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A sign announcing the suspension of spring training baseball games is displayed on March 13 at JetBlue Park, the spring training home of the Boston Red Sox in Fort Myers, Fla. Major League Baseball is expected to announce a plan to start the season this week. And games could be played in Florida. Elise Amendola/Associated Press

 

Major League Baseball’s desperate effort to launch its 2020 season is approaching a critical milestone this week, with the owners expected to present a proposal to the union as soon as Tuesday outlining a tentative midsummer start, with creative, adaptable scheduling and rule changes designed to maximize a dwindling window of calendar.

But while much of that plotting and best-case projecting remains dependent upon the unknowable trajectory of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic – which has delayed Opening Day by some six weeks and counting – the sides also must navigate the equally sticky territory of economics.

That arena contains fewer hypotheticals than the one based in epidemiology, but at least as much potential to ruin baseball’s hopeful return.

MLB’s proposal was expected to be put before the sport’s 30 owners in a Monday conference call, and if approved, sent to the union as soon as Tuesday. Baseball’s preferred plan, all of it at the mercy of the virus, reportedly is to hold a streamlined “spring training 2.0” in June, then stage between 78-82 regular-season games beginning in July – without fans, at least at first – in as many home stadiums as possible, with some teams, if necessary, relocating their operations to spring training facilities in Arizona or Florida.

Teams would be grouped regionally, as opposed to by league and division, to reduce travel considerations. Among the proposed rule changes would be a universal designated hitter. The regular season would be followed by an expanded postseason, involving as many as 14 teams, as opposed to the current 10. The specific details of MLB’s preferred plan were first reported by The Athletic.

Any such path forward, however, requires a handful of assumptions, none of which can be regarded as certain. States and municipalities must decide to reopen their economies. The availability of coronavirus testing must be expanded to the point where baseball is not seen as diverting scarce resources from the public. A plan must be cemented to deal with the contingency of a player or essential personnel testing positive.

The thorny matter of how players will be paid will proceed on a parallel track, beginning when MLB submits its proposal to the union. The issue, at its heart, comes down to an interpretation of the agreement the sides reached March 26 – the day that was supposed to have been Opening Day – to govern the conditions of the shutdown. As part of that agreement, players received a $170 million advance on their 2020 salaries and agreed to be paid prorated potions of their remaining salaries, based upon the number of games played.

However, MLB contends the March agreement pertained to games played with fans, and that the notion of games played without fans requires a different calculus to account for the loss of revenue from tickets, parking, concessions and luxury suites. The union disagrees and considers the economic negotiation to be effectively over. Both sides appear dug in to their positions; baseball’s long, miserable history of labor wars suggests an ugly battle looming.

MLB, with industry revenue of $10.7 billion according to Forbes, has contended it will lose billions this year regardless of what happens now, and further contends it would lose money with every game played without fans, without some form of additional salary relief from the players. The union, meantime, believes that viewpoint fails to account for the reduction in expenses from fan-free games, as well as the potential windfall for owners from an expanded postseason amid a heightened appetite for live sports on the part of fans.

MLB has undertaken several cost-saving measures, including reducing the 2020 draft from 40 to five rounds and granting teams the leeway to lay off or furlough employees.

Some in the sport view a temporary revenue share – with players receiving slightly less than half of revenue generated in 2020 – as a potential solution, and such a system reportedly will be part of MLB’s proposal to the union this week. Unlike other sports with salary caps, MLB does not have a revenue-sharing system with players, and the adoption of one for 2020 would be an unprecedented step for the sport.

However, even such a creative proposal would bump up against the union’s contention that the matter of 2020 salaries has been negotiated and agreed upon, and could spark a bitter reaction among players – who see themselves, along with other on-field personnel, as the group being asked to take on the most health risk in any plan to bring back baseball before a vaccine arrives. That risk would be underscored by the empty stadiums: If having fans is seen as too risky, what does that say about the personnel on the field?

“I don’t think anything can be done until (players’ safety) can be guaranteed and we feel comfortable with it,” St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Andrew Miller, a member of the union’s executive board, told ESPN. “We want to put a good product on the field, but that’s totally secondary to the health of the players. We are generally younger and healthier, but that doesn’t mean our (coaching) staff is, (and) that doesn’t mean the umpires are going to be in the clear.”

Union leaders also point out that while owners have time to recoup their losses – given the fact most of them remain in the game for decades and have seen their franchises increase greatly in value in recent years – players have a finite window of their athletic primes in which to earn their money.

“Players lose money for every game not played,” one union source said, “and will never get it back.”

It is within this atmosphere of fundamental distrust and historical rancor that baseball must figure out a way forward for 2020. And increasingly, it isn’t so much the coronavirus that looms as the biggest existential threat – it’s the money.

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