or not, it is certainly true that the Cubs had a significant revenue hit from not having three million fans pay to enter Wrigley Field in 2020 at what have been reported to be the highest average ticket prices in baseball.

Further, I believe MLB is going to act the same way they did in 2020. Either all teams will have a portion of ballparks open, or completely open, or none will. Yes, the NFL operated in 2020 with some teams having fans and some not. But ticket revenue is a very small part of NFL teams’ total revenue, the overwhelming majority coming from national TV contracts. As of 2018, that was $255 million per team per year. Baseball teams don’t have that.

Evan Drellich of The Athletic posted this long article Sunday stating that MLB is likely to start spring training on time. He quoted this statement from MLB:

“We have announced the dates for the start of Spring Training and the Championship Season,” MLB said in a statement. “As we get closer we will, in consultation with public health authorities, our medical experts, and the Players Association, determine whether any modifications should be considered in light of the current surge in COVID-19 cases and the challenges we faced in 2020 completing a 60-game season in a sport that plays every day.”

There’s still quite a bit of hedging in that statement, though they note the announced dates. It’s my feeling that the surge of COVID-19 cases — and we haven’t likely even seen the worst of that yet, given large gatherings that likely happened over the Christmas/New Year’s holiday period — is going to result in possible necessary closures of various parts of this country. That includes baseball. The Cubs are currently scheduled to open the Cactus League season February 27 against the Dodgers at Sloan Park. That’s only 54 days from now, and figuring 10-14 days before that for official reporting dates, we’re only six weeks or so away from having gatherings of dozens of baseball players in spring camps.

Here’s the argument boiled down to its basics, per Drellich:

All the discussions around what would be ideal for health and wellness, or what would maximize revenues, or both, can continue. But the players have been clear they won’t agree to delay the 2021 season if it means a major drop in player pay. MLB to this point has only talked to the union about a plan that would include cuts. And because those positions appear intractable, the look of the 2021 season boils down to a simple question: If neither side budges, what will happen?

A collective bargaining agreement is in place. Barring a mutually agreed upon revision, and assuming MLB doesn’t have some other legal ace up its sleeve that is not readily apparent, the baseball schedule will not change ahead of time — unless it is rather literally made unplayable by a government order that would trigger the sport’s national emergency clause, such as a governor’s restrictions in Arizona or Florida. (The fact that the pandemic exists is unlikely to be enough to trigger the clause on its own, as other sports are holding their seasons presently and baseball was already played last year.)

All of this is true. Here’s where the owners stand, and I am going to quote significant portions of Drellich’s article because it’s necessary to understanding this potential dispute:

Baseball owners would prefer to wait to play the 2021 season. A delay into May has been bandied about because it affords more time for the COVID-19 vaccines to be distributed to the public, increasing the number of fans who can attend games. The vaccine would make the playing environment safer and the logistics of the season potentially easier and less costly, especially if waiting would mean MLB could avoid or move away from bubble-like set-ups. (Ultimately, 2021 is still going to be a difficult year logistically no matter what.)

Here’s where the players stand:

The players see the operation of the other sports differently — as proof that even without a vaccine, the schedule can be played. Last year’s baseball season also stands as evidence. If the other sports are not waiting for a vaccine, the union would argue, why should baseball? The impact of the vaccine inside baseball could also be lesser than proponents for a delayed season would advertise. MLB players are highly unlikely to agree to mandatory vaccines, keeping the risk for outbreaks higher and mitigating the impact of a delay.

And then there’s this:

An important factor all along has been the wording of baseball’s force majeure clause, the language that addresses the players’ and owners’ rights during moments of crisis and national emergencies. Every major sports league has different wording, with some clauses more favorable to owners. Relative to the wording in the NBA, or MLS, baseball’s language favors the players.

MLB’s clause has been in place for a long time — it was identical in the 2002 CBA — and, at one sentence in length, is much shorter than basketball’s. The NBA’s force majeure language was significantly revised after 9/11 and directly covers events that make continuing the sport “economically impracticable.” It also specifically mentions epidemics and pay cuts, while baseball’s wording has none of those specifics.

On the other hand, MLB did use “national emergency” powers to shut down the 2020 season. On the other other hand, what’s in those two paragraphs is the reason baseball owners and players had to sit down and negotiate the length of the season, pay and other issues before they actually played last year. In the end, though, the 60-game season was imposed by Commissioner Rob Manfred and...

“The reality is we weren’t going to play more than 60 games no matter how the negotiations with the players went.” Uh-huh. Do you really think Manfred thinks differently now? If he and the owners have an opportunity to impose a 2021 season of a certain length, or delay its start, they will do so. They’ve proven this attitude over and over, over the last year or so. No grievance has yet been filed over that statement, but...

There’s another thing that’s happening — or more correctly, not happening — right now that gives me an idea that spring training, at the very least, is going to be delayed.

In a normal season, many of the teams who train in Arizona would have had pre-sales for tickets in December. That didn’t happen. And they’d have at least announced an on-sale date for tickets — generally, in fact, the Cubs put Sloan Park tickets on sale in early January. Season-ticket payments for 2021 games at Sloan Park are due this Friday, January 8, and normally they’d put single-game tickets on sale the next day — Saturday, January 9.

Here’s what it says on the Sloan Park single-game ticket page:

Single game tickets for 2021 Spring Training games at Sloan Park are scheduled to go on sale in January 2021. Additional details regarding the 2021 Spring Training single game ticket on-sale will be shared at a later date.

Nothing’s been shared as of now. And if you check the other Cactus League teams’ spring websites, you’ll see that not one of them is putting any single-game tickets on sale this month, as they normally would.

Neither have the Cubs announced any date for single-game ticket sales at Wrigley Field. That date is usually around the end of February, but normally it’d have been announced by now. The only teams I can find that have any tickets at all currently available for single-game purchase are the Braves, Mets and Yankees (and the latter, not for every game). As I noted above, I can guarantee you MLB owners aren’t going to want to play games in empty ballparks again.

Until MLB makes a definitive statement on the 2021 season — and the statement in Drellich’s article is somewhat less than that — I’ll continue to believe that it will start later than April 1 and have fewer than 162 games.

Poll

The 2021 baseball season...

This poll is closed

  • 24%
    ... will start on time, with spring training in late February and Opening Day April 1
    (83 votes)
  • 45%
    ... will be delayed about a month, with spring training in April and the season starting sometime in May
    (151 votes)
  • 26%
    ... will have a start delayed to later than May
    (88 votes)
  • 3%
    Something else (leave in comments)
    (11 votes)
333 votes total Vote Now