Here We Go Again: MLB Owners, Players at Odds Over When to Start Season

Players are wondering if MLB pushed the Cactus League to leak a letter asking to delay spring training.
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Another day, another chance for MLB and the union to fire fastballs at one another’s heads.

On Monday, the union threw the heater.

Phoenix TV station KPNX released a letter from the Cactus League to commissioner Rob Manfred, asking him to delay spring training because of the COVID-19 crisis in Arizona. A few hours later, a person familiar with the union’s position suggested to Sports Illustrated that MLB pushed the Cactus League to leak the letter, as a chess move in its larger squabble with the union over the length of the season.

The league declined to comment on that theory. Bridget Binsbacher, executive director of the Cactus League, which coordinates the 15 teams that hold spring training in Arizona, said MLB had not been in touch with her since she sent the letter on Friday.

How did a letter from the Cactus League become a point of contention?

MLB prefers to delay and possibly shorten the season. The official reason is that there is a pandemic, and it’s not safe to proceed as if this is a normal season. The union contends that the players are adults who understand the risks they are assuming, and the games should go on.

Of course, this is not really just about—or even primarily about—the pandemic. Both sides have financial motivations. Owners do not want to pay players full salaries to play games with limited or no attendance. It is in owners' financial interest to have a shorter season and preserve the October playoff window, to maximize TV ratings. The union, meanwhile, wants a full season at full salaries.

The letter was signed by Binsbacher, the mayors or city managers of the eight Cactus League cities and the president of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa tribal community. It reads, in part, “... in view of the current state of the pandemic in Maricopa County – with one of the nation’s highest infection rates – we believe it is wise to delay the start of spring training to allow for the COVID-19 situation to improve here. This position is based on public data from the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, which projects a sharp decline in infections in Arizona by mid-March (an estimated 9,712 daily infections on February 15 and 3,072 daily infections on March 15).”

Pitchers and catchers are scheduled to report on Feb. 17. The letter did not suggest a different date.

“The current COVID situation in Arizona was peaking and we felt like this was an opportunity to come together and be united in representing that we supported delaying the season,” Binsbacher told SI. “Additional time gives Arizona more time to recover and start moving in the right direction.” In addition to the safety concerns, she said, the economic impact of a spring training held without fans in the stands would be burdensome.

(Arizona is currently hosting NHL and high school games with fans in the stands, but Binsbacher said the Cactus League is more complicated because it comprises eight different municipalities and a tribal community. )

Florida’s Grapefruit League, which hosts the other 15 teams, lacks a similar governing body. The closest analogue is the Florida Sports Foundation, which serves as more of a promotional arm. The FSF has not called for MLB to postpone spring training, communications director Nick Gandy told SI.

“Shoot, we’re hosting the Super Bowl in two weeks,” Gandy said. He pointed out The New York Times' COVID-19 case ranking that places Arizona first and has Florida at No. 21. Still, he said the Grapefruit League would follow the Cactus League developments closely. “If Arizona does that, obviously Florida’s going to have to do the same thing,” he said.

MLB said in a statement that it would “continue to consult with public health authorities, medical experts, and the Players Association whether any schedule modifications to the announced start of Spring Training and the Championship Season should be made in light of the current COVID-19 environment to ensure the safety of the players, coaches, umpires, MLB employees and other gameday personnel in a sport that plays every day.”

Is the union right? Did MLB get the Cactus League to do its bidding? What matters more is that the union distrusts MLB to such an extent that it would make the accusation—and the accusation will only make MLB even less trusting of the union.

Shadow of a baseball player

Each side sees the other as intransigent. The league believes the union’s vocabulary consists only of the word “no.” The union believes the league continues to issue proposals it knows the players will not accept. The result has been more carping than communication.

Last year, the parties reached a stopgap agreement after spring training shut down in March but could not compromise on a plan to restart the season. Owners wanted players to take pay cuts, either by shortening the season or by cutting salaries; players wanted to be paid per games played. In the end, Manfred activated a clause in the March deal that allowed him to mandate a 60-game season with players paid full prorated salaries.

The rancor manifests on lesser questions than the structure of the season. General managers have spent the winter trying to assemble teams without knowing the roster composition. The players want a universal designated hitter; the owners want expanded playoffs in exchange; the players believe expanded playoffs lower competitiveness and thus make owners less likely to spend; and here we are, waiting for pitchers and catchers to report, with no one certain what the rules will be.

All this grousing may lead nowhere. If the parties cannot reach an agreement about the DH, the start of the season or anything else, they will just continue with the original plan: There will be no DH in the National League, and pitchers and catchers will report on Feb. 17.

The sport’s collective-bargaining agreement expires after this season. Deadlines spur action, and maybe in a few months, the sides will feel obligated to put their mistrust aside and try to reach a deal in good faith. But the conditions for a smooth negotiation are not there now. The relationship is toxic. Most work stoppages in baseball history occurred when the relationship was toxic.

If they can’t figure out how to stage this season, when they already have a CBA, how will they figure out the next one?