MLB reportedly pressured the Cactus League to request spring training delay

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You might have seen the news that the Cactus League told Major League Baseball that it would like to delay the start of spring training in Arizona by 30 days, due to the high infection rate of coronavirus in Maricopa County. This news broke on Monday, and on Tuesday, a different bit of news surrounding the letter was unveiled: MLB reportedly encouraged the Cactus League to send this letter, because MLB could then turn around and use it against the Players Association in order to delay spring training, and then, in turn, the regular season.

The Athletic’s Alex Coffey spoke to a very forthcoming source reportedly involved in a Zoom call earlier this month, between Cactus League and MLB officials:

“Basically, the position that the league stated on the call was that they were open to delaying and that the players were not,” one source said. “And that a document like the letter may help push negotiations along and allow what you guys would like, which is a 30-day delay.”

“The representative was very direct,” another source added. “They believe it is time to push off spring training for a month, but they’re having problems with the players because a change would be necessary to the CBA for that to happen. He supported a letter to put pressure on players to push back spring training, a full month.”

“I felt it was made explicitly clear that the owners are supportive of this,” this source added. “And that they would like a delay of the season.”

MLB, of course, “categorically” denied that this was the case, but let’s be honest here: what goodwill does MLB have at the moment when it comes to things like lying about the details of a discussion, or publicly framing matters in a way that gets the league what they want, or with regards to pressuring a subordinate league into doing what MLB wants them to do? Considering last year’s months-long run of publicly negotiating with the PA in bad faith while privately agreeing with the players that MLB had no standing to do so, and the whole forcing over 40 Minor League Baseball teams to disaffiliate amid a hostile takeover of MiLB’s offices by MLB, your answer to those questions shouldn’t be anything besides “none.”

MLB wants to delay the start of the 2021 season, because they want to make sure the games have fans in attendance. They’ve been in full-on collective bargaining mode for some time now, so they have to roll with the narrative that they’re losing money without fans, even if it means pressuring the Cactus League into requesting that MLB delays the start of spring training, a shift in schedule which would then bleed into the regular season.

Why is that narrative so important to uphold? As I put it at Baseball Prospectus last month when discussing why the negotiations between the league and the PA on the season’s start and expanded postseason were taking so long:

MLB lost a lot of potential revenue in 2020, but we don’t know how much money they actually lost, because their books are closed to the union, the public, everyone except the league and its owners.

And keeping all of this in mind is vital to understanding what MLB will not be admitting publicly when it begins the campaign for a shorter 2021 season: MLB cannot be seen saying or thinking or agreeing that a season of regular length makes financial sense, not after the owners just spent the past couple of months saying the 2020 season, sans fans, financially ruined them. Rob Mains wrote for Baseball Prospectus about why MLB’s invoking of debt as evidence of their ruin was dishonest, and I already wrote up MLB’s history of dishonest bookkeeping elsewhere, so you don’t need another explanation for all of the reasons why the 2020 season probably wasn’t the financial bloodbath some keep trying to make it out to be.

In short: the real CBA talks are happening soon, and a late start remains MLB’s priority for financial reasons they plan on leveraging in those conversations. Or, at least, leveraging in public leaks about those conversations.

MLB knows they do not have any grounds to suspend contracts or reschedule the start of the season without a local or federal ordinance prohibiting them from starting spring training or the regular season, so they’ll suddenly become very concerned with coronavirus and its potential spread when they can leverage that concern to get what they want. Which is itself laughable considering they already pushed through fans in the postseason and World Series last year with a “well, let’s see what happens” attitude, and then didn’t bother to follow up on whether they actually managed to not be a superspreader.

What’s truly a shame is that MLB wants to do the right thing for the wrong reasons here. The season probably should be delayed! The Cactus League letter cites real, legitimate concerns about an area severely impacted by the spread of coronavirus. They say that things are expected to be better by the time the 30-day delay would end, which, are you sure about that? But otherwise, delaying the season makes a lot of sense, for the sake of the people who live in Maricopa County as well as the players and staff who would have to head to that COVID-19 hotbed.

From the PA’s position, though, they can’t just agree with that stance. The pandemic existed last year, too, and they got through the shortened season relatively unscathed. From the PA’s point of view, there is no reason not to give it another go but with a full season this time… unless the government steps in to say that no gatherings the size of baseball games are allowed for another X days. If they were to accept the premise that the season should be delayed, and open up negotiations on it, they then have to bargain a start date, which means accepting lower salaries, and inevitably means giving up some kind of concession to the league — like, say, further normalizing of the expanded postseason, which would be a short-term revenue boost but a long-term problem for the health of the game and player salaries.

Yes, despite being in favor of a shorter season for financial reasons, MLB will also complain about lost revenue from a shorter season and the need to make up those revenues, and attempt to pressure the PA into another change that just so happens to be on MLB’s to-do list. It doesn’t have to make sense: they just need enough media and fans to buy into their arguments so that the PA looks bad for saying no.

Anyway, this whole situation, to be frank, sucks. For CBA and leverage purposes, the union is right to not want to delay the start of the season, but boy, it sure seems like a delay of the MLB season — and interruptions to other leagues’ seasons — would make a lot of sense given the resurgence of coronavirus, the new strains, the death toll that has doubled in a matter of months, etc. All of those leagues just keep pushing on through this, though: that battle to stop sports is over, and I mostly keep mentioning how things should be not because I expect them to change, but because I feel it must be mentioned that all of this happening at all throughout a pandemic is ridiculous.

So, MLB is right to want to delay the start of the season, yes, but their reasons for doing so are insidious ones: they want to further the narrative they began crafting about their financial woes, to garner sympathy and support and look like stewards of the sport and that they’re just trying to stay afloat in the upcoming CBA talks, to paint the players as the greedy bad guys putting the whole enterprise in danger here. They’ll push safety as their reason for a delay at this point, but that’s because it’s a convenient angle to get what they wanted anyway. Like I said: this all sucks.

How is it going to play out? Just as a month ago, it all comes down to what local and federal government says about it all. If Arizona’s and Florida’s local and state governments don’t put a stop to spring training, it’ll happen on time. If the Biden administration don’t force sports to take a breather, they won’t. Which is why it’s so believable, on top of the credence their past behaviors lend to it, that MLB would stoop to pressuring the Cactus League into getting local officials to support delaying spring training: what other recourse do they have, when they’ve thus far failed to get what they want?

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