I have no intention of going all meteorological on you today, but here in the DC area we got some freezing rain/ice as precipitation about 3:00 AM last night; it is continuing in that mode as I write this and then some snow is forecast on top of that frozen mess for the rest of the day. The sky is fully covered in clouds at about 1000 feet of elevation. If ever a day oozed “dreariness”, it would be today in the DC area.
Nonetheless, there is a way for me to look over, under around and through this mess to see something much more pleasant and alluring. No, I am not auditioning for the male lead in a remake of the silent movie, Little Mary Sunshine; I am simply acknowledging that this is the time of year when pitchers and catchers begin to report to Spring Training sites. That means baseball is coming and baseball means this sort of dreary weather is on the wane.
That good news is compounded by the fact that Spring Training is going to happen “on time” this year. It was not long ago that there was some doubt about the timing there; MLB wanted to delay the opening of Spring Training camps for about a month for “pandemic-related” reasons; the players’ union refused to accept that, and the legalese of the CBA resolved that head-butting exercise. And in that last phrase, you can find the germ of future strife in this dimension.
Lest you think I am being dramatic, consider this one seemingly minor episode:
- About two weeks ago, MLB scheduled a call with Federal officials to get the latest information and projections about COVID-19 and its spread and vaccine availability and reasonable protocols and – – you get the idea.
- The players’ union was invited to participate in the call.
- The union refused and set up a call of its own with Federal officials on the same subjects.
Recall that the current CBA expires after this season concludes and there needs to be cooperation to get to a new CBA. Just reviewing the behaviors with regard to gathering COVID-19 related information from Federal officials, I would say these sides are behaving more like middle school kids involved in a feud than they are rational adults. What baseball as a sport needs here is pragmatism – – and if there is any of that stuff lying around in the sport, it is surely keeping a low profile.
The so-called “elephant in the room” for MLB is that there are some systemic problems in the game that threaten the economic foundations of the game itself. Those systemic problems may create bad news and rougher times for the billionaire owners and for the millionaire players. Moreover, the best way to exacerbate those systemic problems is for the owners and the players to continue to turn marginally important issues into the latter-day equivalent of Custer’s Last Stand.
The 2021 season will be 162 games long – – assuming no massive return of COVID-19 between now and October. When there are doubleheaders, the games will be 7 innings long and the “runner on second” to start extra innings will return for an encore. [Aside: For the record, I do not like either rule but their inclusion in the 2021 season is not sufficiently horrible that I would oppose them to the death.] In addition, the DH will only be applicable for AL games or interleague games in AL parks. MLB offered to keep the universal DH in place for 2021 in exchange for the union’s agreement to continue the expanded playoffs from last year. When the union refused to agree to that, MLB took the universal DH off the table. [Aside: For the record, I hate the DH and I hate expanding the playoffs as MLB did last year. Nonetheless, the absence of an ability to find a way to agree to compromise here is something I hate even more.]
According to an AP report:
“The agreement (on how to conduct the 2021 season) includes more sophisticated contact tracing for COVID-19 that includes the use of technology, and more league rules on behavior to comply with coronavirus protocols.”
Pardon me for a moment of pessimism here; but given the lack of collegiality that exists between the owners and players now, I cannot help but think that “more league rules on behavior to comply with coronavirus protocols” just might spark some more ill will between now and the end of October.
There is going to be a fundamental difference in the conduct of Spring Training this year. In previous years, teams would have a training camp for its most likely major leaguers and a separate camp of its minor league prospects. Occasionally, one of the hot minor league prospects would be brought into the major league camp for a game or two to “check him out” against major league competition. This year, the major league training camps can be as large as 75 players meaning the distinctions between the major camp and the minor camp can be blurred significantly.
That blurring will mean that teams will need to carefully manage the playing time available to young players and to veterans hoping to make a team as a utility player of a bench presence. While it can be argued that such vigilance was always important, it takes on greater significance this year because of what happened last year. There was no minor league baseball season last year; teams did not get to see their prospects wax or wane in 2020; the “book” on most minor league prospects has its most recent entries written in invisible ink.
The good news is that pitchers and catchers are reporting; that is a harbinger of Spring; I can think about that as I watch more freezing rain fall from the sky this morning. The bad news is that baseball is not in a good labor/management place today and the document that keeps them from going at it tooth and nail expires in about 9 months.
Tomorrow, I will try to explain what I mean by “systemic problems” that threaten baseball for fans, owners and players. Until then, let me close with a description of another annual Spring event from The Official Dictionary of Sarcasm:
“Spring Break: A week-long bacchanal that makes the reign of Caligula look like a scrapbooking party at the Red Hat Society.”
But don’t get me wrong, I love sports………