As various proposals to play an abridged and altered Major League Baseball season get leaked, and the sporting public debates the practicalities and merits of them all, we must remind ourselves of the following key point:
Eventually, MLB is going to have to make an official proposal for the 2020 season. And then the players are going to have to agree to it.
And the second part of that equation is essential to any plan actually becoming reality.
Players and owners haven’t exactly seen eye to eye on many issues over the last several years, with all-out labor war widely predicted when the current Collective Bargaining Agreement expires in December 2021. So negotiations over the most unusual season the sport has ever seen won’t be simple.
But if there have been any silver linings to come out of the global coronavirus pandemic, the cooperation and good-faith negotiations that already took place between MLB and the MLB Players Association last month regarding salary payments and service time accruements was encouraging.
And that leaves some current players hopeful the two sides could work out a reasonable deal on how and when to play the 2020 season at the appropriate time.
“I think what is optimistic is how quickly we all came to an agreement about the stuff once the season was postponed: pay structure, things we gave to the owners and things the owners gave to the players,” Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said Monday during a conference call with reporters. “It kind of shows you that in times like this, we can come together a little bit quicker. We all know how much people are struggling and what it would mean to get sports back. So I think more than ever, there’s initiative on both sides to come together. And that usually doesn’t happen. So I’m optimistic about that. But I think at the end of the day, it’s got to be safe for everybody.”
And therein lies the stickiest issue owners and players will face when it comes time to negotiate. Everyone wants the season to include as many games as possible. But the players are likely to be more apprehensive about plans that put them in potential harm’s way while simultaneously taking them away from their families for unusually long stretches.
If MLB formally proposes a plan to hold the season in either one all-encompassing location (Arizona) or a handful of regional pods (Arizona, Florida, Texas), players are likely going to be asked to live in a bubble for several months, restricted to travel only to and from hotels to ballparks. Family members probably won’t be allowed to join them.
Already a number of veteran players around the league have expressed concerns with that scenario, suggesting they wouldn’t be willing to leave their wives and children behind for such a long period of time. And what happens if a player needs to return home at some point during the season, whether for the birth of a child - Zimmerman’s wife, Heather, is due in June - or for a family emergency or even bereavement leave?
Would they be allowed to return to their teams after the standard three days off, or would they be required to spend two weeks in quarantine in case they were exposed to the coronavirus while home?
Heather Zimmerman, who joined her husband on Monday’s conference call, was asked of she’d be comfortable with him leaving for a long stretch and potentially risking infection to himself or others. Her answer was candid and probably echoes what other wives are thinking right now.
“I would say probably no,” she said. “I would probably not be 100 percent comfortable with it. Especially considering we’ll have a newborn in the house. But it’s one of those - I hate to say the word sacrifice - but it’s one of those sacrifices you have to make in order for the game to be played. But we have these conversations every day. We’re so interested to see what ends up happening. ...
“Yeah, I’ll be nervous. But chances are, if it does start and they’re all playing from Arizona or Florida and having to cut the travel side out of it, we’re probably just not going to see him for a few months.”
Whenever and wherever the season gets underway, players seem resigned to the fact there won’t be fans in the stands, at least at the outset.
That scenario doesn’t sit well with anyone, but there’s an understanding that it’s going to be an inevitable cost of playing baseball in 2020.
“Am I OK with it? I think it would be brutal,” Ryan Zimmerman said. “I can’t imagine ... I tell Heather this all the time: Sometimes on like a Wednesday in July, it’s really hard to get really pumped up to play a Major League Baseball game, as sad as that sounds. So when I run out on the field, I need the fans. The fans almost make me get up and be like: ‘OK, yeah, this is why I play. This is why I enjoy coming out on a Wednesday in June, because it’s fun to play and hear the fans and the roars.’
“So I think it would be challenging for a lot of guys. It would be an interesting environment. But I think a lot of us are willing to do whatever it takes to get sports back. And I think realistically, if we want to get it back sooner versus later, it’s going to have to be without fans in the stands. We’ll see what happens. The short answer is, it would be really tough. But I think a lot of us would be willing to sacrifice and do it.”
Of course, all of this remains speculation at this point. MLB and the players can play out various scenarios in their minds all they want. Nobody truly knows what will be possible and when.
Which is why Zimmerman prefers not to stress over this too much right now. And why he believes all involved should place their faith and trust not in the folks who run the sports world but the only folks who are truly qualified to make these decisions.
“My best advice is: We just have to defer to the experts,” he said. “These are the people that know what they’re talking about. These are the people that are living this stuff every second of the day. Hopefully, we can consult with them and do what we can to get back as soon as we can, but obviously as safe as we can as well.”