The MLB season should start on time, unless everything keeps getting worse

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Before the new year, there was some concern that Major League Baseball would fight to avoid starting the 2021 regular season at its normally scheduled time. I even wrote about it for Baseball Prospectus, as part of an explanation for why we didn’t have any answers for that and other questions like whether there would be an expanded postseason again, or if the National League would deploy the designated hitter once more. According to The Athletic’s Evan Drellich, what the owners want doesn’t necessarily matter here, though: the players can just wait them out, and let the collective bargaining agreement handle the rest.

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.)

Now, it is worth pointing out that things could absolutely change in regards to whether the national emergency gives Major League Baseball and commissioner Rob Manfred the power to delay the start of the season as it did last year. For instance, the worst month of the coronavirus pandemic thus far was in December, when over 77,000 Americans died. Vaccine distribution, at the moment, is a disorganized mess, with seemingly no organization in place or, the least, enforced. The Trump administration expected 20 million to be vaccinated by the end of the year: as the New York Times reports it, that figure ended up being closer to four million. On top of distribution issues, a Wisconsin hospital pharmacist has been accused of purposely destroying hundreds of doses. Frontline healthcare workers are refusing to take the vaccine, despite priority access, and as the Los Angeles Times’ reports it, the kind of erosion of faith in the vaccine that can come of this would be a real problem:

The consequences are potentially dire: If too few people are vaccinated, the pandemic will stretch on indefinitely, leading to future surges, excessive strain on the healthcare system and ongoing economic fallout.

“Our ability as a society to get back to a higher level of functioning depends on having as many people protected as possible,” said Harvard epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch.

This is all a long way of saying that, between this moment where the MLB season appears as it will begin on time and the moment where it’s actually supposed to begin, everything could go to hell once again. Maybe Florida or Arizona (or both) end up in the situation California currently finds itself in — the NYT wrote that a new person is infected with COVID-19 every six seconds in Los Angeles County, and the infection rate has doubled statewide in just a month’s time — and the kind of gatherings that would allow spring training to happen are temporarily suspended in those states. Pushing back spring training would push back the regular season, too, which would then result in negotiations between MLB and the MLBPA on how to handle season length, player pay, and so on, just as it did last spring.

Again, it’s not a guarantee any of that happens, but the possibility has to be allowed considering not just the vaccine distribution issues, but the emergence of a new, more contagious strain of the virus as well, which first emerged in the United Kingdom in September, and, per Johns Hopkins, is responsible for 60 percent of the new cases and at least in part the recent uptick in cases and deaths. Things can change in a hurry, is what I’m getting at.

The key thing here in the pocket universe where the start date of the MLB season is the central focus, though, is that MLB can’t just unilaterally impose a May start to the season, no matter how much they say that it would work better for them. They might want fans at the games, and that may be possible, but it also may not: see above for the why. Maybe another season without any fans at all spurs on some conversations between MLB and the Players Association, and brings on another expanded postseason to make up for revenues lost from the lack of a gate, but as far as the number of regular season games goes, 162 is the baseline expectation unless state or federal government says otherwise.

Before you think about the increased possibilities of shutdowns under a Biden administration that’ll take control later this month, remember that so far his plan for dealing with coronavirus is to politely ask people to wear masks, and to uphold his promise that there would be no second lockdown. Maybe vaccine distribution improves under the new administration — Trump’s people haven’t exactly set a high bar for that one — but unless Biden changes his mind on the usefulness of another shutdown in combating COVID-19, then we’ll probably see spring training and the regular season starting on time.

This is all annoying to write about, to be honest, since I’m still not convinced it even makes sense to be playing sports while the pandemic rages on, not when it normalizes reckless behavior and keeps tests from those who need them, not when it gives sports leagues the idea to cut in line for vaccinations. That’s not the question anyone is asking, though, as it’s already been answered as far as the people running things are concerned. Instead, we’re just left to wonder if anything will get in the way of the next MLB season starting on time. And barring continued escalation of coronavirus transmission, to the point that the to-this-point lackadaisical state and federal governments actually consider another lockdown, the answer is likely “no.”

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